Minnesota, Year Zero

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Window of Blue Bicycle Antiques, Saint Paul, Minnesota. April 27, 2016.

Hello. We’re Minnesota. Prince lives here.

Or rather, he did. As you all know, Prince departed last Thursday. It has been a long week here. A long, mournful, celebratory, confusing, contradictory week. Minnesota has turned out in force to pay tribute to our favorite son, flocking to Paisley Park, to First Avenue, to jukeboxes and message boards and anywhere we can tune in The Current.

Now it is time to start trying to get back to normal. But we no longer know what normal is. Prince was our normal. And now we have no Prince.

This is not to say that Prince defined us. That would be giving us too much credit. Prince elevated us, whether we deserved it or not. Born in Minneapolis and at least a part-time resident of Minnesota for more than five decades, he could have gone anywhere but opted to stay here. He loaned us excellence. He should have been a living rebuke to white Minnesota, those of us of the Prairie Home Companion persuasion and convenient ignorance of most Minnesotans of color who weren’t playing at Target Center or the Metrodome. He could have moved along and left us lusting pitifully over his every sidelong glance, the way we do with Bob Dylan. Instead he not only stayed, but wove himself artfully into our DNA until it became impossible to imagine Minnesota without Prince or Prince without Minnesota. Other artists came from Minnesota. Prince lived in Minnesota.

For years, whenever an art-rock legend would die, people would make the same joke about how it was at least reassuring to know that David Bowie would live forever. And then David Bowie died and everyone made the same stunned comments about never thinking he could die, even though the jokes about his immortality were an obvious shield against the awful knowledge that he would, and possibly soon. With Prince it was different. Perhaps we did not truly think that Prince was an immortal, but the notion of him dying never even entered our minds. Prince would live to be 100, or something near it. That was simply a given.

There are many parallels to be drawn between Prince and Bowie beyond them dying in the same accursed half-year. Both achieved a near-flawless decade of artistry, Bowie in the 1970s and Prince in the 1980s. Both trampled over established gender norms with abandon. Both spent memorable time in the company of Muppets. But when Bowie died, I told my son about the songs that he wrote, the brilliant arrangements and clever lyrics and what they had meant to me in my life. Since Prince died, I’ve found myself telling my son about who Prince was, the things he did not just as an artist but as a risk-taker, an innovator and a human being. How he waged a battle against the record companies and won, how he changed his name to a symbol just to mess with the people who tried to control him, how he showed up on stage wearing things he was Not Supposed To Wear, how he dominated the basketball court in a blouse, how he lived his art on his own terms but maintained his basic human decency.

And, of course, how he remained a loyal Minnesotan who every now and then invited us all to come hang out at his place and watch him play music. He’d seemed to be in a good mood these past several years, throwing impromptu bashes for the public out at Paisley Park, playing the ambassador and inviting visiting artists who impressed him out to the estate, hosting a private celebration for our perennially undervalued WNBA team when they brought another championship home to a largely indifferent public. Going to Paisley Park felt momentous for the average Minnesotan, certainly. There was no question that we were in the presence of greatness, party to something special that people who didn’t live here could never experience or understand.  But it was also something friendly, intimate. Prince seemed comfortable moving among us in these past few years, right at home in every meaning of the phrase. I won’t call it a perfect symbiosis, because I believe we needed him more than he did us, but it was certainly a mutual support system.

And now part of that system is gone and the rest of us are left here trying to keep a delicate structure from collapsing. When the mourning has passed and the shops have taken the purple balloons out of their windows and the midnight screenings of Purple Rain have made way for another round of The Room, we will still be here, and we will be all the lesser for his absence. Yes, we still have an astonishing network of in-state artists, one that I would put up against nearly any metro in the nation. But for all of the Lizzos and Doomtrees and Rhymesayers and Mark Mallmans and Black Diets and Maria Isas and Mujah Messiahs and even 3rdEyeGirls keeping our clubs jumping and our hearts pounding, none of them compares to Prince. They’re brilliant Minnesota artists, but they’re not Minnesota’s Artist.

There’s a great old Atmosphere song extolling the virtues of Minnesota living where his pitch to outsiders boils down to “Prince lives here / We’ve got 10,000 lakes.” And that is how people outside the Midwest see us: It gets super cold and Prince is from here. Certainly there are blips on the radar now and then – Jesse Ventura, Fargo, Michele Bachmann – but for the past three decades we have been defined by atrocious winters and Prince. And now we have only the winter. We’ve been left standing alone in a world that’s so cold.

The legacy will live on to be sure, but no more will we keep our weekend plans tentative in case of a surprise Paisley Park party. There will be no more ecstatic tweets from music lovers who spot a lithe and unmistakable figure slipping out of Electric Fetus. We will read no more interviews with visiting celebrities still starstruck after being invited to a private audience with our most desirable dignitary. And of course, no more will we try to convince our skeptical friends that this new Prince album is really, really good. We’ll still shiver through the winters and head up to the lake in the summers and enter each sports season with a sense of optimistic dread, but there will be an undefinable hollowness lurking behind all of it. We’ll smile when the lilacs begin to bloom every April, and then sigh a little as we watch them turn the landscape purple.

Hello, we’re Minnesota. Prince lives here.

In a way, he always will.

But only in a way.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for putting words down so eloquently to how so many of us feel about Prince. You truly captured it beautifully.

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