Monday, May 2, 2016

U Better Live Now: Perspectives on Prince

Prince’s first album was released the year before I was born and his music permeated my childhood. I don’t remember ever not knowing who he was. 1999, Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, U Got the Look, Cream, I Feel For You, Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry, I Would Die for U, Kiss. These were the backdrop of car rides with my parents to school, dancing around to the radio with friends, swimming in summer. His presence was palpable and ever-present.

Scott Woods says in his essay/eulogy “Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods” that “if you are, say, thirty-five years of age or older there is a 99% chance that you are no good right now. Not merely sad, but irreparably despondent. Verily, Shakespearean in your grief.”

I grew up a Catholic schoolgirl in the South. Everywhere I looked, there were strict rules about what one did and did not do. Rules about fashion, about gender, about bodies, about what one should do with one’s body (not trust it) and should do about sex (not have any), about what did and did not count as sin. As a child, I was both terrified of breaking these rules and deeply suspect of them. I spent much of my childhood being indoctrinated into rules about how I was allowed to be in the world that would take years to unbind.

I remember watching Prince’s 1991 performance of “Gett Off” at the MTV Music Awards and being completely and utterly scandalized. I was twelve. Although my parents were lax on what I watched, I can’t imagine them not turning off the television when this happened. So maybe I was not home watching. I don’t remember that detail. What I do remember is that canary yellow suit and the moment he turned his back to the screen and revealed his butt, covered only by thin sheer fabric. I gasped. Prince was wearing buttless pants! Naïve and thrown off by his wardrobe, I completely missed his nearly-naked backup dancers having what amounted to a group orgy on the stage behind him, grinding and writhing up against one another. When I watched his performance again—along with a slew of other videos, performances, and interviews—in the aftermath of his death, I found myself stunned I had not seen them. But the truth was—with or without buttless pants—when Prince was on stage, everyone else disappeared.

Early on the morning Prince died, I had checked my Facebook page and saw a news alert about an emergency at his residence Paisley Park, but not for a single moment did I suspect the emergency had to do with Prince. He seemed untouchable, immortal. Someone had partied too hard, I thought. People were always coming in and out of there, I assumed. But when I checked my Facebook after I taught my first class of the day, I saw a stream of posts referencing Prince. My response was visceral: heart sunk, stomach clenched, breath caught in my throat. It couldn’t be true. But it was. And I spent that day, like many of us, in a cloud of mourning.

For me, this was a mourning I couldn’t completely locate or understand.

Here is the thing. I wasn't a super fan. I didn't know obscure songs. I never saw him in concert. I didn’t even own any Prince albums. If someone were to ask me who were the most influential musicians in my life, I likely would have left him off the list.

I have always loved Prince’s music but when I was a kid, he confused me. I didn’t know what to make of him: his androgyny, his fashion choices, his tremendous vocal range and the way he completely possessed those notes and the power of his own voice in a way that made me both aroused and alarmed.

But some part of me deeply wanted to understand. Because I think I got, even then, that Prince had the flowchart out of a world of limited living. That by understanding him, I would understand the key to self-possession, to creativity, to boldness and necessary risk. I saw in Prince someone unapologetically himself, unconcerned that not everyone would get him. In my rule-following self flamed a tiny kernel of something that yearned to fully express and vanish my fear of being different.


Elena Passarello read several hundred pages of Prince interviews that spanned thirty years to compose “Ceremony of the Interview of Princes" in tribute to and imitation of acclaimed essayist Montaigne who authored an essay with the same title. Montaigne’s essay is concerned with the etiquette of meeting with Princes, or actually with the etiquette of meeting with someone in higher standing than oneself. Passarello’s is, too, using a listing format to tell us what one should and should not do in interviewing Princes—i.e. all of the different Princes that made up the artist we came to know as Prince. In doing so she creates a portrait of Prince that reveals his mutability, his ability to shapeshift and also the common threads running through.

The epithets for her essay come from Montaigne and Prince respectively. Montaigne: “It is much better to offend him once than myself every day, for it would be a perpetual slavery.” And Prince: “If I can’t do what I want 2 do, what am I? When U stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.”

Her list of how to proceed shows how to call on Prince or wait to be called upon. The list of instructions asks questions, regarding Prince’s demands and also the expectations of those interviewing him. The list reveals all it takes to get into a room with Prince and also all it takes to remain there in good graces, including not having your pencil confiscated for lack of eye contact and staying away from off-limit topics. The list reveals elusiveness on Prince’s part but also thoughtfulness. The list warns about accidentally upsetting him without knowing what you did or what you can do to correct it. But it also reveals an understanding that the hype about Prince is not hype.

Passarello writes: “There is something you must know before you end up alone with him. The rumor he is magical is completely true.” Later she says, “He might ask you not to report any of the words of your meeting, but to just write down the vibes.” The reporters of interviews past, she shows through her exploration, are concerned with their questions--but that is not Prince’s concern: “You might feel that your interview has ceased to be an interview and has instead become a riddle to solve. This will never be far from the truth.”

Wasn’t that what was always so compelling about Prince? The element of mystery? The way we saw so much of him and also always had lingering questions about who he was and what he was trying to tell us? Rather than being infuriating, this endless curiosity, this mystery unfolding felt like part of his offering.

One constancy throughout the instructions on the ceremony seems to be this: Prince will not let you record his voice. But the other constancy in what Passarello uncovers and writes seems to be his desire for realness in the moment. It seems his rule switching is part of a desire for an authentic experience. This is not the usual pathway of interviews. The interviewer and the interviewee come in with expectations, with things they want to ask, things they want to say. It seems in his process, as explored by Passarello, Prince refuses the notion that an interview—or anything—goes only one way.


Since his death, much has been written about Prince. Some have discussed how he supported women artists and musicians in a misogynistic field that at the time (and to some extent now) only regarded them as backdrop or eye candy.

Reports poured in of his incredible philanthropy, which his Jehovah’s Witness faith proscribed against advertising. But I also get the sense that faith or no, Prince was more interested in doing the work in the world than recognition. Lest the work being done become about him somehow and not about the work itself.  The beneficiaries of his work included Green for All and the Black Lives Matter movement. At the 2015 Grammy’s, he said, "Albums still matter. Albums, like books and black lives, still matter."

In “Prince and the Sparkle Brains: Growing up epileptic, surviving sexual abuse,and loving Prince,” Karrie Higgins explores how Prince whose chronic pain and physical ailments informed the development of his stage presence. She quotes a 2009 interview with Tavis Smiley where he discussed his epilepsy “publicly for the first time”: “From that point on,” he said, “I’ve been having to deal with a lot of things, getting teased a lot in school. And early in my career I tried to compensate by being as flashy as I could and as noisy as I could.” Higgins explores Prince’s story in relation to her own and writes: “Prince was a walking disability poetics.”

The outpouring of grief in the week since he died has been tremendous. This feels like a cultural moment we will remember forever: Where was I when I heard the news that Prince died? More so than other musician deaths, Prince’s passing felt urgent and palpable, calling for the need for collective mourning.

And also celebration that we had him as long as we did. Vigils were held outside Paisley Park. Minneapolis Public Radio's The Current stopped their scheduled programming to broadcast Prince for nine hours and in following days ran through his catalogue from A to Z. A jazz funeral processed in my hometown New Orleans, thousands of people in purple flooding the streets with dance, voice, brass. In Tucson, where I live, I and other bicyclists sped across the city, speakers blasting from a faux-leopard-furred-bike, wheels turning violet light, the group stopping to dance to the hits at intersections. Bands and burlesquers paid tribute to His Royal Badass at the Rialto Theater. Tucson's independent movie theater The Loft hosted a sing-along screening of Purple Rain—a packed house singing at the top of our lungs as we—laced and leathered and primped and purpled—waved glow sticks through the air singing: “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”

I am listening to Prince as I write about Prince because it only seems fitting. The epic range of his voice—from deep bass to falsetto—permeating the space between my thoughts. I’m listening to Prince as I write about him because if his music is anything, it is a sort of séance, the songs come through us and before we know it, we are bopping our heads to the rhythm, we are singing under our breath and then at full volume. We are, in a moment, up out of our chairs, which, suddenly, will no longer contain us.

An awareness of death permeated Prince’s lyrics:

Yeah everybody’s got a bomb/ We could all die any day/But before I’ll let that happen/I’ll dance my life away.  

But life is just a party/ and parties weren’t meant to last

So if I gotta die/ I’m gonna listen to my body tonight

We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/ Maybe it’s cuz/ We’re all gonna die.
And when we do (when we do)/ What’s it all 4? (What’s it all 4)?
U better live now/ Before the grim reaper comes knocking on your door.

When I read he was found in the elevator, I instantly recalled the words of “1999.” It seems altogether possible to me that Prince created out of his last moments a performance piece for all of us. That he knew he was dying. That he went to the elevator. That he wanted to say to us, even as he left us: “Are we going to let the elevator bring us down?” That he hoped for us to call back: “Oh no, let’s go!” That he wanted to remind us that we never know when our time is up.

What I realized in the time since Prince died is how his music and his presence were a constancy underneath everything. Prince was always, without a doubt, his own person. And Prince was also ours. He belonged to all of us. His presence in the world gave us permission to be ourselves. Not our polite-well-kept-and-well-mannered-fitting-everyone’s-expectations-selves but our messy-chaotic-creative-sexual-nonconforming-bursting-over-out-and-through-selves. I, for one, needed this permission. I needed to know that the freak flag I kept tucked in the furthest corner of the drawer was not only welcome but necessary. Prince told us through the way he lived to create, to work hard, to stop caring about what others think, to release obsessive thoughts of failure and start thinking about what we can do, to be as raunchy or out there or rule-breaking as we needed to, to live our lives the way he was on stage: brazenly alive.

In one undated video interview, an interviewer asks him, “And birthdays, you don’t like birthdays?”

“No,” he says. “We came here not knowing we were going to die—somebody told us that. And if we never knew we were going to die, we wouldn’t celebrate birthdays.”

She follows, “Isn’t nice to celebrate you day you were born?”

Prince says, “I’ll celebrate the day I die.”


Lisa M. O’Neill writes and teaches writing in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been published in Salon, Scalawag, The Feminist Wire, defunct, drunken boat, DIAGRAM, and Edible Baja Arizona, among others. She is the creator, editor, and curator of The Dictionary Project, an online constraint-based literary project. You can find her at

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