Dearly beloved we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life
If you’re a sensitive person, it’s always at least a little sad when a celebrity dies, even if it was one you weren’t even fond of. There’s the sadness being expressed all around you on both social media and the regular kind. There’s the primal sense of loss and fear that takes over the amygdala at having lost a “leader” of the tribe, whatever subset of tribal life he or she may have been said to be in charge of. But when you’re actually a fan of said celebrity, it feels weirdly personal, like it’s happening to you, even though it clearly isn’t. It’s not just the loss of this public hero, there’s the loss of your own private hero, the dropping of the banner they carried for you without ever knowing it.
How can U just leave me standing alone in a world that’s so cold?
I was not quite dragged, but certainly persuaded to go see the film “Purple Rain” by my friend Arnold the summer it opened. He had, of course, already seen it, because nothing that cool could slip by him for long. I wasn’t interested because I wasn’t a fan of Prince’s R&B style, dancy pop. Plus, he clearly had a dirty mind. I was more into the raw expressiveness of Bruce Springsteen or the cool, detached emo of various New Wave bands of the time. But seeing Prince tear up and completely own the stage in his on screen performances made me an instant convert, and I immediately drove to the record store around the corner and bought the soundtrack. Yes, on vinyl. Yes, I still have it.
My favorite moment in the film is during the song, “The Beautiful Ones,” when Prince collapses onto the stage, writhing around in the agonies of jealous love, still gripping the mike and screaming, no, screeching his pain and rage into it. As an innocent, suburban white girl, I knew nothing of the torment and passion he put into his music, I only knew that it was freeing to see someone perform with such abandon and disregard for anything but the feelings. He managed to take the anger and theatrics of punk and channel it through his prodigious talent to create an artful mashup of guitar licks, theatricality and just plain primal screaming.
In complete contrast to that, my favorite moment on the album is a simple, elegant chord change on “Computer Blue,” topped off with solo guitar notes that sound like a soprano descant floating above some grand, old hymn. It’s the type of thing British art rockers like Bowie and The Who had been doing for years, quoting themes and sounds from classical music in the midst of rock-n-roll rebellion, but Prince simply tosses it off in that one moment then quickly returns to hard-charging funk, hanging a note of celestial music above our cruel, discordant world just as a tease.
Much was made throughout his career of the fact that Prince relished busting gender stereotypes, even basing the unpronounceable glyph he changed his name to at one point on a combination of the symbols for male and female. His gender-bending gets all the attention because sex is always what sells, but Prince knew there are as many ways to not fit in as there are people who feel left out, and there was a lot more going on to explain his popularity than a sea of fans grappling with their sexual identity: it was all freeing for heteronormative kids as well. Prince made it clear that he didn’t care whether or not he fit in, so why should the rest of us suffer over it so much?
If U set your mind free, baby, maybe you’d understand
I had the good fortune to see Prince live once. I was surprised how tiny he was, and also how he was a non-stop, three hour ball of energy. Despite his famous shyness, he brought over a dozen fans up on the stage for a closing dance party, interacting with them as if they were old friends, dancing with one chubby middle-aged lady as enthusiastically as if she was one of his back up dancers. It was a fun show, and I’m grateful I got to experience his music live, at least once. But it was almost beside the point for me because nothing could replace that time in my life when I listened to “Purple Rain” over and over. Nothing could replace the friends I had then, the epic hopes and dreams I had then–that’s what Prince’s music always conjures up for me and always will.
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry 4 he is coming
Perhaps the main reason we give celebrity deaths so much attention is that it gives us a chance to mourn in public what we each grieve for in private. We can indulge in a little sorrow, even have others commiserate with us, without ever having to say out loud, or even acknowledge to ourselves, the pain and loss we feel in our own lives. Nothing can replace the vanished times and friends in my life just like no one will ever replace the unique vision and talent that was Prince. But at least I am left with music that can take me back to those moments in a heartbeat, that sounds just as good today as when the needle first dropped in my suburban Dallas bedroom.
Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last