Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Subversive Power of Party Music

Prince on stage in Detroit in 2015.  (via NPR)

I woke up to sirens this morning. There was a three-alarm apartment fire at 17th and Guerrero -- as of this writing no one was hurt -- and the acrid smell seeped in through my window one block away. I followed the news reports of it as best I could. I was hoping that might be the most viscerally upsetting news I read today.

Then I learned that Prince was dead.

"F*ck 2016," is a general theme I'm seeing on Facebook and Twitter today, and I'd be lying if I said I disagreed. Beloved celebrities die every year, sure. But it does feel like we've lost a disproportionate number of musical heroes in the past few months. And Prince, regardless of your relationship to his music, was the best kind of hero -- the kind who, while performing on a different creative plane entirely from that of his contemporaries, appeared to be exerting an amount of effort that most people use in order to tie their shoes, or maybe chew gum and walk at the same time. He was insanely talented. This cannot be overstated.

He pushed himself constantly, yes, but he also seemed like he simply didn't know how to do anything else. He was compelling, flamboyant and endlessly watchable; he was fiercely private and painfully shy. His fridge was full of mustard and Dunkaroos. (That was probably an April Fool's joke, but we can dream.)

I consider myself lucky to have seen him perform live once, at Oracle Arena in 2011, and it was awesome in the truest sense of the word. His guitar fireworks had no parallel; his stage presence, at five-foot-two, was otherworldly. The buildup-freakout dynamic of "Kiss" was the best high I've ever felt. Also, using words to describe an artist like Prince is really, really hard. KQED Music Editor Gabe Meline did a great job of it less than two months ago, following the Purple One's show at the Fox. You should read that review.

In the absence of other music words that feel even remotely adequate, I'd like to offer here that part of what made Prince's work land so instinctively for so many people is that he elevated -- added depth, drama and dimension to -- the concept of "party music," a term that's often, unfortunately, used derisively. In Prince songs there were (and are) stakes to the partying.

You could choose to dance, get sexy, or go crazy when he told you to -- or not. But there was no mistaking the gravity of that choice. Prince became popular (I want to write "came to power") during an era of staggering moral conservatism in the United States, and here was this weird, confusingly sexual little alien-man from Minneapolis, singing about masturbation; in the process, he penned some of the best pop songs of our time. It was gleefully, gracefully subversive. It is not a coincidence that his band was called The Revolution. The Beastie Boys might've fought for your right to party. But in Prince songs, you were partying for your goddamn life.

The best way to celebrate that right now? Tune into Prince's hometown station, Minneapolis' 89.3 FM, The Current, which is playing all Prince for the foreseeable future.

Otherwise: The usual. Hold your loved ones close. And also, maybe, get weird today, in whatever small way you're able. Go crazy. Sometimes that's nothing short of heroic.

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