- Prince, Queerness, and the Both/And of “Or”
First some context:
I dropped out of college in the middle of senior year because I wanted to be a writer. I was lucky enough to see that dream through, becoming a music journalist, reviewing records and concerts, interviewing musicians, and trying to dig beyond the surface of celebrity and stardom to locate how they did the things they did, played the notes they played, and wrote the lyrics they sang. The highlight of that life: traveling to Paisley Park to interview Prince as he put the finishing touches on his Diamonds and Pearls album. That weekend in Minnesota I knew I was joining a very small fraternity of post-Purple Rain–era music journalists; Prince had stopped doing press, allowing his music and shows to tell whatever story needed to be told about him. But there I was, standing in the palatial lobby of the joint, as he walked toward me.
“I’m Prince,” he said as an introduction.
The journo in me wanted to simply state my name. But the teenager in me, the closeted fourteen-year-old who’d listened to his albums and mined the notes and lyrics for any hint of the queerness I felt, the queerness I felt emanating from his gender-bending performative mode, from the falsetto, from the mascara, from all of it, wanted to thank him for making me feel safe even as he made me feel confident about the potential for a boy like me living in a world like this. If I could live in a world that allowed Prince to be Prince, I didn’t, I thought, have much to worry about.
Flash forward many, many years:
On the eve of my fortieth birthday, I went back to college to finish my BA, not knowing that a return to a place where I’d been young would result in a moment deeper than nostalgia, bigger than myself. Being back at Brown and then, a couple of years later, at Harvard in graduate school, where I lived with undergrads for five years as a resident tutor, I found myself immersed in a heady millennial landscape of Facebook and Twitter, of Spotify playlists [End Page 17] instead of mixtapes, and texting instead of talking. Luckily there were some things I did know about, or rather remembered, from having once been twenty-one years old: weed and beer of course, but mostly the debilitating self-consciousness and the tensions of sexual confusion. I met students there who, like me, found salvation in music, who tried to locate their own narratives in the lyrics of pop stars. I didn’t expect to experience loss in those spaces, to emotionally return to my own queer youth as I acted as a guide, a mentor, to a new generation of queer youth. But the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince forced me to do so.
In the summer of 2009 when MJ died, I spent the entire afternoon sitting on a couch with a twenty-year-old lacrosse player from Baltimore, switching the TV between CNN and MTV, crying like a baby and trying to explain to him why the tears wouldn’t stop. Seven years later, one day in April, I walked into the dining hall and was swamped by a horde of twenty-year-olds offering me condolences: they’d heard about Prince before I had, and knowing how news of his death might affect me, they covered me in hugs and hovered over me with concerned looks. It occurred to me in that dramatic moment that I was experiencing the loss of these two icons, not with my buddies from high school or college, people my age with whom I’d danced to Michael’s music or skipped class during our junior year of college to play Sign o’ the Times back to front five times, but with a generation of kids twenty years my junior who did not have much cultural context for these two musical geniuses who’d changed the world, who’d helped to transform blackness on the public stage, who, at least I thought, made...