This thing called life

I spent this morning in tears. That was surprising to me. Prince died yesterday, and, while the news had stunned me, it had not left me distraught, as it had a colleague. I spent the afternoon and evening listening to The Current’s programming, as it was the closest Minnesota connection I had, and it was playing nothing but Prince. It was powerful, but it was more about the quality of the music. Even if a clunker appeared–and even geniuses produce clunkers–it would be followed by a song that reveled in its shear…well…Prince-ness. The man’s brilliance was on full display, and I savored every minute of it. While I wish I’d been in Minneapolis to join the throngs at First Avenue, it was a sad yet satisfying evening.

This morning, though, I lost my shit. Perhaps it was the initial shock wearing off. Maybe it was a bit more time for reflection. It could even have been a lingering sense of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Whatever it was, my emotions were raw and overwhelming. I felt a deep, painful sense of loss.

I’m not the music fan many other people are. I don’t memorize lyrics, collect albums, immerse myself in the technical and production qualities of various recordings, or the trajectories of careers. It’s not that I’m incapable, it’s that I’m too lazy to expend that much energy on it. I’m not motivated enough to be a “true fan.” All the same, I have training in music (and even a bachelor’s degree) and a wide appreciation for technical skill and innovation in a variety of genres. My knowledge tends to be broader than it is deep. I enjoy and appreciate without devotion or attention.

While I have a general appreciation, there are times in life when certain music, and musicians, have particular meaning and importance. We connect experience and music. I will always associate Alice Coltrane with living in Boston, and Turiya and Ramakrishna with driving on a lonely urban throughway in the rain. Hearing Closer will bring me back to a Minnesota dance floor, my teeth clenched to a friend’s neck. Prince brings me back to high school.

Many of us look back to our teenage years with a sense of nostalgia. This nostalgia may not be universally positive. Those years were painful for many of us. I never quite felt like I fit in in high school. It may have been my proto-(0r-pre)-queerness, but it may have been other things. I just wasn’t a match with the town, and I couldn’t wait to escape. However, despite the pain and awkwardness, there is nostalgia. Those years were also formative. We remember those things that shaped us.

Prince comes in here two ways. The first may seem superficial, but it is present nonetheless. I went to high school in Minnesota in the 1980s. Prince was from Minnesota. Prince was high school.  It seems a bit strange for someone whose work was so firmly rooted in various black musical traditions to have come from such a white state. But, even in the whitest regions of that state, he was one of ours. Shit, he showed the world we Minnesotans could be cool, even funky.

A caveat may be in order here: this was true for us teens. It probably wasn’t for our parents, who were more likely to be listening to Tipper Gore.

This brings me to the second, and probably more important point, and this is particularly related to feeling like an outsider in a small, rural Minnesota town. Prince was weird. And, Prince didn’t just make it OK to be weird, Prince made weird fantastic. Others can write about his blurring of gender and sexuality, his music’s powerful female eroticism and liberating raunch, the racial mixing his bands and audiences, his genre-fucking musical experimentation, or his instrumental virtuosity and technical production skills. Let them, and let us appreciate all of these things. Whatever. He was a freak. He was weird. And he was goddamned amazing.

Pop music has long been a space for the of expression for youth sexuality. He, like the recently lost Bowie, took those expressions and blended the fuck out of them, making them accessible to wider audiences.  Even outsider audiences. And, we in those audiences found meaning in the artists and their work. Prince rocked our world. He made it just a little bit easier to be weird in places that highly valued conformity.

Losing Prince didn’t just mean losing a musical genius, although the loss there is significant. Losing Prince meant losing someone who helped make living weird lives a fantastic experiment. He made being a freak a possibility. The loss really feels a bit like losing part of one’s self, a part that helped to make getting by a little more funky.

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