Sex confused me. It did many kids, in those shady years between sex being a vague idea spoken of in huddles of lowered voices on middle school playgrounds, and sex evolving into a real thing our peers were actually doing. The latter revelation struck my social clique possibly earlier than others: in the seventh grade, our group’s bouncy, pouf-banged leader was a blonde girl, originally from Georgia, with a charming Southern twang and impressive breasts for a 13-year-old. She liked a greasy popular boy who wore board shorts and kept his hair in the strange shaved-on-the-sides-but-with-a-round-cap-of-longer-hair-on-top style of the day.
She and this boy were “going out” in the way that freshly minted teenagers at our school interpreted the phrase; mainly it consisted of holding hands at lunch and getting dropped off at the movies by parents on the weekends. This boy, however, decided they should have sex. She agreed, and went to his house one day after school to make it happen. She called me later, crying. It hurt and it was weird and terrible. Why didn’t she wait, she asked me. I didn’t know. Distressed by her trauma, I wouldn’t have penetrative sex myself for many years, which was probably for the best, to be fair.
I grew up in the 80s, and was a teenager in the early 90s. Prince was a significant presence in the soundtrack of my youth; in my childhood particularly, he was unavoidable. I remember listening to my dad’s vinyl copy of 1999, poring over the record sleeve until I’d all but memorized every detail. What fascinates me now is that I spent so much of my youth thinking Prince was, well, normal — just one of many possible choices for how an individual might express oneself. It was only later that I began to really see him, and to really hear him, and to realize that something had changed; not in the music, which was the same as always, but in me.
It started elsewhere. At my first Tori Amos concert, at the historic Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach, Florida (the same place, curiously enough, where I would later attend my first midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), she told a story. Amos’ live-show stories were shortly to become legendary, but at the time, in the early 90s, not long after her first album had come out, I did not know what I was in for. All I knew was that I liked the woman I perceived to be a shy, misunderstood soul like myself, based on her music. I guess we always want to see some of ourselves in the art we are drawn to; we want to believe our most secret places are understood.
At any rate, she prefaced her cover version of Led Zepplin’s “Thank You” by talking about the first time she heard Robert Plant’s voice. She was young — twelve, maybe — in a friend’s basement, as I recall the story went, and the friend put this record on, and this guy begin to sing. And, Tori Amos explained, when she heard him, “My little thing…”– here she threw her knees apart and put both hands in front of her own crotch and waggled her fingers in a manner suggestive of convulsive waves — “…went TEEDLEDEEDLEDEEDLEDEEEE” — this was delivered in a loud, high-pitched squeal — “and I knew….” I didn’t register the few words she said next, before she turned back to the piano to play. I was too mortified, struggling to comprehend what had just happened. Did she…. I thought, …did she just WAG HER FINGERS OVER HER CROTCH like the music did something there? I was sixteen at the time.
It wasn’t so much the sex that perplexed me by then. I’d seen commercially-produced porn surreptitiously at the house of a friend whose father had a near-encyclopedic porn video library. The porn itself was a little off-putting, but it did clarify the mechanical questions I had, and it certainly removed any haziness as to how the act was managed. Rather, I was shocked by Amos’ forthrightness about her own early sex-feelings. Plus, that she openly drew attention to her between-legs sex-parts. I was scandalized. I couldn’t conceive of doing something like that. In public. On stage. As a girl.
But what really distressed me was that I didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t know what she meant by a voice on a record making her little thing go TEEDLEDEEDLEDEEDLEDEEEE. What did that sound even mean? How could a record do that? I had crushes by that time, many of them, but the act itself still seemed so odd, confusing, sloppy. I felt weird, broken. A late bloomer. I was a late bloomer, but what today seems like just a normal variance in adolescent development felt, at the time, very very bad. The friend I’d gone to the concert with seemed equally astonished, and she was far more sexually experienced than I was, having done the sex with two — TWO! — prior boyfriends. At least, I thought, I wasn’t alone in feeling at sea over Tori’s commentary.
Sometime not long after this, I was watching MTV late one night when the video for Prince’s 1986 hit “Kiss” came on. Though I’d seen it before, it had been a few years, and I was newly mesmerized. The video, if you’ve seen it, is fairly straightforward: Prince, clad in a tiny crop top, high heels and impossibly tight pants, dances with a veiled partner, and flirts with Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin.
There was a confidence in this man that I found intoxicating, but which I didn’t fully understand. It was magnetic. He had a comfort with his physical self that was so alien to me. He didn’t look like any other confident man I’d seen in my life, not the men who ran the government or the corporations or even the football players at my high school, the dudes who felt like they ran the world because they DID run the world, because their circumstances and privilege had empowered them to always believe they would be listened to and respected, and that they would have all the control and power they could ever want. Prince was a small, slender black man drawing off an unfathomably vast source of self-assurance to rival Lake Minnetonka. I wouldn’t understand all the context for why this was so important for a long time. But I saw it and was drawn to it nonetheless.
I was a fat white teenage girl from the suburbs of South Florida. I hated myself. So much. Prince’s fearlessness terrified and compelled me. I didn’t understand how he could be like that. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be who I was, and to know I was amazing, and to shine that confidence out to the whole world with such strength and forcefulness that even those people who would insult me, who would try to crush me, who would try to convince me I had no right to not only be seen but to revel in and celebrate myself, publicly, joyfully, without apology — that none of those lies could ever break through my faith in myself and my power.
Soon. I was riding the commuter train to my mom’s house for the weekend, wearing jeans and a t-shirt for some obscure industrial band, sitting with my Dr.-Marten-booted feet on the opposite seat, my forehead pressed to the cool glass of the window beside me, listening to my Walkman. I heard “Little Red Corvette.” I mean really heard it. Of course, I’d heard it before; as one of the very first videos by a black artist to be heavily featured on MTV, it was one of the most enduring hits of my childhood. But this time there was an intimacy to it; as the song jammed into my brain through my headphones, I listened, and all at once realized what the song was about. What it was really about. And I felt it.
I felt it.
Grappling with one’s own sexuality may be a quick thing for some, but for me it was a long-term process, one fraught with fear and uncertainty. I worried that I was gay. I worried that I was frigid. Most of all, I worried that I was unsexable, that no one would ever want me anyway, because I was fat. I worried worried worried, imagining one nightmare of broken loneliness after another. And then one day I heard a Prince song and woke up to the idea that sexuality doesn’t happen in a straight line, and I didn’t need to fear whether or not I would ever fit a simple label. And that what made a person attractive, sexually or otherwise, was both subjective and flexible — that anyone who swore never to be attracted to a person who looked a certain way was just putting sad limitations on himself. Sure, I was fat, and sure, lots of people would make cruel assumptions about me on that basis — but I could change the world, even in a small way, just by living my life passionately in love with myself. Prince was showing me the way. I only had to follow.
I can’t pretend to be the biggest Prince fan ever. I’m not a completionist. Truth be told, my deepest feelings of connection with his work sputter out in the early 90s. Still, if we’ve had the conversation, you’ll know I am incapable of watching the end of Purple Rain without sobbing. Every time. Because in those final scenes, I see that struggle, the struggle I knew, the struggle to be yourself in a world that may not embrace it. Prince, in his role as The Kid, is wracked with fear and doubt. His life at home is as bad as it’s ever been, his father has almost succumbed to depression, his career in music is on the verge of falling apart before it’s really began, and The Kid feels lost and hopeless. He steps onstage to play the title song anyway, in a performance that could rip your soul from your body. And as the song ends, he literally runs away — from what he expects to be the derision of the crowd, from the tension with his bandmates, from himself — he runs backstage, out the rear door of the club, runs to his motorcycle, until he realizes, just before driving away, that the crowd isn’t laughing at him. They’re cheering. They’re cheering.
You take a leap, and sometimes you fall. But sometimes you soar. And some rare magical individuals stick around to teach others how to fly. Prince’s work is a lesson in how not to compromise on who are are, on the things that matter. How to be true. It’s lesson we need, today more than ever. You better live now. Live now.