There comes a time growing up when you become “aware” of music. An awareness where your musical tastes are not just “kid songs” or directly influenced by your parents, but when your musical tastes become your own. For me this awareness hit about 1984 when I was about ten years old. What a great year for this awareness to hit. That is when Madonna “Like a Virgin,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was still big, and Prince’s “Purple Rain” came out. I still liked Duran Duran and Wham, and the other Top 40 hits of the time, but this was different. It was the 80’s and I was just a kid so my only source for music was the radio or my parents’ record collection that was mostly 60’s Folk music, some of my Dad’s CCR (Credence Clearwater Revival), and the soundtrack to “Flashdance.” Other than that, radio was pretty much all we had. I remember staying up late for the “Nine at Nine” on the radio and listened to “Jump” for the hundredth time just before “Thriller” played which seemed to be the number one hit the entire year of my fourth grade. I was a big Michael Jackson fan. I never owned an album but I wasted all my allowance to get his baseball styled cards with gum and smoothing out the staple holes from the mini posters in “Tiger Beat.” I did have a cassette tape I got by holding a tape recorder up to my friend’s Dad’s stereo to get “Thriller.” It was the 80’s. It was what you did.
Of course I was too young to listen to Prince back then. That is just good parenting. My mother did go a bit overboard and became very religious circa the summer of 1985. In a religious fervor, she threw out all her “secular” music including all her Beatles and Jimi Hendrix records. She never liked Prince, but I’m sure if she knew about him, he’d be in the pile. On that pile was all my Michael Jackson cards and mini posters, including my bootlegged tape of “Thriller.” I’m still mad about this overly pious gesture to this day. When I was old enough to have my own job, I spent a lot of my money from my McJob on getting those Beatles albums on CD as kind of a decade too late defiance, but that is another story.
I remember a friend I knew from Girl Scouts, of all places, had an older brother who had “Purple Rain” on vinyl. We listened to “Darling Nikki” sitting too close to the speakers on that scratchy brown shag carpeting in case the neighbors in those dingy apartments would know two kids were listening to that evil song that got the Christian Right all in a tizzy. I probably would not have even heard of the song at the time if it weren’t all over the news. Thank you, media and overly zealous Christians! We were too young to understand the lyrics but even at eleven we knew what sexy was, and Prince was sexy. Sure, to our too young Midwestern conditioning, he was probably too short and we weren’t supposed to be interested in boys, let alone black boys, but we listened anyway. Prince was sexy, but more importantly, he made the listener feel sexy. What’s more powerful than that?
Prince knew sex, but he also knew love. A soundtrack to an entire relationship could be from the vast catalog of the prolific Prince. In the beginning, love sounds like happy Prince songs like “I Would Die 4 You” and if it was really hot, “Sexy MF.” At then end of a relationship, you belted out “Purple Rain,” and “Nothing Compares 2 You” drinking boxed wine by yourself. He sang about every aspect of love, even when he got all spiritual with “7” he sang about the love of all peoples and a connection to a higher Power.
I never saw the movie “Purple Rain.” I was too young to see it in the theaters and MTV was blocked at home. My genius older brother knew a way to bypass that parent override on the VCR so we got to watch MTV sometimes even though secular music was considered the soundtrack to Hell in our household. But I still had the radio function on my brick red Walkman so I could still catch “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret” on the radio. In a way, not being exposed to the visual component through videos made me enjoy his music in a more pure form. My mind conjured the imagery of his music and lyrics. My brother and I memorized the opening speech to “Let’s Go Crazy” when we should have been memorizing Bible versus instead. To this day when that song comes on either on the radio or at a party, I belt it out at the top of my lungs as a bit of a litmus test. Those who joined in and knew the words, they were cool. They were among the “dearly beloved.”
One of the first CDs I bought in the early 90’s, other than my one woman crusade to buy back all the Beatles albums, was Prince’s Greatest Hits and B-sides. I was pretty rebellious, but I didn’t want my parents to find out I had this CD so I tried to hid it and only listened to the CD on headphones. Sure, I was old enough to have my own money, drive to Karma (the coolest record store EVER) and buy a CD with the best marketing ploy for a teen “For Mature Audiences Only” without the half high guy at the register to bat an eye, but I still feared my mother’s wrath. I protected Prince by hiding him behind The Spin Doctors or an Amy Grant CD. Now thinking about it, Prince behind Amy Grant even in my CD carrier is pretty salacious.
To my budding rebellion and sexuality, Prince’s music was like an instruction manual. “Get Off” came out in 1991 when I was barely 16. I remember my crush and I listening to this song in his car. He was a good Christian white boy from the Midwest, so he wasn’t supposed to be listening to it either. I remember sharing this song with him was like sharing some deep, dark, exciting secret. The rudimentary sex education we got at our suburban high school could not have prepared us for the lyrics of that song. Unfortunately, even with Prince playing in the background, nothing happened. The magic of Prince can only do so much for an overweight, nerdy choir girl in the early 90’s. But all I really wanted was his tender touch and his….. KISS. Why couldn’t he be more like Prince who was like James Brown, “I like em fat, I like ’em proud, ….so move you big ass round so I can work on that zipper, Baby.” Sadly, he did not work on that zipper.
When I went to college something magical happened. Yes, I lost some weight, but it seemed like everyone could get a boyfriend/girlfriend, not just “The Beautiful Ones.” Matching up seemed less about social status and more about compatibility. Of course, Prince was playing when I sweated off my teenage awkwardness on the elliptical machine to songs like “Peach.” Prince was there for me again. “Let’s Go Crazy” and “1999” was played at like every party I ever attended. When a Prince song came on at a house party, the girls would all get up, dance, and turn any tiny student housing living room to a Roman orgy in a blur flannel and denim. I remember slow dancing to “Purple Rain” more than I remember who I was dancing with. It didn’t matter. The music was of love and longing and the boy’s hands around my waist could have been of any mortal as I ascended through the power of music and turned into some kind of woodland nymph with the other celebrants dancing to the enchanted flute of Pan. Only it was Prince and the the flute was an electric guitar, or any of the other twenty instruments that god of a man played. Hell, to this day if I have any influence over the music selection I play at least one or two Prince songs, still works, like a charm. I even got a Prince song on a mix tape from a boy. It was “The Most Beautiful Girl.” What is more romantic than a Prince song on a mix tape? I guess it depended on which one he chose.
Everything I learned about sex I learned from Prince. I liked Aerosmith too and they sang about sex… a lot. But their songs were more like how you’d talk about sex with your buddies after the fact at a rowdy, too loud bar. Prince’s songs were more intimate, closer. His music made you feel like those sexy songs were about you. He talked to you like you hoped a lover would. There is a lot of sexy music out there, and even more dirty and explicit, but Prince’s music sounds like good sex feels: raw, electric, addictive, other worldly, and transcendent. His music was so complex, ethereal, yet so raw that it made you believe that even these blunt instruments of our bodies could melt away making us both bare, exposed, hungry animals and co-mingling, satisfied spirits all at the same time. Good sex uses the body to transcend us to another place, another world where you mind slips away and clumsy bodies transform into sleek vessels of bliss rocket shipping you both to another dimension. Think about it. Some of Prince’s guitar riffs sound like an orgasm feels: all over the place, erratic, pounding, unpredictable, and yet so sublime.
Prince was not just the music of my youth and sexual awakening. Even in the recent past, I was sitting in a car with a man I had seen a few times and but he was definitely “friend zoned.” Then while we were just sitting in his car a Prince song came on the radio. I don’t even remember which one. Something came over me and I leaned over and kissed him right in the front seat of his car. We never made it to dinner that night. I think we ordered in. That is the power of Prince.
I am greatly saddened by his passing. I don’t want to know too much about what prompted his too early demise. It doesn’t matter. It won’t bring him back. It was never about Prince the artist, it was about how his music made me feel. Music transforms. It makes you discover a whole world that was already there if you have eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to feel, and a body to dance. Having everyone share their experience with ‘s music makes us community. Prince music, whether listened alone in my room on headphones, listened to with a close friend or lover, at a party with friends, or at a concert or street party with strangers, we are all in on it. So, let’s party like its 1999 because “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last. “