I first discovered Prince in the fall of 1983, when my friend Stacey came walking into our theater classroom in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and put down her boombox proudly, telling us we had to listen to some new music.
Prince, she said.
The rest of us in that room that day were the high school theater nerds: a mixed-up band of misfits. Beauties and future beauties, the awkward and the just too damn cool—I think we were working on a production of Pippin, or a play based on the cartoons of Jules Pfeiffer. Theater at my high school was the place where the odds and ends of the groups we then called the jocks, the burnouts, the preppies, and the nerds met up, and as we rehearsed and performed our productions, we recombined, fell in love, fell out of love, and, more importantly, changed each others lives, in moments just like this one.
It was a scene right out of an 80s film, but I think most 80s films were like that because the 80s really were like that.
Stacey was one of our high school’s leaders, or, she was to me—funny, smart, sophisticated, and way too tall to be bullied easily—she was a senior that year, and always seemed to be looking a little bit past us, like she belonged to another, more glamorous world than our high school and would be there soon. She was also a hardcore part of our theater nerd team, and loved us as we did her, so of course she was the one to know this music first and to bring it to us. As Stacey plugged in the boombox, we passed around the tape cassette box to see who we were about to listen to, and that was the first I saw of the famous face, the insistent pull in those eyes and that mouth, sultry, penetrating—the magnetism that would hold my attention and the attention of generations of fans, right up until his untimely death and, I’m sure, for a long time to come.
Stacey hit play with the seriousness of a surgeon making the first cut—she and a few of others were the first to dance, but eventually we all joined in. I was not used to dancing in front of other people. I usually danced at home, in private, watching Solid Gold. But I soon realized this was what I had been practicing for.
In my memory, the first song was “Little Red Corvette,” but “Controversy” was the moment I remember most. In particular, the way the lyrics were an invitation to discard set identities and live in some bigger, freer way. “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.”
Prince was more than the music, though the music was amazing—the almost squealing drawl of a voice that could swing from high to low, from frenetic to lazy to soulful. The image he projected on the cover was that of a punk hung Michelangelo’s David in thigh-high hip boots with high heels, a trench coat, and a thong.
He wasn’t sexy as much as he looked like sex, sex that was just about to happen or that had just happened or that could happen at any time. Dirty sex, obsessional sex, sweaty fetishistic hot sex. Sex you didn’t apologize for wanting or having. A slippery appeal that came from the way whatever you thought you were or whatever you thought you liked, he challenged, just by being there—either by looking at you or by being what you looked at. He looked like he had strolled right out of the gay porn mags I would sometimes be lucky enough to get my hands on, and then stopped off at one of the punk shows I’d just learned about… He was able to get my entire theater group singing along to a funk song with lyrics like “I just can’t believe all the things people say / Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? / Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?”
The power of being able to sing that or dance to that in 1983 in a small suburban Maine town is hard to understate. But also: I was the only nonwhite student singing along in that room.
It wasn’t just his sexual appeal that mattered to the teen queer boy I was back then—it was also that he, like me, was mixed race, and even if he wasn’t the same mix, what I could see was that he wasn’t apologetic about that or anything else. He was defiant, about all of it. The slipperiness of his appeal was in part drawn out of the swagger he exuded as he put one of those high heels down on your assumptions. He took anyone’s desire for a more stable sense of identity around sex, gender, religion or race, and threw it back at them with a sneer and a laugh. I’m sure I would have found the permission to be who I was without him, eventually, but I don’t know if it would have been as quick or as fun. Prince was like a siren, both kinds: the siren that draws you forward, seducing you out past the limits of what you know, and the siren that clears the street. The taunt in his eyes made whole new worlds seem possible—possible, desirable and urgent.
The slipperiness of his appeal was in part drawn out of the swagger he exuded as he put one of those high heels down on your assumptions.
I had spent so much time being made to feel like a freak merely for existing—listening to Prince was one of the first moments that feeling just dropped away.
I don’t know if the young radical he was reads the way it did then. The problem with being the forerunner is that the revolution you inspire makes what you did seem less radical, afterward. And it is sometimes hard to take all of him in: the musical genius, the copyright activist, the promoter, the eccentric, the religious man. He would change many times over the course of his life and career up until the heartbreaking news of his death yesterday. As his popularity grew, he experimented with that like he did with anything else—celebrity was just another identity to play with. And the wild energy that poured out of him took many forms, and not all of them were what I loved or needed as much as that first experience of him back in 1983. But I know the story I tell here has millions of siblings and variations. And that is astonishing—a legacy as important as the song book is what happened while the songs played.
So I’m heartbroken at this news of his death, but so grateful to him. And as I mourn him, I will remember the joy I’ve had, and the many nights spent dancing to his music, and the friends I made on all of those dance floors, or off them.
Thank you for that first dance, Prince. And then all of the rest of them. Thank you forever.