Prince. This name – this man – has changed the world. Musically, he was incredibly talented. He could play any instrument handed to him with grace and ease, had a nearly unmatched vocal range, and could write a hit pop song with the snap of a finger. He controlled the way people experienced his music in ways no other artist has – YouTube and Pandora be damned! And he explored topics in his music most people are afraid to discuss…I know they’re afraid to discuss them, because those discussions are my job.
Walking the lines of gender and sexuality as if there were no lines made his image and ultimately paved the way for the current LGBT+ “movement” toward acceptance. His career will be remembered with his expansive oeuvre, but he’s left a mark on the world outside of the music industry. He defied what it means to be a man and introduced the world to gender-bending ideas well before they were commonplace – not just with his look, as artists such as Elton John and David Bowie had done in the past, but with hit pop song lyrics like 1984’s I Would Die 4 U’s opening lines of, “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll understand.”
That song was perhaps my first look at gender in a non-binary way. I remember hearing Prince’s Batdance for the first time – I was 7 at the time, and an instant fan. I had already fallen in love with Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette, and Raspberry Beret. He and Michael Jackson always rivaled one another (unbeknownst to them) for my favorite artist as a child, though at some point Prince surpassed Michael Jackson, while Man In the Mirror remains my favorite song of all time…with 7 coming in at a VERRRRRY close second. In middle and high school, I scoured Hastings for albums that I didn’t already own, to fill my collection of Prince’s music, and often listened with new ears as I delved into my teen-angst-laden path of self-discovery. “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.” Those words. They changed me. I’m definitely a cis-woman, though I’ve certainly gone through my own journey of gender questioning and a variety of gender expressions, and those words were the beginning of that journey, which is a journey I think everyone should take. Explore yourself! Check out all the nooks and crannies that are YOU and see how they feel! Prince certainly did. Masculine and feminine all at once – simultaneous extremes represented in harmony. And it was beautiful.
I was chatting with a couple of friends yesterday just after we learned of the artist’s death, and one of them said she heard that when he dated Carmen Electra, he required her to be “ready,” in full makeup, hair, lashes and all at all hours of the day, because she never knew when he would call and request her presence. While from any other man that would seem extremely misogynistic, as a feminist, I don’t actually find any problem with it coming from Prince. Why? Because there’s no double standard there! You KNOW he was in full regalia at all times! Even the candid shots of him in Hawai’i, sans heels and frill, show him clad in luxury, perfectly coiffed. He may have had high standards for the people surrounding him in his life, but he certainly didn’t have any lower standards for himself.
Those standards perhaps formed the basis for his success. Few artists seem so focused on their careers…no, let’s not go with the career aspect. Few artists seem so focused on their calling. The music itself, rather than the fact that it was his livelihood, appeared to be his main focus in life. An obsession. That kind of focus undoubtedly leads to success in any field. Tunnel vision toward one goal, without allowing for distractions is quite possibly a “success secret” we could all learn from, especially given the constant barrage of distractions we all experience in our current social-media-crazed culture. Maybe we don’t need all of the self-help gurus teaching us how to climb to success. What if all we need to do is look within, explore ourselves, and express that exploration through our passions? That’s a world I’d love to experience! And Prince sortof gave us permission to do that.
At some point, we all look back on our lives and see the things we did in our past. Sometimes we regret them. Other times we smile and remember the glory, the fun, and the lessons we learned. What’s the saying? Something like, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” (Attributed to a million people with a variety of ages standing in for “young” and “old” respectively.) Since his conversion to being a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, and a refusal to play much of his earlier music that didn’t align with his later beliefs, I can’t help but wonder if he looked at his career with regret. Would he have changed it if he could? Would he have gone back and NOT explored sexuality in the same ways? Obviously, we can’t know that for sure, though I have no doubt it came up in conversation, so it’s possible that someone has the answer to those questions.
We can only hope that his mark left on the world will not be in vain; that we know we’re in a better social place because of Prince, his music, and his image; that his last decades on this earth were not filled with regret for his legacy; and that we can all embrace a little bit of his passion, focus, and exploration to enhance our lives, relationships, and those around us. Exploration: permission granted.