In Gratitude to a Legend
It’s been a rough year for musicians. We’ve lost several really talented people to the usual passage of time. Strange though, that we exhibit such shock at this – as if we expect our idols to remain ageless in the face of our own greying hair.
The loss of David Bowie was pretty profound for many of my peers. His rise to Ziggy stardom came through our own coming of age, his invitation to be whomever we wanted to be written into the swipes of his eye shadow, the wings of his hair, the wild colors of his attire. His lyrical persona became a reflection of our own desire to shed the conventional; so many of us with more fluid sexual orientations, shy and questioning in the face of our upbringing, seeking the assurance that we really were ok.
But Prince? Prince hit me even harder than Bowie, and it took me a few days to really come to terms with why. Every tribute performance of Purple Rain, every previously recorded rendition from the man himself, brings me to the same tears the recorded version always has. It’s funny, isn’t it? The power that music can have on us? I’ve danced and belted out lyrics along with his hits this past week, remembering the glorious 80s of high school, grateful for what the music of this man from Minnesota had done for me.
By the time I tripped over the Little Red Corvette and into 1999, my sense of self, most especially my sexuality, was a convoluted mess. I’d gone from being sexually molested by my brother for two years starting at age 6, to being blamed for it by the one person who discovered it and did nothing, to having Catholic school catechism hammered into my brain while I slowly figured out I preferred the company of boys when hanging out, but was attracted to girls.
Of course, I was expected to “like” boys. My confusion was evident in my almost-but-not-quite hilarious inability to flirt with them. The awkwardness would’ve been the source of a killer sitcom, I’m sure, had I been lucky enough to score a film crew. Instead, the humiliation and shame of my glaring abnormalities was simply magnified. The two “boyfriends” I had in high school were both colossal douchecanoes; one put me down constantly, playing my inferiority complex like a Stradivarius, the other used emotional manipulation to control me until a date rape incident finally gave me the courage to get out.
Through all of this, though, Prince was emerging. Purple Rain was my first ‘R’ rated movie. His music was scandalous; his references to sex and sexuality were blatant and unapologetic. I purchased the vinyl record and was amusingly “forbidden” to listen to Track 4. I laugh now, at how quickly I broke that one. Darling Nikki may not be my favorite of his songs, but that didn’t make it any less appealing to a repressed, abused, confused Catholic School kid.
Prince, through his unabashedly open sense of self, his attitude that sexuality is a fluid, living thing, told me that I wasn’t quite as irreparably broken as I’d always assumed. He celebrated women as sexual beings that could match or even surpass men – such a beautiful flip from the usual societal schema of sexually active men as studs and sexually active women as whores. The raw emotion with which he sang gave me the courage to accept my own emotional maelstrom, and to even embrace it enough to work within it instead of fighting it. It’s for these reasons, then, that Purple Rain has always brought tears to my eyes when I’ve heard it, whether I was a 13 year old wreck, a 37 year old woman watching my marriage spiral out of control, or a nearly-45 year old, who is finally comfortable in who she is, sexually and otherwise.
So while the world mourns Prince for the myriad of reasons they have, I join them. But over and above the loss, I feel a profound sense of gratitude to a man who sang of love, lust, and loss, all with the same energy and beauty. Thank you, Prince, for letting me see the power of the Purple Rain.