Back when they still built towers out of bricks and compact discs, I used to frequent a popular record store, one block from my performing arts high school, on 66th and Broadway. It was the laid-back kind of place you could get lost in for hours, and I did. See, in those days, I was rehearsing for inevitable heartbreak (didn’t boys always graduate from breaking toys to breaking more fragile things?). And because my kind of melancholy didn’t just bloom on its own — it had to be watered and then deprived of just enough light — I needed a soundtrack for the sadness.
I found it one day in a collection of Prince songs.
Prince: The Hits 1 and its "dirty" companion, The Hits 2, had been released back in 1993 while the "Pop Life" singer was under contractual duress and reportedly eager to sever ties with his major-label overlords at Warner Bros. The pair of volumes were rounded out by the essential B Sides, which included tracks of the titular type, as well as rare or previously unavailable ones. Not that any of this origin story mattered to me.
I was hundreds of miles from a Tower Records by the time the sting of rejection finally caught up to me. My college boyfriend broke up with me so suddenly it only fully registered when he passed me, days later, on the campus quad and waved casually without stopping. Everything sounded different after that. In the darkness of my dorm room, Prince, waiting by the phone, howling, “How come you don’t call me anymore?” brought me to my knees.
Suddenly, there was urgency in the percussion of "I Would Die 4 U"; and it echoed in his "chicka-chicka-chicka"'s. I would forgo eating during dining hall hours and fall apart to the plaintive “ple-eea-ease” of "If I Was Your Girlfriend."
The pop icon's catalog wasn't new to me though. He'd long been in my consciousness, flirty and winking at me from a bed of clouds in the "Raspberry Beret" video, for instance. One summer, our parents shipped my brother and me off to the Montreal home of a second cousin, whose teen daughters my mom hoped would turn our conversational French fluent. I slept in a bedroom papered with magazine tear-outs of Prince in seductive poses, his chest hair peeking out from under bolts of velvet and chiffon.
Still, I didn't truly listen to Prince, take a full inventory of his hits until that heartbreak came looking for me with all of the precision of a heat-seeking missile.
But the Minneapolis-bred multi-instrumentalist didn't just give voice to my nagging loneliness — "It's been so lonely without you here: I'm like a bird without a song," he sang on "Nothing Compares 2 U" — Prince also affirmed my yearning. On "I Wanna Be Your Lover," he declared, "I wanna be your brother, I wanna be your mother and your sister too/ There ain't no other/ That can do the things that I'll do to you."
It took years, admittedly, but I eventually got over the boy. I got over the idea that love had to be total surrender — the kind of blind adoration that makes you tell someone, "You own my heart and mind." I got over the fantastical notion that the only devotion was a coat of pink cashmere made by my man. But I never got over Prince.
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