Becca Balint: Prince's artistry and complex sensibilities


I was terribly saddened to hear of Prince's sudden death last week. The rock virtuoso collapsed at his Minnesota compound, Paisley Park, after a bout with an undisclosed illness. In the days following the death of another musical phenom, Michael Jackson, I recall someone in the Jackson entourage telling the press that "The King of Pop" had been obsessed with getting enough deep sleep; he feared that if he didn't, his talent would pale in comparison to Prince's genius. Although tragic that the extremely talented Jackson was haunted by this worry, it is easy to understand why he fretted.

Prince was not only a consummate musician, at times playing every single instrument on his albums, but was also a cultural phenomenon. His flamboyant clothes and makeup gave many men and women in the 1980s permission to think about gender identity long before we had the language to talk about it. Prince also exuded sex and sexuality and blended them masterfully with ideas about religion and spirituality. A devout Jehovah's Witness, he was allegedly a teetotaler and a health food fanatic. He didn't so much bend the rules of rock and roll as destroy them; he could simultaneously evoke both God and sexual urges without shame. In his music, sexuality became an extension of his celebration of faith, an affirmation of life and love.

At an astonishing performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Prince performed "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with an all-star cast that included Tom Petty and George Harrison's son. Prince's solo was otherworldly in its complexity and beauty, and he tested the boundaries of his faith in both his own talent and in his audience. In the midst of the ethereal guitar solo, he leaned back over the edge of the stage and allowed an audience member to catch him. The man then gently lifted Prince back onto the stage. Prince did not stop playing for an instant. He seemed to be both completely present in his experience and simultaneously connected to the entire world outside his own body. He understood that the music, the performance, and the experience itself were beyond just him; he wanted his impact to have ripples.

In the midst of my mourning over Prince's untimely death, wooden presidential candidate Ted Cruz was in the last throes of his ill-fated campaign. Cruz had not yet begun his shameless trolling for the "woman vote" by picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate. He was still focused on fighting the culture wars. While Bernie and Hillary duked it out over substantive issues, Cruz decided to jump into the fight in North Carolina over transgender identity and bathroom use.

This prompted a friend to post a social media quip that suggested everyone should just start hanging Prince's "Love Symbol," a character that merges the male and female signs, on bathroom doors and just be done with it.

The unpronounceable symbol that is now synonymous with Prince, was born out of a contract fight with his record company in the early 1990s when it wanted to slow the release of new Prince material. Prince designed the character, which he later copyrighted as "Love Symbol #2" and began using it instead of his name. For years the media referred to him as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," and he was the butt of many late night talk show jokes.

But the powerful symbol endures. This week North Dakota farmer Gene Hanson cut the gender-inclusive symbol into his corn field in homage to the musician he greatly admired. Prince and his artistry and sensibilities have reached Middle America.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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