Prince was my first for a lot of things. He sang the first song I couldn’t stop listening to, the kind you keep playing in your head even when you’re in church confessing your sins. I remember my younger self waiting for a confessional to come available, time I was supposed to use to contemplate what bad deeds I should list for the priest, but instead I was playing “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” in my head. My turn at confession came right after the part where Prince is telling a woman that she wouldn’t be satisfied with a one night stand. I had to scramble into the booth and try to remember all my sins off the top of my head, and my voice was shaking so wildly that I was sure the priest could tell I’d been engaging in near-sacrilege just a few moments before. Luckily, he regarded the stench of my guilt as a sign of desperate contrition, took pity on me, and told me I’d offered the most genuine confession he’d heard in a long time. That’s how Prince gave me another couple of firsts: the first time I realized that priests aren’t all-knowing (yes, I feel bad about tricking the holy man), and the first time I understood that sometimes the things and people that scare me may actually be on my side, if I let them.
I had several other memorable firsts with Prince. When he changed his name to a symbol and wrote the word “slave” on his face to protest the way his record company treated his work, it was the first time I understood that art can not only convey a message but also fight an entire war that most people will never realize even happened. Art history lectures in school tried to convey the same point as I nodded and took notes and memorized for the test; when Prince lived the message while I watched and listened, then I understood, and I never forgot. Another first came from his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which was the first time I saw how the same thing can be perfect in more than one way, and how interpretation can be a form of authorship as valid as any. My sister can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the first time we bonded over music our parents would definitely in no uncertain terms never understand, it was Prince. And, yes, Prince was acting as a musical Cyrano de Bergerac the first time I had sex; for those of us of a certain age, that was practically mandatory.
It’s hard to explain Prince’s allure to anyone who doesn’t already understand, but since this is basically a eulogy, let me try to tell you why this isn’t simply a transference of nostalgia and why I’m grieving over a man I never met. My childhood was sheltered, relatively privileged, and safe. Then Prince came along, and he was unlike anyone I’d ever seen or heard. He assumed his audience was intelligent, he considered danger to be essential to creativity, and he could write a four-minute pop song that had shape and texture and heft. All the songs I’d heard B.P. (Before Prince) were sanded flat, polished smooth, and as insubstantial as the air that carried them. A lot of what I hear today is the same. But Prince’s music always made me think, made me feel, and made me dance–enthusiastically, if not very well. It’s true that Prince wasn’t the first artist to pitch the rulebook and do something different, but he was the first who made me want to throw my own rulebook away. He showed me how to find my path away from the ordinary, and then he showed me how to dance along that path while rocking five-inch electric blue satin platform heels, and now he’s gone, and the world will never be the same.
Prince being Prince, though, I don’t see death stopping him from doing his thing. I think he’s just got a new audience. In fact, I take strange pleasure in the thought of the Heavenly Host suddenly confronted with The Artist. He’ll probably be using a halo as some sort of percussion instrument and asking where he can find a pair of wings with glitter. In my mind, I see the angelic choir looking on in seraphic condescension as Prince gives his first celestial concert, and I can’t help laughing a little at the shock they’re going to feel when they turn and see God the Eternal and Omnipotent dancing on His throne, rocking out to Purple Rain.
R.I.P, Prince Rogers Nelson. You were my first, and you were the best.