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The Night Prince Walked On Water

The majestic flood that began at Super Bowl XLI in 2007 never stopped

“I remember [broadcast producer] Don Mischer said, ‘Put me on the phone with Prince.' Don said, ‘Prince, I want you to know it’s raining.' And Prince said, ‘Yeah, it’s raining.' Don said, ‘Are you OK?' and Prince said, ‘Can you make it rain harder?'”

—Bruce Rogers, production designer of the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show

And of course there was rain, as if summoned by the man himself. The elements favor some of us more than others. When we speak of Prince in Miami, at halftime of Super Bowl XLI, let us first speak of how nothing that fell from the sky appeared to touch him. How his hair stayed as perfect as it was upon his arrival, wrapped tight in a bandanna. All of my friends leaned close to the TV on that night and wondered how someone could play that hard, that furiously, in the midst of a storm. This was Prince, on a stage slick with rain, walking on actual water. There are moments when those we believe to be immortal show us why that belief exists. I will only remember Super Bowl XLI by what happened at halftime. Nothing before, and nothing after.

Many of us accept football’s violence, and the culture it breeds, because the game itself promises great rewards — a spectacular play, or the sight of men performing supreme acts of athleticism, at the very edge of impossible. Before Super Bowl XLI, it never occurred to me that a halftime show could exist that would upstage the spectacle on the field. There had been attempts, but often clumsy ones: the awkward cluster of Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, and Kid Rock in 2004; The Rolling Stones, in 2006, looking like they were fulfilling a long-held-off errand, like going to the DMV. Griping about the Super Bowl halftime show had become a sport itself, a bit of glee that could be had by everyone, even casual football watchers.

Then, out of the Miami rain in 2007, rose Prince. He could have played through a list of his hits that night, and we would have all been satisfied. He did play some, of course: a rendition of “Baby, I’m a Star” where he steps to the edge of the stage, pauses, and tells the crowd “somebody take my picture with all this rain.” But the surprise at the bottom of the box — the unexpected bonus tacked on to a paycheck — was the way “All Along the Watchtower” bled into the Foo Fighters’s “Best of You” right after that. The true joy in this for me, both at the time and every time I’ve watched it since, is the mastery and confidence with which he played these songs. Even when Prince wasn’t explicitly telling them, “I can do this shit better than you,” I imagine that most other musicians had to know it was entirely true. And there, for a moment, he reminded us. Prince, for all of his stoic mystery, never gave up on the element of surprise.

The crown jewel, of course, is what ended the performance: a glowing, towering performance of "Purple Rain." That moment forced me to imagine a world in which this was the Super Bowl itself. I saw all of the players, coaches, and cheerleaders bowing at the feet of Prince and going home, letting football take the rest of the night off in a show of respect. There are times when the night pushes against the clock and time slows down: when you lock eyes across the room with someone who you think you could love. When a football is thrown down a field and into an end zone where a mass of bodies await its descent. When Prince leans into a microphone and generously asks, “Can I play this guitar?” as if there could be anything other than one million affirmative answers. A sheet blowing up from the front of the stage until Prince is only a silhouette making beautiful noise. There is no moment like this one in any other halftime show, before it or since. Prince, only a shadow, putting his hands to an instrument and coaxing out a song within a song. And of course there was still rain, beads of it covering the camera lens from every angle, drops of it covering the faces of people in the front row, and still none of it visible on Prince himself. And of course there were two doves scattering themselves above Prince’s head when the sheet came down and he was whole, in front of us again, walking back to the mic and asking: “Y’all wanna sing tonight?”

Yes, Prince. This is the one we know all of the words to. Throw the microphone to the ground and walk away. We don’t need you now like we did in that moment, but we will remember it always. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to cast away another hero on the face of a flood that began on a Miami night in 2007 and never stopped. Dearly beloved, when the sky opens up, anywhere, I will think of how Prince made a storm bend to his will. How the rain never touches those who it knows were sent into it for a higher purpose. Dearly beloved, I will walk into the next storm and leave my umbrella hanging on the door. Please join me.

Prince on MTV: