By Jessica Zafra
I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray. I’ve been trying to write about Prince since the terrible news broke early Friday morning, Manila time. It seemed important to get the word out before all the commentators had picked the bones clean, shaken their heads over his weirdness, and made quips about “The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.”
They would not be wrong. He was weird, with a pure and honest weirdness that was not calculated for image-making, and he created a universe in which it wasn’t even worth remarking upon. At the height of his conflict with his record label, he did change his name into an unpronounceable symbol. This is cited as another instance of his weirdness, but let’s not forget that it hurt his record label, and it cost him millions. How do you buy albums by an artist whose name you can’t say? In his desire to get out of that contract, he churned out albums faster than the record company could sell them.
His gifts were so abundant, he never held them back for fear of running out of marketable product; he just gave them away. Maybe those five albums he put out between 1994 and 1996 could’ve been more coherent, more audience-friendly and have less orgasmic moaning, but they would’ve been less Prince. Prince was entirely himself — how many of us can say that? He did not care, as today’s musicians care too much, about “protecting his brand.” It wasn’t as if anyone else could claim to be him.
The news of Prince’s death, coming as it did in the midst of a series of deaths of the famous and well-loved, confirmed my worst suspicions. We are seeing an epidemic of death. The Grim Reaper has been extra busy, and not enough people have challenged him to a game of chess. (Please tell me you got that joke.) The obituary has become the most popular longform read in the first four months of this year. Some have attempted to explain the sheer number of famous people dying by noting their ages, the ages of the people remarking on the number of deaths, and the fact that the all-pervasive mass media has created more celebrities since the 20th century, and celebrities do die. But what about our recently departed friends, who were stars only in our circles? The thought was so distressing, I went back to sleep.
I had to get up at some point, so I started texting people whom I knew to be Prince fans and asked them to name their five favorite Prince songs. We are nerds; we got technical. “Prince songs performed by Prince, or also Prince songs performed by other singers like Chaka Khan, The Bangles, Sinead O’Connor?” One friend engaged me in a discussion of whether “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks was really a Prince song (It is not, even if she sounds like she was singing into an electric fan). The five-song limit was dealt with by simply declaring ties. “You cannot make me choose between ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette,’ it’s inhuman.”
Naturally I had to listen to the songs. Prince had his music taken down from the Internet years ago; fortunately my pop archivist friend had ripped his CDs into an old iPod. It did not seem right to listen to the music on earbuds so I used a pair of professional-grade headphones that an audio snob friend had given me (after throwing my earbuds in the trash). I spent much of high school and college with a Walkman on, and that’s when the album Purple Rain came out, so it was like time travel. “When Doves Cry!” A song with no bass line!
I’m going to need a headphonectomy because I cannot take these cans off my ears. You have to listen to Prince on serious equipment in order to appreciate the many sonic layers that went into each song. There are all sorts of background noises you can just pick out. The arrangements and production choices are astounding, but for all the discipline precision that went into them they still sound playful, tossed off casually, the way he coughs in the intro to “Raspberry Beret.” I suspect Prince was happiest inside the studio, singing harmony with his overdubs.
The trouble with listening to Prince is that you cannot hear a song just one time. You have to play it again to figure out why it’s so good. And again. Hours pass. Deadlines are forgotten. Yesterday I must’ve listened to “If I Was Your Girlfriend” twenty times, that is one twisted song. First the electric drums, then his voice, very high, and those lyrics that turn the notion of gender upside-down, punctuated by those screams. Prince isn’t suggesting you change roles, he is your girlfriend. “Would you run to me if somebody hurt you, even if that somebody was me?” Wrap your brain around that. “Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be. PLE HEE HEE HEASE.” “Could we just hang out, I mean, could we go to a movie and CRY Y Y together?” TLC has a very good cover of this song, but it’s not the same: it becomes, well, normal.
I was too sad to write about Prince, and now I can’t write about Prince because I’m too happy. Listening to Prince makes me happy. His music is bursting with ecstatic chaos. On a bad day, before you call your shrink, put on “Let’s Go Crazy.” Such rapture cannot be stilled by death. Fuck death, let’s dance.
And there’s just so much music. I haven’t even listened to his recent albums, I’m still processing Emancipation from 1996 — have you heard “Saviour”? It’s amazing! The news is that there are 30 unreleased Prince albums, so we’re covered. Prince Rogers Nelson, we love you. Thank you for having lived amongst us, you beautiful, bonkers, raunchy, innocent, spiritual, silly, solemn genius. We’re not gonna let the elevator bring us down because, damnit, Life.
Contact the author at TVatemyday@gmail.com
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