21 April 2016: Prince died today. 57 years-old. There is a notification on my iPhone. Prince is dead. The link takes me to the New York Times, which tells me nothing more, as no details have been released, but it does say social media is blowing up with tributes. You know how social media works. The current has me, I am now in thrall. On Twitter I am led to this link from Slate, a video of Prince’s performance at Coachella 2008 of Radiohead’s (Thom Yorke’s really) “Creep”. It’s grainy and low-def and poorly lit; pixeled darkness or dim blue. The song’s intro is already established, then it repeats. Everyone knows what’s coming; whistles of approval. Prince emerges from the wings. Nonchalant, business-like. He walks the stage in the half-light, it’s like he’s doing the last minute tidying-up before the guests arrive, like he’s still backstage, picking up this, straightening that. He’s not ready to be Prince yet, not ready to admit us into his gloaming dream. But he’s getting there; he steps in sync with the music. The gemstone-sized sequins on his tunic glint sparks when he moves, the only thing visible that is not blue.
Prince takes his time. So much so that it calls attention to how much time he is taking. He is Prince. He can do this. He knows we will wait, will allow ourselves to be teased. Then he’s at his microphone, his guitar swung around back. You can’t see his face yet. But there is his voice singing the first phrase. It’s not his best. He’s like a grade-schooler at an assembly who isn’t sure of the key. Further along his voice is no better. His diction stinks too. But he is still Prince, sure that we know he knows what he’s doing, that even if it sounds sloppy to us, we will trust in his precision. We will soon learn that without blown notes and vocal overreach “Creep” is only half-formed. It is the anthem for those of us who are aware that however much others may believe we belong, we see in the mirror that we do not even belong to ourselves.
Lyrics fall away from the microphone or are flung away when he whips his head to the side. It doesn’t matter. We know the words. He knows this too. So he changes them. He turns them around on us. It’s not “I wish I was special,” it’s “You wish you were special…So do I”, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.”
At first I think, this is the arrogance “His Royal Badness” is famous for. He might have shrunken away inside him an affinity with self-loathing, but he would never show it to us. It would dilute his ambiguity, make him too available. Then something else occurs to me: Switching pronouns ought to shift the song’s point of view from that of confession to one of accusation, from vulnerable self-disclosure to pious condemnation. It would entirely re-route where this song goes. It does not.
Prince is giving Yorke’s “Creep” a C-section. He cuts into it, thrusts in a fist and pulls out the wriggling thing it carries. The slouching thing too fragile for the light. (Is this why the stage is kept dark?) He never uses the word “creep”. When he comes to where it should be in the song, he turns his head away or thrashes out a chord. Same with “weirdo”. He is right to do this. These are childish appellations. They belittle the unspecialness we feel, the alienation that is the only intimacy we know when others come near. The wish to be special is the fragile thing, the beautiful pregnancy we hide lest unapproving gazes scorch the birth.
In switching pronouns from first to second person Prince turns demoralization into outrage. He steps us back, forces us to regard the tragedy of our disparagements—we denigrate others and to stay ahead of the game we denigrate ourselves. “What the hell are we doing here,” he asks in a final play of pronouns. A world in which any of us has cause to say, “I’m a creep”, is not a rightful world.
Once he’s shuffled the song’s words around, he can now give us the interpretive key. He will show us what to feel—not what to think but what to know—he will feel for us what we need him to feel in our stead. He will rip it from his guitar, the riffs of our estrangement, and give it to us.
I always listen for Prince’s lyrics, the way their tenderness counterpoises the funk and come-hither polysexuality of his performance, so it’s easy to forget he has serious rock and roll chops. The solo is long, pealing back a layer of earth, his fretwork so deft, so easily does he harness the song’s despair and embody it. He splits it in two, the solo, with an interim of scatting falsetto that invites our ears to bleed. Then swings his guitar around again and takes us with him into the abyss. Unto us it is given, this tonal crucifixion. We take and eat.
Always an integral facet of a person remains hidden until the person dies. Prince is not all innuendo. I see this now. His music, his persona, it’s not about carnal desire and the multifarious avenues of its satisfaction, it’s about intimacy, the androgyny of the heart, the perversities we summon up in ourselves to get others to see us at all. Just get them to look and maybe their reactions will show us something in ourselves we recognize. His shoulders writhe up and down in turn, in time to his music and to some syncopation we are not privy to. His brows ride somewhere between knit and arched, eyes closed. He doesn’t need to see what his fingers do. They see for him. He leans back, plants his right leg behind him in support, as if to arc an arrow over the crowd. Through nearly forty years of exposure to our adoration he has learned to accept our affection for what he is able to give us. But our affection comes nowhere near the love he longs for, because what he is able to give can’t quite reach the longing from which he gives it. This explains the magnitude, the sagging shelves, of his output, an unknown quantity of which he never released.
We do not love Prince for his music or his talent or for his alluring, crowded persona. We love what Prince evokes. He is mediator. He is the incarnate ghost we chase into the swarm of our own multitudinous, irreconcilable selves. Or perhaps it is Prince chasing us. Either way, the love he chases, the love we chase, is a love for that of us that is not special, that is not talent or allure, that has no gender, is neither famous nor ignored. What most needs love in us is that which is there as soon as we slip into the world and will linger when we die. What you and I and Prince need loved is that of us that will be missed because it was never known.
The love Prince longed for—and made us to long for—exposed in him a vulnerability that was the feeding spring of his talent. His prodigious talents were watered by his need to belong if he had no talent at all. What he called upon his talents to return is something they could never deliver. He needed intimacy, to be loved with a love that would reveal to him what was worth adoring if his talents were stripped away. Instead they made him famous, set him outside belonging. He was an idol. He knew this. And it’s true he toyed with our affection for the object of desire we made of him. He could do this. He was Prince, the smartest man in the stadium. If he could not have intimacy, he could at least manipulate our desire of it. It was the best he was going to get.
What the hell are we doing here? We don’t belong here.
To this we belong.