I’m certainly not alone in this, but I was rocked by Prince’s passing last Thursday. I saw the TMZ tweet bubble up in my timeline and thought, “no, that can’t be right.” But it was. Ever since that tweet, I’ve been listening to his music non-stop, and watching the tributes to him by artists of all genres, ages, ethnicities and genders. Friday morning I had to get up early to catch a train, and reading news stories about the worldwide outpouring of emotion while I listened to every Prince song on my laptop made me cry on Amtrak.
I’ve spent the weekend trying to articulate what it was that made Prince so important to me, and I think what I’ve settled on is this: Prince was the first artist in my life who made it okay for girls not to be “nice.”
In the small town that I grew up in, being a “nice” girl was super-important. In the Catholic family that I grew up in, being a “nice” girl was the only acceptable option. Even my Jersey Boy hero Bruce Springsteen made it pretty clear back then that you could go ahead and have premarital sex if you wanted to—but that was only gonna end with an early marriage at the end of your dad’s shotgun, and a husband who worked in a factory while he dreamed about driving fast all night.
Not Prince, though.
Prince sang about loving women who were fucking people other than him, or who were fucking people in addition to him, or who had left him and were fucking someone else AND HE STILL LOVED THEM.
Prince made it okay for women to have sexual and romantic lives that were just as complicated as male heroes have always had. We didn’t have to be virgins to be loved. We could have multiple partners, and they would love us. We could have side jawns—hell, in “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” Prince sounded sorta like he was okay with being a side jawn!
It wasn’t just the lyrics though—it was the women he surrounded himself with, publicly. They were beautiful, and sexy, and sophisticated and complex, and he treated them with respect. They weren’t “nice girls,” in any definition of nice girls that I grew up with—and nobody wanted them to be, especially not Prince.
It made me think, “I don’t have to be a nice girl either. And people will still love me.” No wonder his band was called the Revolution. Helping to break down those stereotypes, and the associated walls inside the minds of girls and women everywhere was a truly revolutionary act.
In the wake of Prince’s death, the beginning of Auden’s poem “Funeral Bone” has been running through my head*.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
That’s not right, though. We can’t celebrate Prince by stopping clocks, and certainly not by silencing our pianos. We have to make a joyful noise, to say we’ll keep living till we’re done. And maybe we won’t be “nice,” but we will still be loved.
*I don’t know why Auden is my go-to poet for sadness, I just know that he is.