Prince died Thursday, and I am sad.
I’ve been asked to write about his death, but staring at the empty expanse beyond the flashing cursor, all I really know how to say is in the line above.
Plenty of writers, more ably than I could, have written and spoken movingly about Prince since his death. There’s Stephanie Dunn at NewBlackMan, Jes Skolnik at Medium, Carvell Wallace at MTV.com, Dodai Stewart at Fusion, Hua Hsu at The New Yorker, Marc Bernadin at the LA Times, Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone, Peter Coviello at the LA Review of Books, Ann K. Powers at NPR, John Moe at The Current, Anil Dash on Twitter, Frank Ocean on Tumblr, among many, many, many more. I have listened to three separate Prince tribute podcasts today. Gawker (as it does) has already helpfully generated a Prince Thinkpiece Generator to chide the wave of post-mortems and retrospectives on the Purple One’s life and legacy. There are already listicles about the best Prince writing of the past two days, do you understand? I don’t want to offer you an inferior version of the pieces these talented and inspiring people have already written, and I’m not interested in participating in the process that requires the rendering of searing grief into “hot takes.” I don’t want to do any of that today.
Prince died on Thursday, and I am very sad. And chances are, if you are reading this, you are sad too.
I want to talk about our shared sadness, and about those who cannot share in it. Matt Thomas, a friend, scholar who has published on Prince, and a must-follow on Twitter, regularly plugs in topical news terms of the day to Twitter’s search function, adding the phrase “my professor.” His results today attest to the enduring cultural power Prince has, and the shock and distress caused by his passing.
But these results are also fascinating because of the reactions of the students, all at once puzzled and distressed, a mixture of pity and bemusement that stems from, I think, from a missing context that would help them understand why Prince is so important to so many of us today.
When my teacher found out Prince died pic.twitter.com/biNapKWJBU
— ✨ diamond ✨ (@shvrdae) April 21, 2016
What the students marveling at their teachers’ grief don’t–maybe can’t–understand is that Prince was more than just a guy who sold a lot of records and wore a lot of purple. For people left out of the 1980s neoconservative vision of what America should, he was a beacon, guiding us through this thing called life. Professionally, he was able to traverse the rigid boundaries of genre (is he funk? new wave? rock? pop?) and of labor (was he a pop star? a songwriter? a producer? a record promoter? a mogul?) constructed by the increasingly corporatized entertainment industry in a particularly risk-averse mood (post disco, post punk). He did so while simultaneously transcending, sometimes through his music and sometimes through sheer embodiment, his culture’s expectations of race, gender, and sexuality. He was, in so many ways, a sign o’ the times, a symbol of ecstatic difference in a culture that was busy selling itself a fantasy of homogeneous “family values,” and an anchor to hold onto for those who never bought in to the swindle. This is the Prince I wept for yesterday, and I am willing to bet I was not alone.
When colleagues in film and media studies found out that I was writing a book about the 1980s, the assumption was that my work would be all about corporatization and Reaganism. When my students talk to me about anti-racist movements, or the importance of queer representation in popular media, they’re often unaware of how those issues were part of the cultural conversation in the 1980s as much as they were in the 1960s, and as much as they are today. Popular memory, it seems, has reduced the 1980s to nothing more than a Gordon Gekko soundbyte, all corporate greed and neoconservative politics. But the 1980s had Prince, just like they had Spike Lee and John Waters and Joe Strummer and Joan Jett, just like they had ACT UP and marches for nuclear disarmament and divestment from apartheid South Africa. Prince is, in other words, an icon of “the other Eighties,” the one that is not chronicled on cable-television retro programming and reductive historical narratives. It’s important to remember, after all, that even in times of political retrenchment, people have always joyfully resisted restrictive and repressive forms of both politics and culture.
My apartment in Philadelphia is set above a fairly busy intersection. All evening, as I’ve sat on the patio writing this, I’ve smiled as automobiles have queued up at the traffic signal, with Prince songs blaring from their car stereos: “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and “When You Were Mine,” “Cream,” “Kiss” and “Head,” “Seven” and “Raspberry Beret,” “Musicology” and “Baltimore.” It’s been lovely, really. But part of my job as a scholar of media and cultural studies, I think, is not only to document what songs or films or musicians or actors are important, but also to convey how these pieces of public culture responded to, influenced, resisted and remade the culture that surrounded them. Prince died Thursday, and we are sad, but it is our privilege not just to celebrate and mourn him—though he definitely warrants plenty of both—but also to carry on his legacy of being a beacon to others.