I have a confession to make: I was never hugely into Prince’s music. Not that I hated it—it’s just that my mom and dad chiefly exposed me to ‘70s pop and progressive rock when I was a kid, and the fact that you could never readily find Prince on streaming services (which, to be fair, is exemplary of the principled, unorthodox decisions that defined Prince’s career) didn’t help. But there was one brief, intensely powerful moment when my life intersected with the recently departed genius, and it left an indelible mark upon my developing cultural consciousness: Prince’s legendary halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI.
It was February 2007, and my Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire was rife with Bears fever. We were going to the Super Bowl for the first time since the legendary ‘85 team—you know, the one responsible for the Super Bowl Shuffle—destroyed New England. My school cafeteria decked out in navy and orange the Friday before the game; the atmosphere brimmed with confidence and spirit reminiscent of a fascist rally. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts would pose no challenge for our dominant defense. Our legendary kick returner Devin Hester would run roughshod over the Colts’ special teams unit. Rex Grossman, our dreadful quarterback whom we faux-affectionately called Sexy Rexy, would fuck up just minimally enough to guarantee us a victory. Soon, our heroes would be parading on open-decked buses down Michigan Avenue with millions of onlookers (presumably including myself) braving the Windy City cold.
At that moment, Prince’s impending halftime show was barely on the horizon of my mind.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I headed over to my friend Kevin’s house with a bag of Tostitos—my mom wouldn’t let me show up empty-handed—where my little group of friends would camp out for the next four hours to watch our city’s best shot at a championship since Michael Jordan’s Bulls (the White Sox had won the World Series in 2005, but approximately 70 percent of Chicagoans gave no shits). We chattered about how many fumbles Brian Urlacher would force; we made our betting squares and felt like high rollers plopping down five bucks. Billy Joel playing the national anthem registered a slight seismic event. And still, Prince was nowhere to be thought of.
Why would I be thinking of him, though, when the game itself was off to such a spectacular start? Devin Hester, the rookie demigod with wings on his heels, took the opening kickoff, made a couple of slick cuts that left Colts’ jockstraps on the field, and then turned on the burners. He was gone. No one had a chance in hell of stopping him. 7-0, Bears, not even 15 seconds in. We were ecstatic. Insecure eighth grade boys don’t often do the hugging-each-other thing, but this was a special occasion. Devin Hester had done what Devin Hester does best, and we were on our way to an easy triumph.
Somewhere in the bowels of Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, Prince must have heard the frenzied cheers of the Bears fans who had made the trek.
As it turned out, though, the opening kickoff was a mirage, an illusion blinding us to the depressing, boring slog of a game to which we’d end up bearing witness. The Bears offense scored another touchdown in the first quarter, and that was it. The Colts took over after that, and not even in entertaining fashion—it was mostly a slew of field goals, combined with some grinding runs and a typical Rex Grossman pick-six. Just about the most soul-crushing way to lose the most important football game of the year, and of my life.
But Prince was on at halftime, and though I didn’t know it then, he’d become the reason my Super Bowl XLI experience isn’t barred from my conscious memory.
By 2007, I had been playing piano for a decade (guitar hurt my fingers), so I knew and understood musical genius when it crossed my radar. I looked at guys like Elton John and Jimi Hendrix as occupants of the top echelon of that category. I had no idea where Prince sat relative to them, because again, I was woefully unaware of his impact to date. By the end of the performance, though, I was convinced he had somehow been created in a mad scientist’s lab from DNA of Elton and Jimi, a strange, beautiful, glistening hybrid creature with a lust for purple on a stage shaped like love and sex pictorialized.
I didn’t know the three songs he played off of Purple Rain—”Let’s Go Crazy,” “Baby, I’m A Star,” and the epic title track—at the time, but I knew they were a blast. His famous opening monologue to begin “Let’s Go Crazy” had the crowd rushing toward the stage the way I had only seen in footage of Beatles’ concerts, essentially responding to Prince’s command for them to go berserk. This was pure, unadulterated fun, so diametrically opposed to the humdrum pace of the game, so infused with an energy I had never felt before at age 14 and to which my friends, who were busying themselves with some pizza at the kitchen table, were not privy. And at the center of it all was a little spark-plug of a man in a black head wrap and a powder blue suit that grew darker as it soaked up the pouring rain.
For all that Prince did in the arena of recorded music, his live performances are maybe his most enduring contribution to the cultural tapestry. In the hours after his death, footage of his 1982 concert (which you can watch below) at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J. circulated widely on the Internet, and even through the grainy black-and-white video, his electric stage presence is abundantly clear. At the Super Bowl, with the world’s eyes upon him in vibrant color, he managed to suck everyone into their televisions and make them respond to his every shout, living with the in-person audience for the entirety of the show’s 12 minutes. He was certainly helped by his legendary status, but some aspect of onstage charisma just has to come naturally—and Prince, who just last week was mesmerizing us with just a piano and a microphone, was one of the most organically gifted performers of all time.
And his guitar playing! That was the aspect I expected least from Prince, whom I knew in my adolescence chiefly for his name change, which seemed more befitting of someone like Madonna. I certainly wasn’t expecting him to shred so dexterously, with such blues-inspired distortion and abundant passion. To some extent, the guitar is the ultimate phallic symbol of music, the instrument countless enterprising college freshmen have used to attempt to woo their cute hall mate, the instrument that every young musician pictures themselves playing before a horde of adoring fans. So in hindsight, it makes sense that Prince, whose music was so inherently sexual, would have been one of the best and most underrated guitarists to have lived. At the time, though, I was too busy having my mind blown by Prince’s solos throughout the Super Bowl performance to think about that.
Eventually, he got around to some songs I did know, songs I knew he hadn’t written: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You.” I knew and enjoyed all three but never would have expected to hear them back to back to back, and not with such verve. Looking back on the string of songs, they’re a testament to the diverse influences from which Prince drew throughout his career, over the course of his 39(!) studio albums. His ability to fuse rock with soul, funk, and R&B rendered his music pleasing to all manners of aesthetic tastes, including my own, relatively untrained one.
But what really brought down the house was his breathtaking performance of “Purple Rain” to close the show. It had been pouring throughout the entire game—I’m amazed Prince wasn’t electrocuted by his Love Symbol-shaped guitar—which only made the song more fitting. And when that curtain flew up in front of him and turned Prince into a giant, madly soloing silhouette:
I mean, my teenage mind raced to the obvious innuendo. It reminded me of a similar scene from Austin Powers in Goldmember, which was the first PG-13 movie I ever watched. I started laughing and beckoned to my buddies to get a load of what was happening. And as we all watched and chuckled, and as Prince led the assembled crowd in a sing-along of the titular words to carry the performance to its close, the moment was quietly being etched into the fabric of my cultural memory.
The rest of the game was an utterly forgettable affair that left me despondent on my way home. I probably knew instinctively that the Bears would not get a chance like this again for the foreseeable future (and they haven’t). But that image of Prince and his guitar in the rain in Miami stuck in my head. It became one of the reasons I picked up the six-string in high school; it became synonymous with the larger-than-life ideal of the rock god. And I’ll always remember him as a sole beacon of hope and love on an otherwise dismal night. Isn’t that sort of the thesis statement behind all of his music?
For more of our Prince tributes, check out Jonathan K. Dick’s appreciation here, listen to two sets from the DNA Lounge here and listen to Paste’s Prince radio station here.