Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Prince Story

I don't have a Prince Story.

I don't have a specific time where I "discovered" his music; in fact, I don't think I ever spent money on his stuff. I would hear one of his songs and be reminded of how good he was, or I'd see a clip of one of his live performances and realize just how otherworldly he was as a performer, but I never considered myself a fan. I would acknowledge that he was good, and I'd move on, probably to listen to Pearl Jam.

And then he died today. And I felt the loss in a way I couldn't have expected. And I spent the day trying to figure out why. It could have been his age, because at 57, he was younger than both of my parents. But people die young, and I'm not affected by it much. So why this time?

Then the memorials started pouring in, from around the country and the world, and it started to make sense. What I was feeling had nothing to do with me. Prince wasn't an artist for me. He was an artist for everybody.

Prince represented the people who struggled, who needed something to cling to when hope was lost: he grew up in a broken home and had to flee to get out, and he never stopped working. Eventually, he rose above and conquered all.

Prince was a benchmark for many gay and transgendered people. He often dressed like he picked out his clothes from the women's department, and he didn't care. He dressed the way he wanted to dress, and by doing so, he gave a powerful message to everybody: only you can control your identity. Be different. Be you.

Prince was a feminist before people fully understood what that meant. So many of his backing bands featured women prominently. They weren't there simply as eye candy - you can find many videos of him backing away during a performance to let the woman take over. And it never seemed forced. They were there because they could rock as hard as him, and because they could keep up, which was something few musicians could do.

Prince provided inspiration for people with strong religious convictions. There are stories floating around of him knocking on doors giving Jehovah's Witness testimonies, even after he was famous, or of reading from the Bible in clubs. Many of his lyrics contain religious symbology and are powerful for people seeking that.

He represented people from all walks of life in profoundly different ways. He was everything to everybody. And he was Minnesotan.

Minnesotans are a provincial bunch. When somebody is from Minnesota, we hold on to their legacy like a death grip, squeezing everything we can out of it. No matter how small the connection, we will claim it. Judy Garland lived in Minnesota the first four years of her life? Good enough; she's ours. Jessica Tandy studied at the Guthrie Theater? Minnesotan. Kim Kardashian was married to a Minnesotan for about 17 minutes? You know, she's really not that bad, just misunderstood.

We take that to an extreme because it seems like the legends don't stay. They leave as they're about to get famous, or right after they get famous. Or they only got famous because they left. But Prince stayed.

I don't have a Prince Story, but there are lots of people hanging around Minnesota who have one. Maybe they saw him perform at one of his impromptu shows at Paisley Park, playing piano for 17 stunned people at 3:00 in the morning. Or maybe they saw him buying records from Electric Fetus on Record Store Day, or showing up in the balcony at First Avenue to watch the latest up-and-coming act. He was the Minneapolis city boy who made it big. But he's also the one who stayed.

And that's why it's hard, and that's why there are thousands of people outside First Avenue as I write this singing his songs and laughing and dancing and trying not to cry. Minnesota isn't New York or Los Angeles, where you can see a renounced artist or performer or leader when you go get your coffee. We're limited here. Our icons are held up in higher regard because there are fewer of them. And now we've lost Prince.

So I don't have a Prince story. I never made it over to Paisley Park to see him play. I never spotted him from a distance at a Minneapolis club. I never saw him riding his bike near a Chanhassan strip mall. And I'm fine with that. If I had seen him, I would tell that story over and over again, and it would be boring, and it would just be distracting. Instead, I get to remember him as a near-mythical being. He's the person who could play this, and who could serve pancakes to Eddie Murphy. He's the person who played a private party for the WNBA champions, and who played a private party for the President. He's the person who played the Super Bowl halftime show and made everybody say "holy, shit, Prince is GOOD."

Prince was everything for everybody, yet he never stopped being himself.

And he was ours.

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