- Prince and the Making of the Minneapolis Mystique
"How'd you learn to do this in Minneapolis?"Dick Clark to Prince, on American Bandstand, January 26, 1980
"Minneapolis has always been the bomb … you don't have to go outside of that."Prince to Larry King, on Larry King Live, December 10, 1999
When Prince died on April 21, 2016, at the age of fifty-seven, Minneapolis keened. People flooded the streets, congregating around First Avenue. The nightclub featured in the 1984 movie Purple Rain became a pilgrimage site for the faithful, including prominent musicians. The sky turned purple as skyscrapers and bridges were lit up in lavender. Prince's music filled the air, broadcast from radios, and chimed from carillons. Though the whole world mourned the musical genius, the display of grief in his hometown proved particularly acute. A bereft Minneapolis lamented the loss of its stylish, innovative, gifted, and acclaimed native son. Upon news of his passing, one distraught Minneapolitan said: "almost anything would have been better. They could have taken the Mississippi River."1
During the 1980s, the eccentric musician mystified many of his fellow Minnesotans.2 But by the end of his life, he was almost universally adored by his neighbors, who venerated him both for his musicianship and his hometown loyalty. They loved the way the artist recast Minneapolis as funky and sexy and multiracial. They relished the story of his success, which they used to burnish the liberal reputation of Minnesota's largest city.3
In his earliest years, Prince bemoaned the limitations of Minneapolis. But eventually the artist declared the city to be a fixed point in his ever-fluid identity. "I'm as much a part of the city where I grew up as I am anything," he told Minnesota Monthly. "I was very lucky to be born here."4 [End Page 1] Prince used his hometown to resist categorization and buttress his independence from the mainstream music industry. The ever-playful musician deployed the dissonance between his public persona and popular perceptions of his hometown, which the world imagined to be a stereotypically "square" and predominantly white midwestern city. And unlike other famous Minnesotans—such as Bob Dylan—his intentional identification with his place of birth intensified as he aged. By the late 1990s, he had invested his birthplace with almost messianic significance. "God put me" in Minneapolis, he asserted. "I'll stay here the rest of my life."5 And in his final years, Minneapolis often became the literal backdrop for his always skillful showmanship. In a 2014 concert in Connecticut, Prince projected images of the Minneapolis skyline on the jumbo screen. "This is how we party in Minneapolis," Prince announced, eliciting howls of appreciation from the audience.6
Prince inspired scores of books and articles before and after his untimely death. Most analyzed how he transformed musicmaking (locally and globally), the entertainment industry, or popular conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality.7 Too few have worked to understand the musician in relation to the racial history of his hometown of Minneapolis, a place he made central to his personal mythology.8 Prince grounded his personal story in an existing narrative about Minneapolis exceptionalism. In the formative years of the musician's life, the city perceived itself to be a "model metropolis" and "the last outpost of urban paradise," in the words of a prominent business leader in the 1970s.9 This vision had grown out of the efforts of municipal boosters, who were determined to resurrect the reputation of a city rocked by intense labor conflict and racial intolerance. In the 1940s, business and political leaders began experimenting with civil rights initiatives and aggressive urban renewal.10 This approach brought favorable attention to the city that crested in the 1970s, when Minnesota landed on the cover of Time magazine in a story that touted "The Good Life in Minnesota."11 Minneapolis seemed to defy gravity in those years, winning plaudits for its superlative government, booming economy and flourishing arts scene. "In a magic sort of way," a writer from Fortune magazine declared in 1976, "that city has taken on a cloak...