Content warnings: probably not safe for work.
At 12:56 yesterday, I texted my girlfriend: “Prince was found dead. This day is dead. I’m pretty close to crying at work.”
When an artist passes, people mourn publicly. I found out on my lunch break via Twitter, where people were already capslocking their grief. But in that first half-hour, I couldn’t say or write anything, not to my coworkers or friends or roommates. All I could do was find a local radio station playing a tribute (thank you, Vocalo) and livestream it.
In the day since the news broke, many people have posted stories about what Prince meant for them: I’ve seen eloquent essays and Twitter threads about Prince’s blackness and musicianship, his femininity and queerness. He was unapologetic, confident in his genius, and utterly himself, and those qualities leave lasting impressions.
Here’s my grief story: Prince was a key part of my sexual awakening.
I grew up in Vermont, in a working class neighborhood, in a smallish town with many churches and gas stations and not much else. Sex was not discussed, not even in a forbidding way. It wasn’t actively repressed—no crusading speeches against fornication in those many churches, no films about the horrors of STDs and teen pregnancy at school—so much as it was entirely erased from my landscape.
Listen: there is only one strip club in Vermont. Whole state, 626,000 people: one strip club. New England is just like that, and for all that Vermont is proudly politically liberal, that does not extend to sex. While you can throw a stone and hit a display case of bongs, there are, as far as I know, only three stores where you can buy sex toys. One of them is also a head shop. Another, hilariously, is the Vermont Country Store, which primarily sells old-timey boardgames, candy, and hideous flannel nightgowns. (VCT incurred quite the backlash when they started selling “personal massagers” and “instructional videos”.)
Anyway. Into this sexless, homogeneously white, and pastoral landscape of my childhood came Prince.
Thank you, cable TV.
I was seven years old when the video for “Seven” was released. It features, among other things, Mayte Garcia belly dancing, and Prince touching her as she does. It’s not graphic—not by Prince’s standards, and not by today’s—but it’s intimate and sexy as hell. I had literally never seen anyone touch or be touched like that. The inclusion of children in the video, wearing outfits that matched those worn by Prince and Mayte (yellow, fringed crop tops for the girls, black lace masks for the boys) seems to acknowledge that children also had a nascent sexual identity.
Children, too, are embodied creatures. Pleasure is not the same as sex, but American society discourages children from both. Shame is instilled early, and where I grew up, it was enforced through silence. Prince’s music, at least, assured me that there was more to the story.
Later, when I came into my own identity as a sexy weirdo, Prince’s music featured at every single queer dance party I ever went to. The synths on “Little Red Corvette” are bound up with the smells of cigarettes and spilled booze, and the taste of someone else’s lipstick on my mouth. I’ve lost myself on a dance floor to “Let’s Go Crazy,” arms up, spinning and dizzy, dripping glitter-laced sweat. And I have been full-body kissed—pressed against a wall, hands in my hair, hips grinding—while listening to “Seven.”
Prince’s songs about sex are eloquent in their explicitness. Even after his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he still seemed to embody pleasure; his guitar solos still sound like orgasms put to music. Prince was a sexy alien to me, not in a threatening way (the way Bowie sometimes seemed to be), but in an inviting one. Sexuality is not a universal experience, but being able to revel in your body, to take pleasure in it, its movements and functions and sensations—I think that is a human experience, not limited by age or gender or culture.
Yesterday: I was still stuck at work, stuck grieving in solitude when my girlfriend texted me back. She offered an ear if I needed to talk, to hold me if I needed to be held. Having listened to Prince songs for the previous half hour, I wrote back: “I think I actually need to go out dancing.” More than that; I needed to sweat, to dance, to kiss her, to fool around, to laugh, to feel good. That was how I would mourn, and how I would pay tribute.
Rest in power, Prince, you sexy motherfucker. Thanks for all of it.