“Dearly beloved: we are gathered here today to get through this called life.”
Is there a more accurate mission statement for all of pop music?
Pop music -- the best of it, at least -- knows that life is messy and unkempt. Life is not easy. It rips our hearts to pieces. It inherently causes friction, tension, anxiety. It dangles illusory promises, and then takes them away, leaving us in need of comfort and solace.
Life rarely offers us that solace. But Prince always, always did.
Prince, who died today at age 57, whose musical genius and cultural impact is impossible to fit into any obituary, was more than a brilliant songwriter. More than a dynamic singer. More than an impossibly lithe dancer. Prince was something most pop stars aren't: he was there for us.
Prince knew the heartbreak of losing a love so strong that life doesn't feel worth living. The song? “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Prince knew the tumult of growing up in a house with fighting and resentment. The song? “When Doves Cry.” Prince knew the joys of sex, accepted and explored its many forms, and made it feel like the most natural thing in the world instead of a taboo that we're supposed to feel weird about. The song -- well, too many to name.
This is what Prince did for us: put words to our feelings, when those feelings were most complex. When society gave us no framework for understanding situations, Prince built one for us.
“I'm not a woman / I'm not a man / I'm something that you'll never understand” spoke for thousands in the shadows during the Reagan years. “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” were more than just lyrics to “Controversy” -- they were forbidden questions in an America still guided by Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell.
Have you ever trusted someone so much that you became blind to their betrayal, and only loved them more afterward? That's “When You Were Mine.” Have you ever been hit on by someone who's obviously so much on the rebound that, even though you're lonesome too, you decline their advances because it'd just be messy? That's “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Have you ever pleaded with someone keeping you on hand as a second option to just choose already? That's “The Beautiful Ones.”
All of this music emerged so effortlessly that it felt like breathing air. I last saw Prince just two months ago, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, and the only way I can describe it is to say that music simply poured out of the man. At the piano, Prince unreeled song after song with a glorious skill that could break the resolve of any atheist in the room, for here, surely, was the apparatus of divine creation.
Some would call it genius, but Prince transcended “genius.” Today, testimonials came from every possible celebrity, from Katy Perry and Neil deGrasse Tyson to Barack Obama. This is how massive Prince's impact was: the President of the United States declared that "nobody's spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative," and it still feels inadequate.
That's because there were so many moments. Performing the greatest Super Bowl halftime show in history. Starring in the best midnight movie of the 1980s. Recording his biggest hit single live in one take, at its very first public performance. Laying a group of rock 'n'rollers to waste with the guitar solo to end all guitar solos, and then throwing the guitar up into the air like a boss. (Of course, it doesn't come down; my only explanation is that God wanted it as a souvenir.)
These moments were not extraordinary; they were just part of what it was to be Prince. In 2011, I saw him at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco with 800 other people. It cost $275. It was worth every dime, and here was the biggest takeaway:
Can you name any other musician who WANTS to play as much as Prince?... This is what Prince does, people. He shows up and sings as perfectly as he’s ever sung, plays the shit out of every instrument in range, he twists his guitar pegs to tune his strings mid-solo, he turns around and mixes his own monitor board mid-song, he plays guitar behind his head, he gyrates his pelvis and commands sing-alongs and throws out his guitar picks and plays, plays, plays, all in a day’s work -- except for him it isn’t work, it’s normal life, the same way you or I walk down the street or buy milk or complain about the internet.
When an artist is that gifted, they usually let their ego swell. They lose touch with the world. Prince didn't. In recent months, he spoke of Black Lives Matter, and of the water crisis in Flint. He quoted Kendrick Lamar. He was never overtly political, but his actions showed that he still, at age 57, wanted a better world.
As for our personal worlds, it is a gift to us all that Prince left behind so much music. This is why he was so universally loved; Prince gave so much in return, across races, genders, borders and generations. At his last concert, in Atlanta, the very final song Prince performed was "Diamonds and Pearls," and the last line of that last song seems more relevant than ever right now: "All I can do," he sang, "is just offer you my love."
With that love, Prince -- may there never be another like him -- helped us all through the highs and lows, the heartbreak and joy, of this thing called life.