Obituaries refract cultural sentiments like sunlight through moving water. When Whitney Houston died, millions found themselves caught up in a sudden hagiography of a troubled talent who’s life stood as a proxy for the perils of adulthood. Beautiful, famous, talented, and tabloid fodder, Whitney’s death became a vehicle for people to allow themselves to experience grief from their own lives, even as a subset also sincerely mourned her passing. People understood her public trajectory even as they vicariously experienced its story.
David Bowie provoked something else. A genuine article, Bowie was less “of us” and more of a class of creatives who dazzles because they make up their own rules. Defying easy description, Bowie let us all know that he was operating in rare air and dared us to keep up. For the legions of fans who followed him, Bowie not only inspired us but captivated us, partially because he operated outside of normal cultural boundaries. He didn’t try to fit in. His personas, his sounds, his fashion sense, his diversity of artistic experiments distanced him as much as it made us look up in wonder.
But fame is funny. Without disparagement, Whitney was a great voice who’s personal story meant more to the culture than her handful of hits. Bowie spoke to something else. He dared us to wonder what we might create ourselves, while dazzling us with his own prodigious output and inventiveness and virtuosity. Fame and talent are not evenly distributed.
Prince was something entirely different, a member of the rarest of groups. Like Bowie he made up his own rules. Like Whitney and Bowie, he could also perform like a consummate pro. But Prince presented something else to the world. Full of dazzling talent, what really captivated decades of fans was that his own rules were abstractions of what we already knew about life. Prince didn’t introduce us to something we hadn’t considered. He simply did it better than most us imagined was possible. He showed us how to express what we wished we could express already. Where Bowie personified creatures from other planets, Prince was decidedly more Earthy, more human. Where Whitney suggested a glamorous pop comet illuminated by a handful of hits written by others, Prince transfixed us with a kaleidoscopically variable self-invention and creative output that never seemed to grow stale.
It’s impossible to think of Prince without considering a social dialogue that was years ahead of it’s time. He forced considerations of a post-racial world, a more flexible conversation about gender and sexual identity, a complicated relationship between a flamboyant public presence and an intensely, fascinatingly private life. Prince presented himself as an endlessly sexual being, practically goading his audiences (and detractors) to explain how a finite life could be anything else. The fact that his sartorial inventions never ceased to amaze with their nerve, verve, and invention take on their most striking aspect when we think of them as simply part and parcel of the larger whole. As flamboyant as the options in his closet, they never overwhelmed the show. Where clothes sometimes make the man, on Prince they were simply a smart, logical drape. Prince suggested a deeper id than others in the world around him, all human sensuality and life’s wriggling tension, governed by intensely disciplined practice, virtuosic standards, and a work ethic worthy of the most focused industrialist. In Prince we experienced the self actualized creative person we dreamed we all might be even if his style wasn’t our own. Bawdy, crude, outre, even absurd, Prince suggested that excellence could define its own existence without ceasing to consider what it meant to be alive. As he put it in an early song called UPTOWN, inspired by the eponymous Minneapolis neighborhood known for its bohemian style:
Now where I come from
We don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be
Our clothes, our hair,
We don’t care.
It’s all about being there.
It should not be overlooked that until his final day he made his home in the comparatively sleepy suburb of Chanhassen, Minnesota, located not far from Minneapolis. Loyal to his home state, the great irony of his flamboyant performance style juxtaposed against Minnesota’s Lake Woebegon reticence humanized him. Could he have built his recording studio on a sun dappled coast more well known for pop talent? Sure. Instead he steadfastly choose the frozen upper Midwest. For a guy who let it all hang out on stage while generally avoiding private spotlights, Minnesota accepted him for who he was, a hard working native son who had stuff to do during the day, just like everyone else in a traditional farming state. In Minnesota he was royalty to be sure, but royalty risen from a populace that largely supported him while he tried to find his own way in the world.
Perhaps that’s the best thing any of us might wish for.