Prince Is Dead, We Must Find Our Eyeliner And Keep Dancing

Feature image via Warner Brothers

A light, a glitter soaked electric purple sunbeam, has departed from the world. Prince has died at age 57.

TMZ first reported his death based on official reports that someone had died at his home. At 12:20, the New York Times published a two paragraph announcement with the promise of a full obituary to follow. The Times has pre-written obituaries for everyone who might conceivably die, but the world was not remotely ready for this vibrant, flamboyant, sexual and extraordinarily talented artist to go.

In a career that spanned 35 years, Prince vanquished the line between pop and rock ‘n’ roll, the distinction between words and punctuation marks, and the barrier between masculinity and femininity. He set a new bar for independence and creative control in the music industry. The black multi-instrumentalist embodied proof that the performative aspects of identity can be authentic, healing and radical. He created 39 albums, countless collaborations, a slew of identities. He broke every fashion rule and taught his fans to do it too.

At the youthful age of 57 and with no known medical conditions, he left us behind on this spinning rock to discover how to make the most of all he created. From his earliest tapes to his Record Store Day performance last weekend, Prince left behind an endless archive of music and videos, stories and ideas.

As Minnesota public radio station The Current streams Prince for nine straight hours, I can’t stop thinking about his clothes.

prince collage

I often find myself frustrated with a cultural insistence that androgyny means exclusively women who wear men’s clothes. Genderfuckery is so much bigger than button downs, but sometimes it’s hard to see more options in any kind of mainstream media or discourse. Most of what I know about how to wear my own gender in the world I learned from Prince — and David Bowie, Alan Cumming, Panic! At The Disco and Adam Lambert. Femme men are supposed to be an anomalous and shameful accident, so to own that experience is a glorious and beautiful act. As Riese put it once in response to mainstream femme-panic, “Fuck that shame. Fuck hiding who you are. Fuck even worrying that if you are an effeminate gay or straight man that you can’t play fucking Rambo one day and Angel Dumott Schunard the next.”

As a teen I marveled at men in eyeliner, men who wore pink and gold, men who strutted in heels. I was terrified of my own body, of femininity and of sex. I watched Prince videos and gained a window into the vastness of what those things can be. I don’t know what my gender is, and I don’t really know how to interact with other people not knowing what my gender is. I saw Prince and I realized it doesn’t matter, because I’m still me, and I’m still going to wear whatever clothes I decide were made for my body.

I can’t tell you much about Prince as human being. I’m not an expert, and he was an intensely private person. He was presumably straight and cis, and in 2008 he spoke about his Jehovah’s Witness faith and against marriage equality (though his PR team later disputed the homophobic quotes). The most personal thing I have seen about him online is the examination of his refrigerator contents — mostly mustard and Dunkaroos — shared in my queer and lez friends group text as we collectively mourned this loss. But Prince’s whole career was about transformation, exploration, and holding seemingly-contradictory ideas in balance. His performativity and explicitly deviant lyrics allow us to take what we see on the surface and simply accept it.

Prince’s fashion — his purple velvet jackets, skintight pants, heeled boots, coifed hair and spiritual symbols — don’t instruct us about the gender of Prince the man, just as his lyrics don’t actually tell us what kind of sex he was having. But his clothes, his lyrics, and his presence can inform our perceptions of who has the right to which clothes and of how masculinity and femininity can intertwine, if we will them to do so. Most importantly, no matter what he wore, he was always Prince: Instantly recognizable, endlessly desirable, and a singularly talented artist.

We have lost Bowie and Prince in the same quarter year, and I wonder what this means for the future of androgyny — who will we femme-hearted gender weirdos turn to for inspiration and assurance? I hope these losses will fuel, rather than dim, the louder vocalization of our collective, inalienable right to exist in our bodies in the world and make them look however we want them to look.

In the coming days, the internet will produce endless think pieces and personal reflections about Prince’s impact on art, fashion, sexuality and the music business. Few artists reached people the way Prince did, and we can only begin to imagine the rippling impact his legacy will create in the future. At the moment of his death, we should revel in all he gave us. We should dance, we should wear too much (and yet exactly the right amount of) eyeliner, and we should remember.

My most important Prince memory comes from one of the last times I went on a date with a straight man. He was fine, an unremarkable dude with decent taste in music. We were at my favorite honky tonk and the blues band started in on a cover of Purple Rain. Let’s dance! I implored. He didn’t move. You can’t sit down during Prince, I explained. He didn’t know the song and insisted he didn’t know how to dance to it, and I promised his body would show him the way. It didn’t work out because he didn’t want to get it. It dawned on me that I deserved more than basic. That moment proved to be a starting point for my discovery that the consequences on my soul of trying to normalize my gender and sexuality were enormous and that I was failing anyway.

Prince — the musician, the icon, the gender-bending dreamboat — taught me that the best and only thing I can be is exactly whatever I am. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else as long as it keeps me alive and sparkling.

In “7,” Prince sings:

I am yours now and you are mine
And together we’ll love through all
space and time,
so don’t cry.”

So I won’t cry. I’ll just turn up Purple Rain and find some ruffles.

Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a sometimes-heretical Presbyterian. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Adrian has written 140 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. This was lovely to read. Both Prince and Bowie were unabashedly themselves, and that has always been an inspiration to me. I hope that your wish comes true that these losses will inspire others to come out of the shadows and be themselves without apology.
    Prince was an extraordinarily talented and prolific artist. I’ve been smiling, dancing, laughing and crying throughout the day while listening to his music stream on my favorite radio station, kexp, that’s been paying him tribute since they got the news. Sharing his music and stories of all the ways he positively affected the world.
    Thanks, so much, @audreyfaye for writing this.

  2. “you don’t have to be rich to be my girl,
    you don’t have to be cool to rule my world.”

    As someone who is neither rich nor cool but loves his music, this lyric meant a surprisingly lot to middle-school me. I am sad.

    • Cody came out to the livingroom while this song was playing once and told me his favorite part was that Prince was only asking for extra time, he really liked that “respecting people got their own shit to do” sentiment

  3. First Bowie and now Prince. I haven’t commented on a post on Autostraddle in probably 2 years but this post compelled me to. I’m heartbroken. I always question myself a bit when it comes to celebrity deaths. Like, should I bet *this* upset? But then I say fuck it and let the tears fly. I’m just sad. So is my wife. His death really is a huge loss to so many people.

    • I saw this on tumblr that supports the feelings you and other people are having.

      I hate when people say “why are people sad over a celebrity dying?” Like shut tf up. Celebrities are in front of everyone. That means someone like Prince made the flamboyant Black boys feel good, he made music that made you feel like it didn’t matter what you looked like or what you wore as long as you were comfortable. His music was freedom, independence and comfort. Don’t you dare reduce someone as amazing as Prince who made ART that made the alternative Black kids feel cool, made the stressed feel free and women feel accepted just as they are down to just “being a celebrity.”
      http://kimreesesdaughter.tumblr.com/post/143174391986/i-hate-when-people-say-why-are-people-sad-over-a

      • Thank you for sharing this. It’s beautiful and so true.

        I got this from my cousin. He is so upset about Prince he actually left work early:

        Prince was one of those people that when you look at them you don’t see boy or girl, you don’t see black or white, you just see an individual with a revolutionary vision with an amazing amount of talent and you can’t help to admire and respect them.

  4. “You can’t sit down during Prince”

    This.

    I think that Prince, like Bowie, was so unapologetic in his gender presentation and so unapologetically weird, that he made space for the rest of us weirdos.

    I was also hoping AutoStraddle would post about this. Thank you.

  5. I’m so glad that Autostraddle has a post about this. Great piece, Audrey!

    I feel so conflicted about Prince; he absolutely gave my gay little heart flutters when I was in elementary school (as did Michael Jackson and David Bowie, sigh.)

    Growing up in a tiny town in northern Michigan, I glommed on to any hint of queerness. “Seven” is such a magical song, I used to play it over and over while reading sci-fi/fantasy books and dreaming about running away to another world with a slightly sadistic witch or elf or hobbit. (I wasn’t picky!) I still get a little tingly whenever I hear the song.

    But there’s also my sense that Prince was kind of a misogynist, homophobic jerk. It feels like a light went out in the world today, losing him, even though my enthusiasm for him waned as I got older and was able to find some less flawed, out and proud heroes.

    • Well said. I have a feeling I might not have liked Prince as a person, but his music and his art meant a lot to me growing up. In this case, he made it pretty easy to separate his life from his art by being so private.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever identified with someone elses words more than this statement…

    “I often find myself frustrated with a cultural insistence that androgyny means exclusively women who wear men’s clothes.”

    Thank you so much! As a rather femme trans woman who is still spending her work week in boy mode to prevent being fired, looking for little ways stay me… THANK YOU!

    • “still spending her work week in boy mode to prevent being fired, looking for little ways stay me…”

      I can relate to this so much, as I am in a very conservative work environment, and would love to be out but need my job. It’s tough, and I am also relating to Audrey “…the consequences on my soul of trying to normalize my gender and sexuality were enormous and that I was failing anyway.”

      *sigh*

      • I saw Purple Rain in the theatre the week it opened and was electrified. Went out and bought a purple/black checked shirt with faux-leather collar, a black nylon vest with thumb cuffs. It was the most Prince-ish outfit I could find in my rural northern Cal town. Was (still am) a cis straight male, but Prince showed me that my natural inclination to the feminine was okay–it required a bit of courage, but it also allowed me to reveal something true and personal. And maybe that is the mark of a great artist such as Prince: they redefine the world, throw open doors, and step forward with grace and confidence in a spirit of celebration and acceptance.

  7. So devastated that we have lost Prince as well as Bowie this year. The world is a much poorer place for their loss.

    Also – and please forgive me – I’m Australian, and I am always confused about the use of the term ‘button down’ – is this just a shirt?!

  8. When I opened up Google chrome a couple of minutes ago the their logo was purple, around it there was a rain animation. Outside it was raining and still is.

    I loved rococo men’s fashion for a long time and have always had a..dislike of David Bowie. So my only and favourite icon of femme androgyny is now dead.
    I’d put on my ruffle collar shirt or velveteen vest but I have to mess with materials that could stain for my final project.
    Probably will also listen to “The Show Must Go On” and “Who Wants to Live Forever” to fully marinate in the dead androgyny icons melancholy.

    • Also one of those few musicians that could turn a big national event’s dull little show into THEIR concert.
      A performer of that magnetic magnitude just doesn’t come around that often.
      Just dude…

  9. As a Minnesotan, as a femme, as a lost little queer trying to navigate the world, he was a flawed and flawless beacon for me. I’m still too shocked to cry because somehow the notion of his mortality just doesn’t make sense yet… Y’all, this is too much for me.

  10. “As a teen I marveled at men in eyeliner, men who wore pink and gold, men who strutted in heels. I was terrified of my own body, of femininity and of sex. I watched Prince videos and gained a window into the vastness of what those things can be. I don’t know what my gender is, and I don’t really know how to interact with other people not knowing what my gender is. I saw Prince and I realized it doesn’t matter, because I’m still me, and I’m still going to wear whatever clothes I decide were made for my body.”

    this was so lovely!

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