“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
The famous opening lines of “Let’s Go Crazy” feel prescient now. But of course they would have been no matter what. Prince wrote the song knowing he would die, because it’s a song about the awareness that all of us will die.
I can’t think of anyone else who treats life and death and joy and sorrow as all part of each other in quite the way that Prince did. Mortality drives “Let’s Go Crazy”. Yet the song doesn’t start from death; it starts from the struggle that is life. Yes, it’s an uplifting song, a song about making the most of life, but Prince is very clear: life is hard, painful, exhausting. Just in order to “get through” it, we try to gather together, but still “in this life you’re on your own”. From this perspective, perhaps death is not so bad. Taking on the burden of life forever – “that’s a mighty long time” – sounds exhausting. What a relief that “there’s something else: the afterworld”. When we sing and dance to this song, we’re not defying or denying death, we’re accepting it as the reason to party. Hard life may be, but it is also short. The things we can do, the pleasures we can experience in this life may not be possible in the afterworld, so … what the hell! Why not dance?
I find this joy tempered with morbidity incredibly moving. Don’t get me wrong, I love lots of unambiguously happy music. But I can’t listen to a song whose emotional notes are entirely positive when I need to be reminded of the beauty in the world. When I’m depressed, simple fun can’t reach me. Claims that “everything’ll be all right” lie so far outside of my worldview that I can’t see them as anything but hollow lies. What I need at those times is art that acknowledges pain and still speaks of pleasure.
In some ways I think I ought to hate “Let’s Go Crazy”. In other contexts, I tend to experience “crazy” as a slur against the mentally ill – a minor one, certainly, more like “bitch” than “cunt”, but a slur nonetheless. I have a particular fear of involuntary institutionalization, which the chorus treats like a joke (“before they put us in the truck”). Certainly, some of my pleasure in the song must come from the fact that I’ve known it for a long time; I wasn’t thinking of “crazy” as a word that held me up for ridicule when I was a kid, so the song may have gotten grandfathered in to my tastes, as it were. But it’s not just a tune I like to listen to whose lyrics make me cringe. “Let’s Go Crazy” speaks to me.
Prince has often been described as an icon for outcasts, a figure who proved by his existence and success that it could be wonderful to be strange. There’s something to this idea, but it can make him sound like the human version of the toothless “be yourself” moral so common in children’s media. That moral coexists comfortably with the exclusion and shaming of the “selves” of people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and all the other peoples in this world who are not just unusual but marginalized.
“Let’s Be Crazy” shows that, if we want to celebrate Prince as a leader for the weird, then we must recognize that “weird” means “sick” and “crazy” and “wrong”; it means, at least in this song, and for me, “disabled” and “mentally ill”. Celebrating life, as Prince exhorts us to, can be dangerous. Living our lives as the people we truly are can get us attacked, institutionalized, killed, depending on the forms of oppression we suffer. As a white woman, I know I will never be able to understand much of the pain in Prince’s music; my marginalizations are not interchangeable with Blackness. I can, however, hear in “Let’s Go Crazy” a voice that deeply understood what it is to have a mind that is unacceptable to the world, a mind that attacks itself, a mind that seeks death. That voice asks me if I will let myself be broken down, and I am filled with the strength to say: no.