On the 22nd of April 2016 we learned about the tragic demise of the artist FKA Prince. He was many things to many people: legend, virtuoso, guitarist, pervert. He was indeed all these things in different measures. Everyone came out publicly and mourned his death. Aretha Franklin talked about his many talents as a musician while Spike Lee held a funky block party in his memory in Brooklyn. Last but not least, Steven W Thrasher, in the Guardian, called him someone “who broke all the rules about what black American men should be”. Here I disagree. Prince went beyond ‘black American men’ and reached men everywhere, even making his way to a small town in North East India.
The first Prince song/video I ever heard/saw was “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” way back in 1995 (or was it 96?). I recall being vividly struck by one thing throughout the whole video: the gaudiness of the male singer even in the company of women. How could such a thing be possible? This was a child watching Prince (mind you) not a ‘gender sensitised’ nor ‘sexually open’ adult. I was quite shocked at the fact that this ‘fancy’ man was still able to successfully court beautiful women, as it seemed in the video. He sang to them (seduced them) and he was dressed (yes, dressed is the right word) in a frilly ‘rococo’ shirt. I did not know what to make of it. Compounding this was the fact, that it was my father (strong, masculine, stern) who seemed to enjoy the song the most! How was a child supposed to reconcile one reality with another?
But, of course, this is in hindsight. Back in those days, my child’s mind must have not been so bothered. Gender and sexuality did not have to be so ‘exclusive’ as it seems to be today (or grew to become in later years). Seeing a man in a dress was not such a big deal, meaning it was, but we did not ‘fetishise’ it as much. There were young male friends who worn strange frock-like things at home during bedtime, some boys joined the concert and were chosen to play the part of girls in our all-boys school (my own lot). That is what Prince did I personally feel. He legitimised a way of ‘being’, he made us see the world in a very ‘purple’ way. His was a colour relished by both male and female and it went beyond gender, it was (truly) regal. The image he constructed around himself was something many people have deliberated about. For me, and I think for many other people, in and around my age group, Prince (like Mercury, Bowie, maybe Jagger) was the antithesis of the gruff post-punk biker-rocker of the late 80s, early 90s. He complicated the image of a rock-star, he complicated sexuality. He was a dandy, a ‘nancy boy’; bless his soul for that.
Just a day before the death of Prince another celebrity was found, tragically, dead. Her name was Joan Marie Laurer AKA Chyna. Shillong is well acquainted with Chyna, for sure. Our fascination with wrestling (everyone from prepubescent boys to shrivelled-up grannies) is probably only surpassed by our love of 80s power ballads. Seated in front of the television, entire families would “oh” and “ah” as the professional wrestlers threw chairs, tables, their own bodies at one another. There was something attractive about those gladiatorial events. We knew it was staged and planned but we could not stop watching. It was a real spectacle.
The boys of my locality would gather around a patch of grass in my paternal grandfather’s house and subsequently we would chokehold, stranglehold, dive and slam each other until our bodies could no longer take any more and would then go back to our respective houses to be scolded and yelled at by our parents (this we dreaded more than the body slams). We didn’t care that the wrestling announcer had warned us never to try the stunts at home. We wanted to be like the superstars on TV and Chyna was one of the most memorable.
Chyna was in many ways the opposite of Prince. He was dandy while she was rugged, he was ‘nancy’ while she was ‘butch’. Both of these popular icons taught us valuable lessons about sexuality. If you think about it, Chyna gave us an image of a woman who was not womanly, but we still secretly desired such a figure. We’d been schooled to accept sexually desirable women as demure, soft and reticent but Chyna was none of those things. She masculinised the representation of female sexuality just as Prince feminised the male sexual image. It is strange they passed away around the same time because they actually did similar things in their respective fields.
After her stellar career as a wrestler, Chyna controversially, and somewhat tragically, decided to enter the porno industry. Personally, I feel that the move did not progress the image of her radical sexuality but rather bent it to conventional patriarchal lusts. She handed away/back phallic “prerogative”. But ultimately, she was a remarkable person who showed us ‘new things’ and we need more of those.