Thursday, April 21, 2016

youth and its end, in prince songs

1991*: “Housequake”

Every afternoon for a week, my mom drives me and my friends from our junior high across town to the high school, where the incoming drill team captains teach a gym full of eighth graders a routine that begins with the words “Shut up already, damn!”

This is my introduction to Prince. I buy Sign O’ the Times on cassette at the mall so I can practice. The song is fast and frenetic. I am slow and awkward and—despite going over the choreography every night until bedtime—I don’t make the squad. I am devastated in a way that frightens my parents. I literally howl in despair, pounding my fists into the bed. It doesn’t help that my best friends, who were kind of meh about the whole prospect, make the cut.

I won’t experience this exact mix of grief, envy and awareness of failure (my own and that of the meritocracy I once believed in) until I’m in my thirties and all my friends start having babies, even the ones who were kind of meh about it.

If you know how to rock say "yeah" (yeah!).
1992: “Gett Off”

Determined to make drill team on my second try, I take dance classes at Act III, a small storefront dance studio in Redondo Beach. Although Bonnie and Amy (my friends who Made It, who get to wear their green and white uniforms to school every Friday) take classes too, Act III is a world outside of high school.

Our teachers are older teenagers who wear baggy plastic pants rolled down at the waist and black jazz boots with the tops folded over. Stella is a junior, a talented choreographer and the first person I hear say “Asian” instead of “Oriental.” Michelle is the owner’s daughter and had a not-small part in the movie version of A Chorus Line. Zeke has floppy dark hair and amazing chest muscles, and I hear one of the other dancers say he’s gay, like it’s not even a big deal. Anita is a gymnast; I have a crush on her and I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself otherwise, which makes the abs portion of the class go faster.

A Chorus Line: "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty, and pretty is what it's about."
Most of the kids I know listen to KROQ, but here we learn dances to Prince songs. “Twenty-three positions in a one night stand.” We kick and slide and fall to the wood floor in our knee pads. The bells and the tambourine and the base. It will be the better part of a decade before I have a stand of any length, but now I know what sexy is.

At night the window steams up from all our sweat. People on the sidewalk stop to watch, and I feel like I’m part of a special club that doesn’t give a shit about stupid high school cliques, or drill team.

1993: “Batdance”

Well, I’m on drill team now. I hate our captain, a junior who barks orders at us and made us retake our team photo because her eye was doing a weird thing in the first version. The thing in pep squad competitions is to dance to professionally mixed medleys, so you can switch up the mood, have a certain kind of beat for a kick line, etc. Our “mix” consists of one slow Paula Abdul B-side, plus a short interlude of “Batdance” in the middle. For the kickline.

No joking.
One day we have a new coach. We don’t know where she came from or who invited her, but she’s an adult and we’re kids, so we listen to her. “I like how you bring in Prince there,” she says. It’s the only positive feedback she has for us.

A few days later, she’s gone, no explanation. This prepares me a bit for work life.

1994: “My Name is Prince”

Even though I’m on drill team, Bonnie and Amy are still ahead of me. They’re JV cheerleaders now. I’ve known Amy since sixth grade, and she’s always had great taste in music and been a kickass choreographer. Their competition mix kicks off with “My Name is Prince,” the eight cheerleaders in an X formation. They sit on the floor and rise and fall through the aaah-ahhh, aaah-ahhh, ah-AH’s part. When the beats kick in they jump up and change formation. The ah-ah’s are what anticipation feels like. I watch them with awe and envy. The song shifts to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” I can’t get enough. They are celebrities. They are funky.

Diamonds and pearls of wisdom.
1998: “7”

This is the year I edit the Arts & Entertainment section of the Daily Bruin and make my own mix tapes—mostly songs from musicals, but some Prince, too. I like “7,” with its a capella harmonies and mysterious lyrics. At this point in my life, almost every song is about being gay.

“They stand in the way of love/ And we will smoke them all/ With an intellect and a savoir faire.” Clearly it’s about loving defiantly and with style in the wake of a them that doesn’t understand.

I drive my 1987 Tercel and listen to my tapes and memorize lyrics as I fall in love with L.A. and my own sadness. I steer down Sunset to my bookstore job, where I develop my first acknowledged-to-myself crush on Nancy, a sometime baker from Arizona who’s working on becoming a screenwriter. When my shift ends at midnight, I take Santa Monica home, even though the nightlife traffic is terrible, so I can go slow and study the gay clubs.

I wouldn't mind being that blow pop. Just saying.

It’s only been a week since I miscarried, but I don’t slow down. I don’t want to make AK sadder, and concerts cheer her up. We go to the Forum with Nicole (K.), my best friend and a hardcore Prince fan, and two other friends, who will stop talking to me in another year, when my crises have piled too high for them.

I love a man in gold pumps.
Prince is not one to rest on his purple laurels. The show is guest star after guest star, lit up stage, groovy dancers, costume changes. When the songs slow down, I let myself cry. He has one of those voices that can make you want to fuck or it can break your heart. These days I look for any excuse to cry in dim lighting. Four encores, the last one after the lights have come on and janitors are poking around with brooms.

The next week at Trader Joe’s, I hear an older black woman talking to one of the employees—a young Latino man serving samples of hummus on flax seed chips—about the show, and I join in. Can you believe that show, we all say. Can you believe it.


I am visiting New York for work, happy to see my coworker Nicole (S.) and an impressive multicultural reading she put together. I have so much to tell her; in the months since I saw her last, I got pregnant, miscarried, lost my mind, kind of found my way back.

This is my apocalyptic year, and March, when New York is just beginning to thaw, is the calm before the storm, though I can smell something brewing if I’m honest with myself. The miscarriage is behind me, but AK’s and my near-split lies just months in my future. Cancer is only a little farther off.

But the night of the reading, I’m lighthearted. I accompany Nicole and her friends—a sort of who’s-who of young NYC poets of color—to a Brooklyn bar. The primary topic of conversation is: Who’s more of an icon, Whitney Houston or Prince? Whitney has been gone a month. But for me the answer is easy.

Rest in purple.

*Years refer to when I listened to the song, not necessarily when Prince wrote it.


Alberto Brian said...

Damn good witness, Cheryl.

Cheryl said...

Aw, thanks friend!