Yesterday afternoon several of my friends texted me to tell me something I already knew—Prince is dead. Just writing that sentence—Prince is dead—makes me feel two things: sad and embarrassed. It makes me feel sad for all the reasons celebrity deaths make people feel sad—the loss of a genius, a heartfelt connection to their work, etc. And it makes me feel embarrassed because, well, I didn’t know Prince. We never exchanged texts and he never came to any of my birthday parties. I found out today that he may have been a homophobe, which would have complicated our relationship, had it existed. He wasn’t my father, brother, uncle, cousin, neighbor, or somewhat intolerable coworker. He was a celebrity and I liked When Doves Cry.
His death means much less to me than, say, the recent passing of a friend’s step-father, and still four different people offered me their condolences following the death of Prince Nelson Rogers. I know all of these facts and I still feel sad. And that embarrasses me.
In some ways I think it is correct that my sadness embarrasses me. Yesterday afternoon the internet carried out its burial rite; millions rushed to their keyboards and touchscreens to prove how sad they were that Prince had passed, how much they had loved his music, and how many of his deep tracks they could name. Taking part in this sorrow one-upmanship contributes to my embarrassment. I know that he was an icon and that I just loved Raspberry Beret and I still feel sad.
But if my embarrassment is legitimate, maybe my sadness is too. Over the coming days there will be countless articles that will help intellectualize and justify the sadness. We will read about how Prince fused white and black music and challenged stereotypes about African Americans and masculinity. We will laud his sex positivity and fashion sense. We will label him “the greatest pop performer ever.”
All of these things are true and it’s easy to point to one of them and say “that, right there, is why I am sad.” But for me, none of these reasons is the reason. Prince didn’t inspire me to create art or encourage me to be different; he was famous and I liked his music. I really can’t claim to own this tragedy in any way.
When I was a little kid my father told me Mozart’s music was mathematically perfect and that listening to it made you smarter. The only other musician for whom this was true, he said, is Prince. And so I became obsessed with the The Purple One. I begged my parents for his records and they obliged, burning me a CD of “clean” Prince songs. The CD had only three tracks: 1999, Purple Rain, and Little Red Corvette, the last of which is not clean, but was a bit too “advanced” for me to understand at the time.
Despite this limited discography, I dutifully listened to His Purpleness. I believed—and still do—that Prince had not written songs so much as he had discovered fundamental elements of the universe that had always been there, waiting to be revealed. I later found out about his other songs—Darling Nikki, Come—and figured out what Little Red Corvette is really about. And with more of his songs to love, I loved him more.
Prince was a musician. A great one. In the words of the Purple One himself, “Music is music. Ultimately, if it makes you feel good, cool.” I love the way the syncopated drum beat enters in Thieves in the Temple and the maniacal, unhinged synth at the beginning of Let’s Go Crazy. The bass-less When Doves Cry is a masterpiece and I’ve never heard a song as downright fun as I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man. Prince was an incendiary guitarist and played nearly every instrument on Little Red Corvette. The man was a genius.
I think true genius resonates with most people. That’s why Hamilton is so popular right now. Sure it’s progressive, subversive, political, educational, and genre-bending, but mostly it’s just damn good.Things that are important but not very pleasant to listen to tend to fail. Things that are great tend to last. Listen to Prince belt out Purple Rain and pound the piano’s keys and tell me it’s not great.
There are some celebrities about whom I constantly worry. Steph Curry is a great example of these people. I’m currently freaking out that he’s missing another game of the playoffs with an ankle injury. President Obama is another member of this group. Prince was not one of these people. I always assumed that he was not actually human and, therefore, was not mortal. I assumed it would go on forever. But, no. Prince is dead.
And with that corporeal passing comes a musical death. We’ll never get to hear a new Prince song. We’ll have our mp3s and concert memories, our dusty vinyls and cover bands, our YouTube videos, Tidal subscriptions, and karaoke nights—but we’ll never really have Prince. And that’s sad.
It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. A man whose music made me feel good died, and it makes me sad. Cool.
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