Imagine you’re 14 and already suffering supercilious man-o-logues from IIT-bound boys, about the technical greatness of Pink Floyd. They didn’t need no education, but sorry, hafta run for my IIT-JEE coaching class.
Then, imagine you are 15 and right-on uncles who haven’t updated their coolness app since 1974, tell you how Bob Dylan has all the answers that ever blew in the wind. It takes a few years recover and then rediscover Dylan.
Then, imagine it is 1985, you are 16 and watching, like many middle-class Indian kids near a TV, the Grammy Awards. A magician’s handkerchief unfurls. Tina Turner growls What’s Love Got To Do With It. Cyndi Lauper tells you Girls Just Wanna Have Fun And Multicoloured Hair. And then you go, woah! because, when they told you one day your Prince would come, they never said he would be uncategorizably sexy and sometimes wear lace.
The reasons Prince was awesome are well noted. As he famously told Rolling Stone magazine, “Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn’t enough for me.” He evoked this polyphony in all registers — style, gender, dress, race, identity, sexuality — made into one fluid, sinuous whole through music, performance, but most of all, sexual-ness.
Prince sang about sex with precision, not euphemism. Sex did not stand in for misogyny, false idealization, revolutionary posturing or a gilded morality. It was sex as a human experience and it could be many things: hot, sweet, ambivalent, multifarious; the compound that bound our many identities into one multi-coloured, queer self. By not talking about sex, its individuality and diversity, people exercised invisible control on your ability to fully be yourself.
He did not bother to defy the bro-codes of sex and revolution. He simply made them irrelevant with a sexy flick of his tongue. It was Prince and the Revolution. Not the Revolution and Prince.
In 1993, Prince adapted a glyph, a mash-up of the male and female symbols, that he called “the love symbol”. It marked the beginning of his continuing war with Warner Bros against what he saw as control and defanging of artists by corporates.
That he used the metaphor of love, not self-aggrandizing cliches of revolution, typified his ability to defragment the political, personal, sexual and intellectual, so they were co-evolving versions of each other, not compartmentalized templates. In a world that sometimes does not even provide a box for you, here was the liberating embodiment of “look Ma! No boxes!” And by the love he made you feel, he showed you, being yourself could be a lovely thing after all.
That’s why grown-up people, myself included, are crying that Prince is dead. Remembering Prince is also about remembering the painfulness of not fitting in, not wanting to fit in, but not sure that was an option, and so resigning yourself to a life of not-quite-belonging. It’s to remember struggling with the implications of you can either be attractive or fat, funny or serious, arty or popular, gay or straight. The eyerolls about-why do you have to talk about things lesser things like love and sex in public, next to serious things like politics? Why must you put your own self in your films? Why must you be like you?
As an artist, Prince showed you did belong — to yourself. You didn’t have to squeeze into a dress that didn’t fit, for fear of rejection. You could have your red Corvette and your rain could damn well be purple and the world would make place for you.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com