Prince was a prophet. Prince was necessary.
by Travis Atria
I have a friend who often used to say Prince wouldn’t be truly appreciated until he died. I mention this because I just realized it’s true, at least for me.
From the time I can remember, I’ve been a Michael Jackson man. Michael was a god to me; Prince was second banana (a purple banana, but second nonetheless). Don’t get me wrong, I respected the hell out of Prince. But I didn’t fully appreciate how monumental, how towering, how necessary he was and is.
Then, out of nowhere, he died, and I realized why it’s possible words like “monumental” don’t even do him justice. I was Saul on the road to Tarsus, and now the scales have fallen from my eyes.
Before I say what I want to say, though, I want to say why I want to say it. I’m not necessarily breaking ground here, I know. Rather, like that old apostle Paul (née Saul), I feel compelled to give testament to the truth.
My revelation came courtesy of re-watching Prince’s performance of “Get Off” at the 1991 Video Music Awards. I was nine when it originally aired, and I remember it seeming like a joke. In Living Color even parodied it in the classic “Butt-Out Jeans” sketch.
Watching “Get Off” as an adult, though, it struck me as one of the most transcendent, important, challenging, groundbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. It begins with Prince being faux gang-raped by a bunch of men, and it climaxes with him shoving his bare ass in everyone’s face. During the song, dozens of men and women are draped around the stage writhing and grinding like extras in the film Caligula.
Then there’s Prince in an outrageous yellow-lace suit with no ass fabric, singing some of his most sexual, lascivious lyrics. He is at once the gayest and straightest man imaginable. He is both and neither and all and none, a man in superhuman control of his body, his guitar, his music, and the crowd. Every motion is exact. Every action is sexual. Every innuendo is ambiguous.
That’s when it hit me. Prince’s importance goes way beyond music. He was a prophet. He showed us that we don’t have to imprison ourselves behind labels. He refused to be contained by gender or sexuality in the same way he couldn’t be contained by musical genre. He simply was Prince, an entity to himself, never seen before and never to be repeated.
I don’t know why I never saw it before. The man essentially created his own gender symbol. He sang lyrics like, “I am something that you’ll never understand,” and “Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay?” In his first televised interview, he said, “I haven’t built any walls around myself.”
Perhaps I didn’t see it because it was a good twenty-five years ahead of its time. We’re only just entering an age where gender and seuxality are beginning to be seen as fluid rather than dichotomous, and Prince must surely take some of the credit for that.
Prince had the courage only true artists possess, the courage to insist that the world deal with him on his terms. He had the talent to back it up, of course, but he never compromised his artistic vision for any reason. He was incorruptible, and being so made him free in the way all people yearn to be.
That freedom came at a high price, and Prince paid it. He gave up his very name while fighting with Warner Brothers to release him from a contract he deemed unfair. He protected his work and image with draconian zeal. But he also understood his own worth, and he knew that he would have a life after death. In a way, he gave us all a gift that will never stop giving, as the restrictions he placed on his distribution made it impossible to play him out. As a result, we can all enjoy coming years of unreleased music from the famous Vault and other previously restricted content, and it will all seem fresh as a paisley daisy. It was often frustrating at the time, but we owe him for seeing the future even when we didn’t.
Thinking about Prince’s legacy, I keep coming back to something Gay Talese famously wrote about Frank Sinatra: “He makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but . . . that it can be done.” Something similar can be said of Prince. He showed what true artistic and personal freedom looked like. His life proved that it can be done; not that you or I can do it, but that it can be done. That sort of truth gives life meaning.
And that’s why his death hurts so much. The world needs courage. We need people who remind us what freedom truly looks like, people who assure us that freedom is still possible to attain. Not everyone can do that. There have been a few dozen, maybe, throughout history. It takes balls the size of Jupiter, and Prince was a ballsy motherfucker.
We are all poorer for the loss.
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