We all wear masks, and sometimes they suffocate us. Prince was a prime example.
Here's the rock star I thought I knew: a consummately skilled singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter; a dynamic, high energy performer; a vegan Jehovah's Witness who shunned cursing, alcohol and recreational drugs; a man with a deep intelligence and playful sense of humor; a mentor to many, especially female musicians; a man who cared deeply about the state of the world, especially the black community. Plus, he was a fashion icon who stayed pretty long after beauty is supposed to fade, his body preternaturally thin and fit—all the better to attract and, if his lyrics are to believed, rock the worlds of a string of gorgeous women. He was very sure of his vision, boldly paving the way for recording artists to manage their own music by making an unprecedented break from Warner Brothers Records. Simply put, he was one of a kind.
The man Prince kept hidden was everything I mentioned, but, despite singing that “we're all gonna die” over thirty years ago in “Let's Go Crazy,” he either didn't seem to accept the inevitability of aging, or didn't want the public to know that he suffered from the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us. The public Prince talked about keeping time at bay by not counting birthdays, jumping around in high heels until his body finally rebelled; the private Prince apparently allowed an addiction to the painkillers that helped him to deal with that rebellion to kill him, rather than shattering his image by going to rehab. The day before he died, it seems, he was willing to let the mask slip. Tragically, it was too late.
None of this was necessary, at least, not to this slightly obsessive fan. When I saw Prince wearing low wedge heels for his last appearance on Saturday Night Live, I noticed, but it struck me as long overdue. I loved to watch him do the splits, along with his other nimble, underrated dance moves, but he was just as compelling sitting at a piano. In short, I didn't care, frankly, because nobody stays young forever, and he had much more to offer than gymnastics. If he'd confessed to an addiction, I would have been surprised, but I also would have seen him as brave.
I understand being ashamed to show the world one's vulnerabilities. Admitting that we aren't who we want people—including ourselves—to believe we are can be humiliating. Hmm...humility comes from the same word. Maybe that's the main thing Prince was missing?
If so, he's in good, ample company, and the ranks of this throng grow daily, fed by the media. The very bedrock of this society is rooted in denying the existence of aging and death. It's normal to celebrate exceptional achievements in every area, but somehow, looking younger than you are ranks up there at the top when it comes to things we admire. People who run marathons at the age of 80 should be seen as inspirational, because living to the fullest while we can means never ruling things out simply because most people think we're too old. That said, if our particular body won't allow us a particular activity, should we feel like underachievers? Or just normal?
But who wants to be normal? I admit, I don't. I suspect the next generation will have even more trouble with this, having been pushed to the very limits of their capabilities just to try to get into college (a trend that, thankfully, seems to be waning). With the Olympics coming up soon, “Faster-higher-stronger” comes to mind. While many of us give up on these goals and learn to live quiet, unassuming lives filled with small pleasures, it takes a very special temperament to have lived on Olympus, been worshiped like a god, then admit to losing some of the powers that brought you glory.
A final thought: to many, privacy is a highly valued commodity, for a number of very good reasons, one of them the unfortunate human tendency to exploit the weaknesses of others for our own gain. That said, it would be a nice change if humans could just be human, in all of our imperfection, without the constant threat of verbal and written attacks, such as some of the brutal comments made when rumors surfaced about Prince abusing Percocet. Can we learn to treat having a drug problem (or a pot belly) as detrimental, but more a reason for compassion than scorn? The opioid addiction epidemic is turning the tide a bit, because so many of those affected are white and relatively (or very) wealthy. It's another sad comment on our deeply flawed society that the mask of inherent stability conferred by being a white person with money had to slip to move us toward acknowledging that having a big problem doesn't need to negate our inherent value. If our culture had learned this lesson sooner, might Prince still be alive?