Unlike many people I know, I didn’t grow up with Prince. His reign was a little before my time, and my house was very Christian — granted, so was Prince, but you know how it goes. The only other Prince fan in my family is my mother’s cousin, who, back when he was a dancer, performed a routine with his group set to “Head,” off the album Dirty Mind — in a church, no less. The churchgoers couldn’t decipher his falsetto, and the troupe took pleasure in their secret joke.
I started listening to Prince around the time I started working at this publication. The irony was never lost on me, and in fact it was the hook — to leave a New York City college stuffed full of liberal ideas about gender, sexuality and identity, and then find work at a men’s lifestyle publication is a jarring transition. Not to mention, I’m really not the most traditionally masculine person to begin with. So Prince became my de-facto spiritual advisor.
A former partner of Prince’s once called him “the most sensitive, the most androgynous, the most balance of male-female energy.” Whether or not you can rock assless chaps and heels, that balance is something every man should aspire to in 2016. Emotionally, carnally, politically and socially, Prince could be assertive, submissive, playful, deadly serious, hardheaded and sensitive; there was never any question that he could be all of these things, none of them, or some of them, all at once. That plurality of experiences exists in all of us and always has. But we often lock them away like toys we’ve decided we’ve outgrown.
You’ll hear countless retellings, amid the purple torrent of personal pieces all over the internet, of how Prince helped disempowered people from all walks of life find their voices. And I really mean all walks of life: gay, straight, in between, and, to quote another Dirty Mind track, “white, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’.” I learned that I share a favorite deep cut with a film-geek friend from college (“Sometimes It Snows in April,” off of Parade); on my way to the train yesterday, an old West African delivery man was pumping “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from his car stereo.
With his hippie-tastic ideals, flippantly fluid gender identity and straight-up musical genius, Prince painted a world of harmony, the kind that perhaps only children can really believe in. And his childlike quality — the unpredictable bouts of virtuosity, immaturity, and stop-you-in-your-tracks truthfulness — is largely what kept everyone fascinated, even after his most crucial years were behind him. He operated independent of adult convention, and that made him mythic: as much a celebrity Bigfoot, making random and unexpected appearances, as he was a musical Santa Claus, keeping the gifts coming year after year.
The only upshot to losing Prince is that countless people will be discovering his music again — many of them latecomers like myself. Just like the longtime fans, they’ll have their favorite versions of Prince, because everybody sees a little bit of themselves in their favorite versions of Prince. The slightly shy but thoroughly freaky androgyne of Dirty Mind; the rock-god-diva of Purple Rain; the posh Sgt. Pepper of Around the World in a Day; the awkward, but still oddly fascinating pharaoh of his Love Symbol period; the Hendrix-channeling funk-rock granddaddy persona he relaxed into in his last years. They’ll all have their favorites because they’ll all have their differences. But they can all come together, probably at the karaoke bar, singing “Purple Rain.”