When word of Prince’s death hit yesterday, what followed was a connected string of remembrances. Over and over, certain words and phrases reappeared: magical, immortal, supernatural. Like the death of David Bowie just a few months ago, Prince Roger Nelson’s death was shocking because most assumed he was already immortal. And yet, he is gone, at the age of 57.
Some will remember Prince mostly for his early work, when he roared into the music scene with raunchy, funky pop hits that featured a collision of funk, R&B, New Wave, and psychedelic rock. The disparate styles intermingled to create the monstrous sounds of Prince’s guitar and his roaring rhythm section. Prince himself danced and sang on top of the beast with a deft voice, howling and wailing and leaping into impossibly high falsetto. The essence of his sound—the power and the agility, the deep grooves and rock riffs, the rumble, that falsetto—never changed.
Neither did Prince’s sense of his own utter uniqueness. A friend in the music business once told me how bizarre a Prince show was for promoters. Everything backstage had to be painted purple, and the stagehands were explicitly told not to make eye contact with Prince. Someone who worked as an assistant engineer on a Prince record said that when Prince recorded vocals, he kicked everyone out of the studio, set up a mic over the mixing console, and recorded alone, with the lights off.
On Twitter yesterday, actor Albert Brooks recounted the one time he met Prince. “He was sitting elevated with literally 15 people at his feet. I said, “Which one is Prince?” No one laughs.” This story is quintessential Prince folklore. Majestic. Aloof. Nearly worshiped. (It is also quintessential Albert Brooks.)
He famously changed his name to a symbol for a while, forcing the media to refer to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” This move made him the butt of a thousand jokes on late-night television. Like much of what he did, it was about remaining elusive and refusing definition. He once sang, “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I’m something you will never understand.” Like Bowie, he wanted to defy our cultural categories and transcend them—to be something more than human.
Interestingly, that lyric comes from “I Would Die 4 U,” with its sexual-Messianic overtones. In a secularized world drained of spirituality, Prince appeared to be an outlier, a magical person, a visitor from either a past or future where spirituality remained vibrant and mystery abounds. His public persona was a curated effort at sustaining that sense of possibility. It’s no wonder his work featured sexuality so prominently: Sex is one of the few places that a secularized imagination maintains space for the possibility of transcendence.
In this, Prince was remarkably disciplined. His public life as a personality and an artist was performative through and through. Only in rare moments did a merely human Prince appear—like when Charlie Murphy told a story on Chappelle’s Show about playing basketball with Prince, which ended with Prince making pancakes for Murphy and his friends, or like Questlove’s story about Prince calling him in the middle of the night to go roller skating. (Though here, too, the magic prevails: Prince’s roller skates are apparently kept in an elaborate case, and they not only light up but emit showers of sparks as well.)