Like a lot of us, I’ve been listening to Prince and not much else for the past week or so. I feel like I should write something, but I don’t think anyone’s waiting for me to do that except me.
I feel like I shouldn’t be thinking of him in comparison to Bowie, but for obvious reasons I keep doing it. Bowie was to the 70s what Prince was to the 80s. The 80s are my favorite musical decade, not because it’s when the best music was made, necessarily (I think there’s amazing stuff happening now, when the music industry is in disarray and no one is quite sure how to market anything anymore), but it’s when my favorite music was made. For better or worse, MTV curated music for a generation’s childhood, often sanding the edges off genres like rap and metal so they could sit side by side with electropop and gothrock and ska. And though Prince is always a genre unto himself, he also helped define the sound of that decade: electric, rhythmic, vivid, optimistic, direct, unpretentious, sexy, universal.
Bowie, even at his best, is a little hard to listen to. A little odd and thorny, austere and severe, noisy, challenging. I’m not sure where we get the idea that music should be “challenging.” But maybe it’s what you settle for when you’re not Prince. It’s not to say his stuff never makes demands; there are some stretches of the album 1999 that seem oddly stressed-out, the occasional track like “Sister” that seems incongruously uncomfortable with itself, songs like “Sign O’ the Times” where there is (to state the obvious) a point to make and it’s not a pleasant one. But on the whole, his songs generally don’t want to hurt you, they just want you to have some fun, and I can’t really think of anyone who’s been better at helping us accomplish that goal.
I never got deeply into Prince the way I got into my other obsessions — Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Robyn Hitchcock, the Cure, the Smiths, all those “challenging” white musicians. He was just there, being unique, throughout my childhood. I loved the Burton Batman movie and I loved his soundtrack for it; I still think it’s a hugely underrated record, hard to take seriously given its provenance but thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. I mostly paid attention to his hits (with the exception of Sign O’ the Times, an album I listened to over and over when it came out) until I started backtracking and collecting the albums. I stopped paying too much attention after Emancipation, a pretty big sprawl to digest and one of the last albums to show up in a traditional way. I still own hardly any of the many multi-disc sets that came out after that, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy them at the time; maybe I felt “challenged” by the sheer volume. Apart from a brief resurgence of interest after I met a couple of big fans (and I wish I had spent more time hanging out with them when we lived closer, not just because they’re two of the coolest people I know but because they probably also have the best Prince stories of anyone I’ll ever meet), I didn’t keep up. The strange and random-seeming releases, the Jehovah’s Witness stuff — Prince had always seemed a little mysterious and unknowable to me and now I despaired of ever getting a handle on him as an artist. Instead I spent more time with — yep — Bowie-influenced Britpop, which today is still good but feels like a bit of a dead end.
That’s why Prince never got a full entry in this project; I was too young to appreciate him at the time. He was just there, in the background, making incredible, eccentric, unpredictable music. And when he started becoming challenging to follow, I was too old to appreciate him — too into the idea, unconscious but pervasive, that music had to be a little painful to be worthwhile and important. Now, when I am finally the exact age to appreciate music that is nothing more or less than inexhaustibly creative and unbelievably smooth and perfectly executed and utterly original, the expression of a unique intellect, both that music and that intellect have come to a complete stop. It seems unfair. It seems like exactly what I deserve, for not getting there soon enough.
Except it’s not a complete stop. If I can track them down, I have a few decades worth of albums to explore, and just the stack I already own can be (probably will be) on repeat for weeks more without getting old.
I saw him live once, in Oakland a few years back. Only once. But it was so much more than zero. Sometimes you make do with the time you had.