When Prince died last week, my Facebook feed filled with tributes, memories, videos, songs, and pictures. For me and many of my peers, Prince was part of our formation - a soundtrack in middle school, high school, college, as we developed our identities and personalities, not to mention our musical preferences. One of the best things about Prince was the example and permission he gave people to be weird - to step out of the ordinary and expected, to embrace the things that make them unique and special, to change and reinvent and push boundaries and explore. It is a message that we need to hear, as we are confronted over and over with advertisements and media that push us to fit in, to conform, to buy and wear and use the things that everybody else is buying and wearing and using.
While I love Prince, I am by no means a super-fan, so if you're looking for an in-depth discussion of his music and influences, this is not it. There are however, two Prince songs that I associate with particular points in my life and that have particular significance to me. Both are from the album "Sign O' The Times." Neither of them rank among his most popular (or at least the ones that are all over my Facebook feed), but I commend them both to you.
One is "Starfish and Coffee" - a song that I will forever associate with college. I went to Carleton College (in Minnesota, of course) and the men's a capella group did an amazing cover of this song. It's rather silly, almost a nonsense song:
It was seven forty-five we were all in line
To greet the teacher Miss Cathleen
First was Kevin, then came Lucy, third in line was me
All of us were ordinary compared to Cynthia Rose
She always stood at the back of the line
A smile beneath her nose
Her favorite number was twenty and every single day
If you asked her what she had for breakfast
This is what she'd say
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine
And a side order of ham
If you set your mind free, baby
Maybe you'd understand
Starfish and coffee
Maple syrup and jam
If you want to hear Prince sing it himself, I heartily suggest his appearance on The Muppets Tonight (the sketch and song start at about 5:30 on that link). I love this song not only because of the awesomeness of the Knights version and the way it reminds me of college, but also because of its silliness, its randomness, and the way it celebrates the marriage of completely unrelated things - starfish and coffee, butterscotch clouds and ham, roller derby and bat biology and ministry.... oh wait, that last one was me. As someone who may not necessarily fit into a nicely defined box, I love Cynthia and her different-colored socks (seriously, you should listen to the whole song). I love her comfort in her uniqueness and just the joy of the whole thing:
Cynthia had a happy face, just like the one she'd draw
On every wall in every school
But it's all right, it's for a worthy cause
Go on, Cynthia, keep singin'
The other Prince song that I often think of is completely different (again, one of the great things about Prince is how many different styles he incorporated in his music). It's a minimalist arrangement most of the way through, quiet and understated, and the theme is not necessarily something that you expect from Prince:
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don't cry, he is coming
Don't die without knowing the cross
Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There'll be bread for all of us
If we can just bear the cross
Sweet song of salvation
A pregnant mother sings
She lives in starvation
Her children need all that she brings
We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross
I don't have a link for this one - Prince was famously protective of his music, so unless there's a performance video, it's hard to come by online, but it's totally worth the $1.29 to download it (some sites, like Amazon, label it "Explict," but it's not). Many people didn't know that Prince was a devoted Jehovah's Witness, even engaging in door-to-door evangelism as part of his faith (much to the surprise of some of those on whose doors he knocked).
When I was in high school and still fairly early in my own faith, this song was both challenging and comforting to me. Honestly, we United Methodists don't talk about the cross as much as we might. We prefer the teaching and healing that went before it and the empty tomb and resurrection that came after. But Prince's lyrics don't emphasize the blood and pain or the idea of substitutionary atonement or the "baggage" that some people attach to discussions of the crucifixion. Instead they simply remind us of the reality of the cross - the reality that Jesus Christ was human. Human not just in appearance but fully human. Human enough to feel pain and to suffer. And that through his humanness, Jesus bridges the gap between humanity and divinity. And that in our own humanness, we can be redeemed and restored by the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Thank you, Prince, for the lessons you taught, the music you made, and the weirdness you brought into our lives.
PS If you'd like to Party Like It's 1999 and help a good cause, check out PURPLE REIGNS ON PONCE - a Decatur tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson - this Friday, April 29th, 8pm-11pm. Come celebrate the artistic genius of Prince, and dance the night away at Anthony’s Pizza and Pasta Private Banquet Room (3155 E Ponce De Leon Ave, Scottdale, GA 30079). ADMISSION WILL BE LIMITED and must be reserved in advance. In lieu of a cover charge we are accepting donations. All profit will go to the Appalachia Service Project. To reserve your spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Best dressed will win a gift basket from Home Grown Decatur!!!