I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand.
Prince shaped me in more intimate ways than any other cultural icon. While my junior high school friends Karen K., Jenny A. and I were public, excited, squealing Duranies, complete with kissing the television whenever they came on to sincerely believing that one day I would marry Nick Rhodes, Prince was a much more private love.
In early-80s, early-teenage Minnesota, his albums were listened to in bedrooms, in basements, on Walkmen, far away from parents’ prying ears. While I would freely scream the house down about how cute Nick was in ‘Save A Prayer’, the fear of my parents hearing the lyrics to ‘Sexuality’, ’Do Me Baby’ or, god-forbid, ‘Jack U Off’ was intense. That was personal. That was private. That was for no one, but a few trusted, blushing friends.
When Kelly M. got ‘1999’, we headed straight to her basement to listen to it and good thing, too: ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married’. Oh my god. We would have been mortified if her mother had heard that. “I’m not saying this to be nasty, I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth.”
Wait. What does he mean? How is that even possible?
We really wanted to know.
Prince songs on a mixtape were used as a kind of dating code. If you included ‘Delirious’ as the first song on a mixtape that you gave to a boy, and the first song on the one he gave back to you was ‘I Would Die 4 U’, you were practically engaged. If he sent you ‘Darling Nikki’- the song that inspired the creation of those “Explicit Content” warnings- you were as good as married.
Dancing to Prince songs played at school dances felt incredibly rebellious. “She had a pocket full of horses, Trojans, some of them used” Heh-heh. He said Trojans in front of the teachers! I bet they don’t even know what that that means! Ha-ha! Losers!
Come on. We were 13. We didn’t know any better.
Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger before him, Prince was the ultimate, naive teenager version of S-E-X. This 80s version, in the anti-gay era of AIDS, included overt femininity along with the raunch- make-up, frills, high heels, satin, lace. What better way was there to piss off the adults?
Even today, 30+ years later, certain Prince songs drag me right back into the seclusion of my bedroom at night, Walkman on, falling asleep, dreamy, the music seeping right in to my mind, teaching me it was OK to be me- not a woman, not a man, not black, not white, not straight, not gay- Me.
If you don’t like the world you’re living in
Take a look around you
At least you got friends
While the rest of the world was turning purple for the first time, we Minnesota teenagers were basking in the reflected glory. See? Minnesota was COOL. Really cool. We weren’t like our southern neighbour Iowa. We had Prince. They had cornfields.
Prince brought the big wide world directly to our idyllic Minnesota Bubble. Cool clothes, cool music, cool clubs weren’t in some huge, far away city on the East or West coasts, they were all right here where we were. Unlike Bob Dylan, he didn’t turn his back on us. He stayed with us. This, right here, where we were- the Land of 10,000 Lakes with pine forests that stretched from our neighbourhood all the way to Canada with nothing in between- was where it was at. Prince transformed us. He gave us the world.
My friends and I weren’t country bumpkins living in some Footloose-like dystopian nightmare, we felt like we were a direct and active part of the world of music and fashion and art and rebellion. We cut our hair, pierced our noses, safety-pinned our jeans and danced. Oh, how we danced. Over the long, endless winters, we’d hide our ‘punker’ outfits under layers of coats and scarves and hats, drive to the under-18 club’s New Wave night and dance the night away.
My friends and I religiously sought out non-Top 40 alternative music, most of which was coming from the UK, but always kept a space open for Prince even when he was Number 1 in the Billboard charts. In our world, The Violent Femmes’ ‘Kiss Off’ could easily segue into ‘Kiss’; The Smiths’ ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ could be followed by ‘Raspberry Beret’; even after slam-dancing to Big Black’s ‘Kerosene’, we went crazy for, well, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’…
We would happily drop all the bands we’d discovered after they’d hit the big time. INXS, U2, REM, Madonna- they were all relatively obscure when we first bought their albums- once they appeared on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 show, we were too cool for them. We were already onto the next band. ‘Top 40′ was our kryptonite. But even when Prince was the top selling artist of 1984, we knew there was no way we could ever, no matter how we tried, be too cool for him. He was our King.
Whether he was purple or peach, whether we could say his name or not, no matter where we ended up in the world, he was a forever present part of the Minnesota Bubble that we carried with us. He would always be there. He would always be ours. We would never let him go. We never will.