On Prince, the Right Words Will Never Be There

Prince performing with a guitar

© Scott Penner/Creative Commons via Flickr

I’ve been trying to write a tribute piece to David Bowie for a couple of months now, wanting to express what he meant to the “different” and “unique” people of the world and why his death mattered. As more time has passed, it’s become harder and harder to finish. What can I say that hundreds of better, more eloquent people haven’t already said? The answer is probably nothing, but that doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to talk about him, and about what his music meant and still means to me.

And then came the news on Thursday that Prince had died. All those feelings about Bowie rose to the surface again, but this time with a purple glimmer. I was a late lover of Bowie, not really getting him beyond his ’70s and ’80s hits until after I had graduated from college and was trying to make my way in the world. The album Earthling spoke to me at that time and place, and after that I was a die-hard fan. I found myself going through his back catalog and devouring it.

Prince was different for me—completely different. I grew up with him. When I was living on army bases (thanks, Dad) and playing with kids my age, Prince was the one we could all agree on, no matter our background, gender, ethnicity, or anything else about us. If you loved country, you admired Prince. If you were a burgeoning rap lover, Prince was your funky progenitor. Springsteen fan? Damn it if Prince couldn’t shred with the best of them. If Bowie was saying it was okay to be different, Prince was saying there was nothing wrong with taking all of your influences, mixing them up, and making something all your own. Prince is one of the few artists who never leaves my music playlist to this day. And there’s so much to choose from; so many different styles that even if I’m not in the mood for one flavor of Prince, there’s another one just an album away.

In high school, there was a girl I really liked. I was also stuck on the movie Say Anything, and when John Cusack held up his boombox and played some Peter Gabriel, I felt that. However, when I did the same thing for this girl, it wasn’t Gabriel I played—it was Prince. Specifically, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I could have picked a better Prince song, but the fact was that it had to be Prince that I played. And I listened to all types of music, not just because I was introduced to so many kinds but because Prince made me feel that it was alright to. Metallica, Madonna, show tunes, Tom Petty, the Beatles, Depeche Mode, Anthrax—I listened to all of it. It was all okay.

Prince made you want to dance, and then sometimes even be introspective. A lot of his early tunes were about sex and getting the girl, but then he’d drop a bomb on you like “Sign o’ the Times,” and as a kid you’d say, “This isn’t right. Let’s make it right.”

I met Prince once. It’s not my favorite story in the world because he was not the person I built up in my mind, which is why I firmly believe we shouldn’t put people on pedestals; they’ll inevitably end up not being what we envisioned. That one encounter influenced my thoughts on celebrities and how we should interact with them. It firmly seeded my burgeoning belief that now comes down to the popular maxim “Don’t be a dick.” Treat others how you want to be treated. All thanks to Prince.

But if the person didn’t live up to my mind’s version, gosh darn it, the performer sure did. I was able to see him a number of times over the years (one of the joys of living in the Twin Cities), and each time he put on a party. He was a taskmaster on stage, but it was so that the audience would get their money’s worth. His shows would blow me away with the technical proficiency he and all of his bands displayed, and the jams were so funky you couldn’t help but get out of your seat. His later years brought about a heavier jazz influence, but your body still required you to shake it.

I needed to get this out now, because if I waited to find the right words they would never be there. There are always going to be better words more eloquently spoken by other people. But as I said before, that doesn’t change me wanting to share my thoughts and mourn the loss of a great artist. I felt like I missed being able to talk about Bowie, and I hate that. I don’t want to regret not talking about Prince.

I’m going to go home tonight and put on some Prince albums, some concert films, and maybe even Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge, or my old VHS (really) of Sign o’ the Times. And luckily I can do that at any time. I’m going to miss the music he might have released, but I’m going to cherish the music he left us with.

Thank you, Prince Rogers Nelson, for giving us the gift of your music.

Purple lights on Minneapolis 35W bridge over the Mississippi in honor of Prince

The 35W bridge tribute to the Purple One. © Jenny Salita/Creative Commons via Flickr

And to those of you reading this, I would love to hear your stories about Prince, his music, and how it has affected you.


  1. By Wally Swanson


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