Everyone grieves in their own way. Some people mourn outwardly – flocking to the scene of the icon’s last days, legitimizing how they feel by garbing themselves in concert t-shirts, crying openly as the first reverbs of a favorite song come through the speakers – while others show their sadness through quiet appreciation, sharing memories of the first time they heard that one song, or simply remaining silent, because it’s their way. But to judge someone as a fan, or a “true” fan, based on these either open or closeted reveries actually dishonors the genius and talent, the magnitude and reach, of the legend.
Art is highly subjective. One song can have 100 different meanings to 100 different people. And by extension, one song can mean the world to a person while others need to know every single note from the entire discography to feel like they are legitimized as fans. In my opinion, so long as the artist impacted you, either through a single moment or an entire lifetime of moments, you are a fan.
Art is meant to be appreciated. It is meant to be passed on from generation to generation. To live in perpetuity. To gain new fans as years pass while remaining a comforting blanket for those who were there at the beginning. And not every fan can be there at the beginning. Some weren’t even born yet. But to diminish new appreciation is to dishonor the memory of the legend. To claim people as posers for discovering their love of a song twenty years after its advent, or even in the wake of the legend’s death, is ridiculous, and shows only a truly warped view of art itself. So long as someone is impacted, in any form or capacity, by the importance of not just the public persona and artistic vision, but also the presence and indelible reach, of an artist, they are a fan. And to diminish someone, to put their fandom on a gradient, says more about your own insecurities than it does about how devoted you were to the artist.
It’s sad that whenever a legend dies, these arguments and accusations always arise.
The first time I heard Prince, well honestly, I can’t remember. I know I had a dance teacher who loved Purple Rain (the movie), so we’d occasionally do opening stretches to “When Doves Cry”. The first time I remember listening to, or truly hearing, that same song was at a middle school talent show. Something about the opening guitar riff puzzling together with the drumbeat caught my attention. It built the same way the opening lines in a story build, somehow complex yet simple, completely shrouded and hinting at something bigger.
When the song ended and the dancers left the stage, I craved another listen through. The song has an addictive beat. Weaving together a drum machine, synthesizer, and guitar with compounding vocals, a listener can be acutely aware of the different parts, yet never deny the seamless production. When I listen to this song it becomes a unique network of puzzle pieces that create a mosaic picture, like stained glass in a church. Which is apt, because every time I listen to this song it feels holy.
This was my introduction to Prince’s musical genius. It was the first time I grasped the idea that music can be a higher form of art, like paintings in museums. He altered my worldview of what it meant to be a musician and tore down the imagined boundary between cultural music icon and true artist. I began to understand music differently.
Prince never really came back into my rotation until college. Although he helped me realize music and art were one and the same, I struggled and questioned the difference between artistry and musicianship, appearance versus reality. If someone sings a song that was not written by them, can you respect them as a musician? Or are they some type of sugary confection thought up by the music industry meant solely for record sales (mind you, this was during the pop-explosion of the early 2000s, where saying you liked groups like Backstreet Boys or N’Sync somehow equated to being a music neophyte who didn’t know shit about true talent). Eventually I learned there is importance in every nuance of preformance, from vocal talent to production, even if the same song has some truly horrible and conflicting aspects, because importance is derived from how it influences the listener.
I had, and still have, a widely diverse music collection. But unlike today, I was embarrassed by some of the artists whose CDs I bought and routinely listened to. My social group was dominated by music lovers who believed singing over a track of someone else’s creation was something akin to murder. Or to gain notoriety was selling your soul for a monetary pay-out that left you creatively void. And as a high schooler, the need for acceptance outweighed and overrode the desire to expand my musical collection in as many directions as I could. To this day, high school is the magnificently single-minded era of my life in terms of my musical exploration.
Sophomore year of college I decided to throw myself into discovering the great’s of the past. I grew up listening to the oldies stations in the car, playing tapes of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals on road trips, dropping off to sleep with Yanni, and cleaning house on Saturday’s with everyone from Johnny Cash to Neil Diamond and Simon and Garfunkel on our old record player, which meant I had one era virtually undiscovered: the 80s.
This is when Prince came back. I remembered “When Doves Cry” and put it on a playlist. When my ex-boyfriend asked why I didn’t have more of his music, I shrugged thinking I had touched upon his genius and that was enough, he had been discovered and revered by me. What else could Prince offer?
Ultimately, though, I hadn’t scratched the surface. Prince had far-reaching influence. He was a prolific song-writer, creating some of the 80s and 90s most memorable hits (Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U”, Madonna’s “Love Song”, and The Bangles “Maniac Monday” to name a few). By the time Sophomore year came to a close, I had listened to “Kiss” at least once a day while getting ready for classes; dancing around my room to the funky beat, lip synching and pretending I could sing in that falsetto. “Let’s Go Crazy” had me jumping on my bed and playing the air-guitar, doing a two-step and twisting my hips. The up-tempo beat of “I Would Die 4 U” would cause me to grab a hair brush and lip-sync in dramatic 80s fashion.
Prince never really gained much traction on my rotation after that year. Occasionally I would put “Kiss” (my favorite song of his) on a random playlist, and it was never skipped (how could it, that beat is undeniably funky and deserves attention). But ultimately he went into the annuls of my musical library. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t appreciated. Or lacked influence in my life. I cherish those memories. I respect the hell out of his genius. He altered my view of music as a form of art. In my opinion, he will always be one of the greats. And to honor his memory, I will rejoice when someone new discovers him, not condemn them for doing it after he dies, because in reality, we’re only at the beginning of his influence. He was here for 57 years, his music spanned four decades, but his influence will live on forever.