It’s been one year since Prince died in his Paisley Park complex in Minnesota. Strangely, time hasn’t made it feel any more real. Even now, after a year of thinking, talking and writing about Prince’s death, the first thought that pops into my mind when I’m reminded of it is simply, “What?” Prince… dead? How is that possible?
It felt unreal and impossible on April 21, 2016, and in the months that followed, what we learned only contributed to the surreal sensation that what happened just couldn’t be true. Despite his life-long avoidance of drugs and alcohol, Prince died of an opioid overdose. Again, what? Why was he on painkillers? According to reports, he had been suffering intense hip pain for years.
That seemed impossible — Prince couldn’t have experienced pain, ever. That would imply that Prince was human, which clearly wasn’t the case. Humans don’t glide around a stage executing fanciful acrobatics in heels like in Purple Rain; humans don’t effortlessly rip through searing guitar solos as he famously did during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s tribute to George Harrison; humans don’t crank out psychedelic-funk-dance classics, one after the other, for a solid decade.
Prince was a god. Not a rock god or a music god, but a legit, resides-in-heaven-and-occasionally-visits-us god. Prince was not unlike the gods in Greek mythology who only interacted with humans when they felt like making love, playing tricks or dazzling everyone with their powers.
His fellow ’80s pop titans, Madonna and Michael Jackson, weren’t gods. We had seen Michael grow from a boy to a man, and we saw him stumble. He may have been superhuman, but he was clearly one of us. Madonna was, and remains, queen. But for all their frightening power, queens are still human.
That was not the case with Prince. Whether on wax or film or stage, Prince seemed entirely different from us. Even when he delivered a bad album, you didn’t think, “Oh, Prince is slipping. He’s over.” You thought, “Prince has decided to explore a realm we simply don’t understand.”
Which is why even a year later, there’s an unshakable dissonance between the reality that Prince is dead and the idea of what Prince is. The closest comparison is David Bowie – like Prince, he never seemed of the human race. By his self-mythologizing, Bowie appeared alien to us – but as Hollywood has taught us, aliens never stay. At some point, they have to return to their home planet whether we like it or not. So while Bowie’s death was sad, we were ready for it in a way: We know Bowie wouldn’t spend eternity among humans.
But Prince? No, it doesn’t seem possible that he could be gone. But obviously, he is. Unbelievable as it may seem, Prince Rodgers Nelson was a human. He experienced pain; it seemingly led him to make an inadvisable decision; he died. He made a mistake, something that didn’t seem possible. And grappling with that is an ongoing process that his devotees are still struggling with one year later.