The first time I ever saw Prince was stumbling upon his video for “Little Red Corvette” on MTV. And the first thing I thought was, “This guy dances just like Adam Ant.” Mr. Ant was my current obsession at the time, so of course, this man I was watching was clearly a pretender, no matter how catchy the song might have been. I wasn’t terribly smart back then.
The next time I was truly aware of Prince was in the summer of 1984. His song “When Doves Cry” had the unmitigated audacity to keep Bruce Springsteen from having a #1 single. Surely this was a sign that the one-time pretender had now become a disrespectful upstart. I hadn’t grown significantly smarter in the years since “Little Red Corvette.”
Given my immaturely adversarial beginnings with Prince, it’s no surprise that he wasn’t a huge touchstone for me as an adolescent diving into the deep pool that was music in the ’80s. I was certainly aware of his talent, and appreciated his unconventionality. But I was much more a child of the British New Wave, and that’s where my allegiances stood. I’d nod my head to the occasional “Little Red Corvette” or “Raspberry Beret,” but for the most part, Prince was a guy I heard on the radio or saw on MTV from time to time.
None of which means I’m any less stunned by the news of his death today. Any artist who passes away before the age of 60 feels like an unfinished song. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of his music, Prince was an indelible part of the pop culture landscape of the ’80s in which I grew into adulthood. He was a fixture on MTV, the muse of so many adolescences of that era. His fingerprints were all over Batman, perhaps the motion picture event of the late ’80s. Even his absence from “We Are the World” came very close to overshadowing the presence of so many others on that song. You may not have liked him, but you could not ignore him.
And again, we have the very real reminder that, like our parents watching Elvis and Sinatra leave us, the departure of our heroes and icons means our own mortality is an ever growing presence in our lives. The people we looked up to as children are not immortal, but fragile flesh and blood. And so are we. Their passing is a reminder of the imminence of our own. We’re saddened by their loss, and by what it represents to us.
I guess that’s a sign of the real power of Prince: that someone who wasn’t even that big a fan of his can feel so affected by his death. He didn’t just get through this thing called life. He owned it.