When I told philosopher Simon Critchley about the time I saw Prince perform “Pussy Control” on the VH1 Fashion Awards and how it changed my life forever, his response was perfect. Without skipping a beat, he said: “Paging Dr. Freud.”
I was interviewing Critchley because he’d just released his book on David Bowie. Prince came up in our conversation when Critchley wondered aloud who else had done something similar or equivalent to what Bowie had done: who else had been a constantly morphing identity, had deconstructed society’s strict binaries, had pushed some sort of Heideggerian deworlding upon his listeners, had allowed them to “become some other kind of self, something freer, something more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.”
In the beginning of his Bowie book, Critchley includes a chapter called “My First Sexual Experience.” It opens, “Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession: no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie.” He goes on to recount the time that he saw Bowie perform “Starman” on Top of the Pops in 1972. After his mother bought the “Starman” single later that week, Critchley found himself alone with the record player, and he flipped the single over to listen to its b-side: “The sheer bodily excitement of that noise was almost too much to bear. I guess it sounded like…sex. Not that I knew what sex was. I was a virgin. I’d never even kissed anyone and had never wanted to. As Mick Ronson’s guitar collided with my internal organs, I felt something strong and strange in my body that I’d never experienced before. Where was suffragette city? How did I get there? I was 12 years old. My life had begun.”
When I was 12 years old, I had my “first sexual experience” watching Prince performance at the VH1 Fashion Awards. I haven’t watched it since. When I was young, there weren’t endless clips of video on the internet where I could have easily found it and rewatched ad nauseum. And I hadn’t taped the VH1 Fashion Awards on VHS because I had no clue what I was about to witness. To be honest, I don’t even know why I was watching the VH1 Fashion Awards: I did love award shows and music television, and there just weren’t that many channels back then. Since the advent of YouTube, there has been a part of me that wants to go back and watch the video. But a louder voice in me worries that it won’t live up to my remembrances, that as a memory it has crystallized into something more than real, and that the truth of the performance wouldn’t, couldn’t, embody all it has become for me. If what I recall here is grossly misleading or completely wrong, I apologize, but my memory of the performance is as follows.
As a memory it has crystallized into something more than real, and that the truth of the performance wouldn’t, couldn’t, embody all it has become for me.
Prince comes out on stage in a classic Princely purple suit, with shoulder pads and high heels and a bright red scarf covering his face. At 12, I don’t know Prince well, but I know enough to know that this is normal for Prince—that this is his “schtick.” He dances around and starts singing the first verse until, suddenly, the big reveal. The “Prince” on stage is actually his soon-to-be-wife, back-up dancer Mayte. She starts stripping off her Prince attire to reveal a sexy, red outfit underneath. Prince comes out and knee-slides through her legs, singing (and rappping!) “Pussy Control” into a microphone shaped like a gun. There’s something written on his cheek. Was it “slave”? Was it “love”? Was it the glyph he had just changed his name to? The sheer bodily excitement was too much to bear. I was 12 years old. My life had begun.
I went to the record store with a friend the next day. I knew maybe four or five Prince songs: “1999,” “When Doves Cry,” “Erotic City,” “Little Red Corvette,” and now “P. Control.” But looking at the endless stack of Prince albums in the P section, I came to the disappointing realization that those five songs weren’t going to appear on the same album. “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” were both on the album 1999. “1999” and “When Doves Cry” were both on the collection The Hits 1. But I could never get more than two of those five songs on any album—until I found the massive three-disc The Hits / The B-Sides, which was 60-something dollars. I had never spent that much money on anything in my life, but I felt compelled. I walked up to the checkout counter to purchase it and the pimply college student at the register said, “Oh, sorry, I can’t sell this to you unless you can prove you’re 18.”
“What? Why?” I asked.
“See here,” he pointed to the lower right corner of the album cover where a black and white rectangle hovered over Prince’s neck under a strangely sculpted beard, “it says ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics.’ It means I can’t let a kid buy it.”
I was crushed, but I would not be so easily defeated.
I went to a different record store a few days later and tried to make the same purchase. I puffed up my chest to look 18 as I walked to the register this time. There’s no way I convinced him I was an adult, but somehow he didn’t know the rules—or didn’t care—and let me purchase the album anyway. I ran home and played all three discs nonstop for a year. The first thing I figured out, rather quickly, was that while I’d thought I only knew five Prince songs (four of which were on this three-disc set), I actually knew about 20 of the 56 songs across these three discs: “Kiss,” “Uptown,” “When You Were Mine,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Cream,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” etc. So many of these songs sounded familiar; so many had entered my life previously without my having noticed it. Within a year’s time, I owned most of Prince’s discography, which at that time was twenty albums, if you included The Hits / The B-Sides. I skipped meals at school to save up the lunch money my parents gave me to buy his CDs. “Welcome 2 the dawn,” as Prince would say.
A few years after that, I was on Napster downloading all of his bootleg songs. The AOL dial-up modem was never fast enough. It felt like it took months to download “Extralovable” and “Moonbeam Levels” and “Purple Music.”
I even wrote a college paper on transportation metaphors in Prince songs, focusing not just on the obvious (“Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious”), but on one of my (and Questlove’s) favorites: “Lady Cab Driver.” In that song, Prince sings, “Don’t know where I’m goin’ ‘cause I don’t know where I’ve been, so put your foot on the gas, let’s drive.”
I didn’t know where I was going, but I had soon turned all my friends onto Prince. I started a band called ManDrake and his ManJam—essentially just to emulate him. I joined the NPG Music Club and became an official “fam”—not “fan,” use the correct term. Being an official member meant I got access to the best seats at his shows. Once I saw him in concert at Madison Square Garden in the second row. I looked back, and a few rows behind me was Puff Daddy. I can tell you now that few things are more satisfying than knowing you have better seats at a Prince concert than Puff Daddy.
I can tell you now that few things are more satisfying than knowing you have better seats at a Prince concert than Puff Daddy.
The woman I was sitting next to turned to me at one point while we were waiting for Prince to appear and asked, “Are you here alone?”
“That’s cool. What’s your favorite Prince song?”
She was testing me. But I knew my answer. It had been the same song since I purchased The Hits / The B-Sides all those many years ago. My second and third and fourth favorite Prince songs would shift and swap—sometimes I’d prefer “Strange Relationship,” sometimes “17 Days,” sometimes “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” sometimes “Anotherloverholenyohead”—but my favorite song remains the same to this day: a B-side called “She’s Always in My Hair.” I told her and she smiled. I passed the test. But before our conversation and newfound friendship could blossom, the concert began. Prince was playing in the round, and when he came to our side of the circular stage, the girls in the front row reached their hands up and he touched them. They screamed. The woman next to me reached over the girls in front of her and got a touch too. She looked at me and said, “Are you really not going to touch Prince when you have a chance?” I felt accused of some heinous crime. Without thinking, I thrust my arm into the sweaty mess of appendages and Prince grabbed my hand. She was shocked. I don’t think she expected her goading to work. Most of the men around the first two rows were acting tough, not trying to get in on the Prince touch. She whispered to me, “You are the coolest white dude I’ve ever met.” I thought I might never wash my hand again.
Five days before Prince died, I came out to my parents. Now I am 32 years old and my life has begun again. Prince cracked something open in me when I was 12, and it took 20 years for me to fully understand it and accept it and live it. I’ve read lots of people in the last 24 hours saying Prince gave them permission to be who they are, and that’s true for me too. But what people are really saying when they claim this isn’t that he actually gave them permission, but that he made them realize that they didn’t need permission—that no one gets to tell you who you are. It’s hard enough to figure out who you are yourself. As Critchley wrote of Bowie, “Through the fakery and because of it, we feel a truth that leads us beyond ourselves, toward the imagination of some other way of being. Bowie’s genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to connect authenticity to truth. There is truth to Bowie’s art, a moodful truth, a heard truth, a felt truth, an embodied truth. Something heard with and within the body.”
The same could and should be said of Prince’s art. His “controversial” mantra is distilled in that final chant from “Controversy”: “People call me rude. I wish we all were nude. I wish there was no black or white. I wish there were no rules.” Prince took numerous pseudonyms, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, claimed he had multiple personalities living within him, made music in just about every recognizable genre, went against every stereotype, broke every boundary, deconstructed every binary—he always seemed to be searching for some other way of being, which is perhaps the best way to live, to constantly be falling into the new you-performance. Never being authentic, but always being true. I’m excited at the prospect of these new, true horizons for myself and the navigation of this identity, but I am also terrified, of course. For Prince there was always a terror in this too, a sadness, a confusion—as often as there was joy and excitement, if you listen beyond the hits. Coming out so late feels strange. I feel stupid for not figuring it out earlier. I was a Prince fam for twenty years, and I still couldn’t face this? And yet, there’s something that feels perfectly Princely in that confusion and that struggle and that disjointedness. I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing, not quite sure who I am or what I want exactly, but I am finally okay with that strong and strange thing in my body that I always knew but never acknowledged.
I’m thinking again of “Lady Cab Driver”: “Don’t know where I’m goin’ ‘cause I don’t know where I’ve been, so put your foot on the gas, let’s drive.” I’ve always been a driver, a roadtripper. I’ve driven cross-country 28 times and been to all 48 continental United States, three times or more each. I’ve always put my foot on the gas because I was always searching for something. While the rest of my friends were getting married and having babies, I was on the road, still searching, still imagining some other way of being. I haven’t found that thing per se, but now I know that not knowing where you’re going is even more freeing than knowing. I’m so happy I came out while Prince was still alive, even if the overlap was only a few days. I wish I was able to have told people I was gay earlier—I wish I could have told myself I was gay earlier—but I also know, thanks to Prince, that we each have our own car and our own road and all we can do is drive it, always becoming some other kind of self, something freer, something more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting.