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It was 1994, and TLC had just released a little album called CrazySexyCool that turned my entire tweenager identity upside down. I can’t prove it, but to say that every fifth-grader at Brookwood Elementary School played this album on repeat for two solid years wouldn’t be a stretch. Before I discovered OutKast and A Tribe Called Quest (and well before my rebellious Wu-Tang years), there was TLC.
On this flawless, tween-appropriate album, there was one track that my junior high-bound cohorts would always skip, track 11: “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”
“Eew this song is so weird. Fast-forward it!” my BFF Adriene would say. The album was our summer soundtrack while jumping rope in her driveway, and that track was on side two of the scuffed cassette tape (yes: cassette tape).
But my 10-year-old self had a secret: I liked this song. In fact, I LOVED it. T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli’s wispy vocals oozed sensuality — a sound my innocent young ears hadn’t registered until then. Oh, and the lyrics? Much more interesting than my candy-coated Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson records:
If I was your girlfriend
Would you let me dress you
I mean, help you pick out your clothes
Before we go out
Not that you're helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein' in love's about.
Prince Rogers Nelson died yesterday at 57. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was, in fact, the second single off his genius Sign O' the Times album, released in 1987. I played this track, like I so often do, yesterday morning. And as news spread of his death later that day, I felt gutted, like I’d lost a relative.
I didn’t know it at age 10, but the beauty of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is its simplicity and relatability. Over the years, I’ve been both a needy, jealous lover, smothering my guy with similar “would you let me dress you?”-type questions, and the woman who pays more attention to her girlfriends than to her guy. Love is complicated.
My Prince appreciation was a slow build. I’d heard about his name change to a symbol and knew that the media once affectionately referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Which was — to use Adriene’s word — weird. He became the punch line for many a late-night TV host and simply didn’t fit in with my hypermasculine Method Man, Nas, and Tupac Discman preferences. To put it plainly, he was a Black man who bucked conventional notions of masculinity. And then, to further provoke us, he put his raunchy, eccentric sexual prowess on full display. Prince was out of my league.
Then, as the Y2K frenzy approached, I grew bored with his turn-of-the-millennium anthem, “1999.” Prince was my parents’ music, not mine. The 5-foot-2 vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who ruled the '80s had become comedic fodder for the new millennium’s strict gender binary. The man wore ruffled shirts.
But that soon changed. It wasn’t until I watched his cult-classic film Purple Rain late one night on TBS when I was 16 that I dreamt of running away with The Revolution. Circus shmircus. Obviously, the TBS version of the film cut out the more risqué stuff — like that scene when a topless Apollonia Kotero is left to fend for herself after purifying herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka. It’s still a trippy film to watch, but the best part, of course, is the music. It was Prince at his finest, peak Prince. His Royal Badness. His Purpleness. And here I was, a teenager, enjoying my parents’ music. The Oscar-winning score struck me as odd and emotionally raw. This wasn’t the first time I'd heard the title song, but it was the first time I paid attention to the lyrics and to the keys (the benefits of being a choir kid). I was now mindful of every chord and lyric of the 8:41-second track:
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted to see you laughing
I only wanted to see you
Laughing in the purple rain
By the time I got to college, my fandom was full-blown. After ditching groups of friends who dubbed Prince a “weirdo,” I settled into an art school crowd that appreciated him for what he was: one of the most important artists of all time. He gave zero fucks about labels, a lesson we all could have benefited from in high school. And at a time when many seem hellbent on amassing “likes” and “followers,” it’s a lesson we need to remember for the future. He defied gender and genre norms in an industry that values marketability, not individuality. He was proudly androgynous and oozed libidinous energy. He wore what he wanted: assless chaps, heels, pirate blouses, Speedos. Everything was fair game. Prince taught me at a young age that that dreaded word, weird, was just another pointless label. He wasn’t merely a musician, he was an artist. His Royal Badness’ ability to flourish in eras when hypermasculine genres, like punk and hip-hop, dominated the charts, is an accomplishment to say the least.
Legends are not born. We create them. We learn the lyrics to their music and watch their films on repeat. We memorize excerpts from their books and buy reproductions of their artworks to hang above our desks. We lift them to mythological heights. And that’s perfectly fine. This Twitter user summed it up nicely:
The mourning is real. For me and millions of fans, it doesn’t get any better than Prince Rogers Nelson. And between the passing of Bowie and one of Prince’s protégés, Denise Matthews (a.k.a. Vanity), 2016 can just end already.
But like every legend who’s come before him, Prince has left a trail of music and moments to remind us just why he’ll live on, somewhere in another freaky-funky dimension.