Prince went to high school a few blocks away from my apartment at a public school called Central. It looked like every other Midwestern American high school, a rectangular brick mass on a slight incline with a pseudo-Gothic edifice to give it the illusion of dignity. It was bulldozed in 1982, a year after he graduated. Now it’s a nondescript park with a plastic playground in an altogether unremarkable neighborhood in South Minneapolis.
The visual biography of the American celebrity always starts out in the dun-colored mediocrity of Midwestern high schools. It’s an essential part of the rockstar narrative. You leave the soul-crushing boredom of your origins and come out into the bright lights of the Los Angeles stage where you can finally express to the world who you really are. Prince came from the same place as Axl Rose and Madonna and Michael Jackson: Parents, a neighborhood, a high school with a generic name. The bleaker it is, the better it is to reject. It’s one of the great mysteries of Prince that he never decided to reject it.
He would have had every right to do it; between the weather and the racism and the Lutheran guilt, there’s plenty to hate about Minneapolis. Nothing about this place fosters the birth of individuality and nothing encourages it to stick around once it’s survived its abortion. We live by an Americanized version of the Law of Jante here: stay nice, act decent, always remember the good of the whole. You can be yourself –this is America, after all– just don’t get too loud about it. I don’t know if there’s anywhere on earth that offers less of an opportunity to rebel than Minnesota. There’s plenty of repression to overcome, but the only reaction you’re going to elicit by acting out is a bunch of people looking away, embarrassed. There’s never any reason to touch anyone. There’s never any reason to shout.
There’s no reason to shout, and there’s not too much to shout about. We don’t have any landmarks here. We don’t have many stars. Bob Dylan left, F. Scott Fitzgerald left, Winona Ryder is Winona Ryder. We have The Replacements and Lifter Puller and Husker Dü, but those are only household names if you live in a certain kind of household. Prince was our one internationally recognized hero, but we could never really claim him because he never made any sense. He makes us feel kind of awkward: whatever he’s channeling has nothing to do with our conception of Minnesotan identity. The identity anthem of my youth, Atmosphere’s Say Shh starts off, “Well, Prince lives here / we’ve got 10,000 lakes”. Two inane curiosities that have nothing to do with what it means to live here.
There are two conventional portraits of Minneapolis. One, more or less the truth, is the one that you get from Fargo, a quiet, mostly repressed Northern city that’s usually dealing with the vague prospect of snow. The other is the one you see in Purple Rain, the neon-tinted city that somehow for a minute in the 1980s became the center of global culture. This time of year –and especially *this* year– it’s easier to believe the latter. The weather is nice. South Minneapolis is covered in the remnants of May Day celebrations. The skyscrapers are still lit up purple. For a couple months it’s possible to think that Prince was feeling some always-running vibe in the water here that the rest of us need an excuse to somehow eke out. Maybe he was onto something. Maybe Purple Rain is closer to the truth than I think.
I don’t know, Prince’s Minneapolis was never my Minneapolis. I’m a white kid from the Catholic city across the river. My Minnesota is the one that could produce Paul Westerberg and Craig Finn. It doesn’t understand anything sexual. It doesn’t know how to dance. It’s hard to express how unbelievable the all-night memorial dance parties outside First Avenue are from a Minnesotan perspective. Nothing like this has ever happened before. What could possibly get these people –my friends!– to dance in the streets on a weeknight? Where did all these kids come from who know the words to Darling Nikki? They definitely weren’t there the morning before when I checked my phone at work, read the headline out loud, and got a blink, a nod, and someone saying “yeah” in response.
I think that incongruity is the key to understanding our relationship, though. Nobody’s Minnesota is Prince’s Minnesota. Maybe some of the cool kids from the cooler blocks of South Minneapolis. Maybe the show-off-y types from ultra-repressed towns up north who get a Spoonbridge tattoo a few months after moving to the city. But nobody I know who’s actually from the city feels the kind of electricity that pulses through the Minneapolis Sound. That was just Prince. Only Prince saw Uptown as a magical place of individual expression. Only Prince saw First Avenue as a divine cultural mecca. There’s no purple rain here, just grey rain that’s frequently halfway frozen. People love it here –they really do– but you’re never going to see a Keep Minneapolis Weird bumper sticker, or a culture weekly whose excitement about local culture is anything but ad-driven cynicism. This is the place, after all, whose state history museum has an exhibit dedicated to Lipps, Inc.’s locally-recorded hit Funky Town, a song all about how miserable it is to live in Minnesota. We know we’re not fooling anyone.
It’s springtime now. The crabapple trees are in bloom and there are purple petals all over the streets. It’s not a special color purple, like the jacarandas that bloom this time of year in Los Angeles; it’s just a quiet bit of violet to match the downtown skyline. In a few weeks all that purple will fade back to what it’s always been, a reminder of a losing football team and a long-lost basketball team. Maybe that’s how it should be. L.A. would give the better floral tribute. They probably deserved Prince more than we did. They probably deserve the Lakers too.
But, whatever. For now the crabapples are our best attempt at a quiet act of love. That’s the only kind of love we’re equipped to give here. Maybe Prince’s legacy can help us to find a radical love for our homeland. A radical love for anything, really. For these past couple weeks, we’ve been reminded of what it was like when one of our favorites sons threw aside his Midwestern discomfort and embraced this thing called life. We’re trying to return the favor now the best way we can. A lot of us are finally giving a long-neglected listen to his music. A lot of us are going out dancing after two o’clock for the first time ever. We can’t keep these things up, but it’s good to do them every once in awhile, just to see what they’re like. In a few weeks we’ll be back to normal. We’ll go back to stilted smalltalk and cautious driving and refusing to touch one another. We’ll never figure out what “dancing in the purple rain” means. But at least we’ll be able to look back and remember the time that we thought it was all maybe possible.