When the news came this afternoon that Prince had died at 57 at his home in Minnesota, a chorus went up that it was the latest cruelty of 2016, a year that already feels merciless in those it’s claimed, four months along.
But if the deaths of Prince, and Bowie, and Chyna, and Harper Lee taken together feel like a moment of catastrophic generational turnover, the loss of Prince and Bowie represent a more specific calamity. We’re in a moment in American politics consumed by gender panic, from Donald Trump’s menstrual anxieties to the rise of and backlash to a movement for transgender rights. And now we’ve lost two men who had an expansive, almost luxuriant vision of what it meant to be a man and lived out that vision through decades when it was much less safe to do so.
Both Prince and Bowie often seemed more than merely human. Bowie was an ageless vampire in “The Hunger,” a human manifestation of an alien being as Ziggy Stardust, the rock star from “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Prince left language behind to adopt what became known as the “Love Symbol” as his moniker; his death prompted many people to remark that mortality seemed like the only garment that didn’t fit him, that he had transubstantiated or ascended rather than truly died.
But if conventional notions of gender were only one of the things that didn’t constrain Bowie and Prince, their transcendence of this particular category is still a particularly significant part of their legacies. In the clothes they wore, the lean bodies they lived in, the way they positioned themselves in their music and art, their relationships to LGBT communities and in so many other ways, Prince and Bowie were living arguments that there is no one way, and no correct way for a man to dress, to move, to decide what he values, to choose who he loves or where he stands in relation to that person.
And that transcendence and transgression weren’t just about what Prince and Bowie did in their own lives; it was in what they made other people want to do to them. Mick Jagger may have had an affair with David Bowie, but everyone wanted to sleep with Prince, even when they didn’t want to want him.
The critic Hilton Als began his 2012 essay in Prince in Harper’s with a long recounting of a 2002 stand-up comedy special from Jamie Foxx that gets at the sexual panic Prince inspired. In the joke, Foxx talks about going backstage at a Prince show, looking in the Artist’s eyes, and trying to manage his own reaction: first, denying that what he felt for Prince made him gay, then insisting that if they had sex that Foxx would be the active partner.
Fourteen years ago, when Foxx aired that routine, marriage equality wasn’t yet the law in a single state, much less the settled law of the land. Foxx’s special was just three years removed from the trial of Aaron McKinney for the killing of Matthew Shepard, where McKinney’s lawyers tried to use a so-called “gay panic” defense. And Prince had been inspiring that sort of unease for decades.
There are wry notes of regret in Als’s essay, about the choices Prince made to become famous and when he became famous, about the sacrifice of “the girl Prince had been before he stopped being a girl: outrageous and demanding.” But even when Prince stepped onto larger, more mainstream stages, his presence could still be radical.
It’s true that in recent years, the Super Bowl halftime show has often been a showcase for women in the midst of a clash between men. Madonna, trying to make what was once seem daring relevant in a changing culture; Katy Perry’s schlocky self-coronation; Beyoncé’s transition from packaged pop as part of Destiny’s Child to militant excellence as a solo artist. But if these performances act as an argument that men and women can each be powerful in their own spheres and on their own terms, Prince’s appearance on the Super Bowl stage in 2007 was an argument, at this particular worship service dedicated to traditional masculinity, for a vastly huger range of possible ways for a man to command the nation.
What other person could take that very particular stage in a head wrap and end his performance with his guitar posed as a symbol of male sexual virility — which, of course it was — silhouetted on a giant scale and make it all feel like an effortless, coherent whole, without a hint of overcompensation? I adore Bruce Springsteen, but his crotch-first slide into a television camera two years later felt decidedly less vital.
57 is awfully early for anyone to die, but it feels especially so for Prince; he never reminded us that he was growing older by trying to seem young. Now he’s gone before we could possess him as fully as he always invited us to. But we’ll continue on into the weirder, more beautiful world he seemed to be living in decades before the rest of us arrived there.