Prince and the (New Music) Revolution
I first heard Prince a summer or two before he released “1999” and hit it big. Back then, I went to a summer camp near Cheboygan, Michigan. Most of the kids came from Detroit and Chicago with a smattering from Cleveland, Indianapolis, and other spots in the Midwest. And most were Jewish. None, as far as I can recall, was African American. Each year, many of us would bring boxes of cassette tapes featuring our new favorite artists and songs. I know that I introduced many people to Squeeze the same year I heard Neil Young for the first time. The assortment of styles and genres you'd hear from tinny boom boxes across camp was very, very broad … or so it seemed.
But one summer, I recall three girls raving about this new musician from Minneapolis who, according to them, was the best thing they’d ever heard and the “next big thing”. I will admit that I didn’t love the songs they played for me. But I’ll also admit being intrigued because the music and lyrics were like nothing I’d ever heard. (And the girls were cute, so I was willing to listen to whatever they liked…) Certainly there was a world of difference between that new sound and the music most everyone else was playing. Add to that the idea of these three suburban Jewish girls raving about this genre-bending music from a black guy was … well, that was also new.
And that new sound and its crossover appeal, was a sign that music, musical styles, and listeners were moving into a new realm where what and who you listened to would be more defined by what appealed to you than where you were from or what you looked like.
So when Prince exploded a year or two later, his sound and popularity weren’t a surprise. I was ready. I was already listening to music far removed from what most of my classmates were playing. And it didn’t take many playings of songs like “Little Red Corvette” before all sorts of people were listening to all sorts of different genres and styles.
I never was a huge fan of Prince, but that was a matter of taste (though I absolutely love “Raspberry Beret”). Yet I always recognized him as a great artist, musician, and songwriter who played a very influential role for many other musicians.
The idea that both he and David Bowie, two artists who I think belong in a category almost all to themselves, should die within a few months of each other only reinforces the sense of loss to the musical and artistic communities.
But today, as I listened to several remembrances, my mind turned back to happy days in the woods of remote Michigan. And, in the end, isn’t the stirring of memory and emotion what music is all about?