About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Sunday, April 24, 2016

How I Found Myself While Pretending to be Prince

So, thirty years ago, I won a lip sync contest.  

  If you know me, you know that the only thing that could be more unlikely than me even entering a lip sync contest, is me winning a lip sync contest.  The significance of this improbable moment in my young life requires a little backstory.

All through grade school, I was bullied for being feminine.  I was a shy and skinny, and I had a mouthful of every orthodontic torture device ever invented.  If you can think of a gay slur, I was surely called it as I received regular beatings while being held under the downspout in the rain and stuffed into playground garbage cans.  They liked to punch me in the upper thighs while I was at the urinal, because I would piss myself and be too embarrassed to show anyone the bruises.  I had no self-confidence, no hope for the future, and my only goal was to get through the day without getting cornered.  In the sixth grade, they lined up and took turns punching me in the face until my retainer broke in my mouth.  I wanted to die.

In junior high, things got a little better.  I finally started growing, and even though I still took a few pretty good beatings, I wasn't getting put in trash cans anymore, and I started making friends (many of them a few years older than me) through the school band.  In 1986, I switched from flute to saxophone and I bought a hat and some Converse All-Stars.  I figured that it couldn't hurt.

My church youth group hosted a dance that year.  I mostly stuck close to the walls, trying not to be noticed.  There were teens there from other churches, and when the DJ announced a lip sync contest, I suppose that I figured that most of those kids didn't know me anyway, so I had nothing to lose.  It was totally out of character, and I have no idea how I mustered the courage, but I shot for the moon.  At the end of the contest, the DJ named the winner by who got the most applause.  I won.  I couldn't believe it.  Later on, a pretty girl  (I never saw her before, or ever again) asked me to dance.  I was reborn that night, and Prince was there.

Well, not really, but my song was Prince's "Kiss."  To this day, whenever I hear that song, I am filled with gratitude.  It's a cliché, but Prince helped me to know myself, and to find my creative voice.  Prince seems like an unusual source of inspiration for a guy like me, until you get beneath the surface.  In actuality, Prince was exactly the unconventional kind of hero that I so desperately needed.

Prince was an unlikely sex symbol - not exactly what one would consider a natural "leading man."  He was short (5' 2"), his look was very unorthodox, and he dressed a bit like an 18th century dandy.  He was all ruffles and purple velvet, dancing his ass off and rocking out in falsetto.  He embraced his femininity fearlessly and with full force - and it only made him sexier.  Way sexier.  He was unambiguously heterosexual, but he wasn't like most men, and certainly not like most rock stars.  For a teenager like me, that wasn't into sports and typical "manly" stuff, Prince presented a very different set of possibilities.  Clearly, my path would be quite a bit more conservative than that of a flamboyant rock star, but I was obviously never going to be varsity quarterback, and it was reassuring to see that there was more than one way to be a man.

Of course, Prince wasn't just about seduction.  He was also an incredible artist.  He could play nearly every instrument on the stage, and he was one of the greatest rock guitarists we will ever know.  (Even Stevie Wonder had to bring in Jeff Beck for a few guitar solos!)  He was a prolific songwriter.  He had multiple singing voices (and ranges), and he sang in-tune, live.  He rocked like Jimi Hendrix, he grooved like James Brown, and in the end, he was much more than the sum of his influences.  There is only one word in the English language that can properly describe him:  Prince.

At first glance, it might seem that Prince surrounded himself with women because he was objectifying them; there were certainly more than enough scantily-clad ladies on stage to raise those concerns.  He clearly loved women, but I think there was more than met the eye.  In the same way that he valued his own feminine qualities, he valued femininity in general.  His off-stage persona was shy and reserved.  He wasn't known for wild parties, and the women on the stage were rarely mere ornaments - they were usually there on artistic merit:  Sheila E, Candy Dulfer, and far too many others to mention.  At first, I was surprised to learn that Susan Rogers was his recording engineer in the 80s, but this really shouldn't be shocking in any way.  Even behind the scenes, he valued the female perspective.  The iconic symbol that temporarily served as a legal substitution for his name was obviously an expression of the beauty that comes from the unity of a balanced whole - a yin yang analog of gender and sexuality, yes, but also a thing of inclusive beauty unto itself.

Prince was unwavering in his pursuit of artistic freedom.  He was composer, performer, producer, and he led the rebellion against corporate record labels.  Prince and the Revolution?  Prince was the Revolution.  His death comes tragically too soon, and I won't be surprised if the autopsy reveals a man that simply worked himself to death.

Thirty years later, I find myself settled into a fantastic life and a successful career.  In some ways, I bucked the system by refusing to limit myself to one genre of music, knowing that it made my path more difficult.  In order to keep myself nourished, I habitually take my own artistic risks and I try to challenge what it means to be a saxophone professor.  Whenever I find myself in a moment of doubt, which is rather frequent, I remember that nothing could be as reckless as the time that I mimed to The Purple One.  I never had the chance to see him perform live, but in this nearly random moment back in 1986, he gave me this incredible gift of bravery, to be my own kind of artist and my own kind of man, and I will reap the rewards for all of my life.

You were, and ever shall be, the one and only Prince.  
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