PEOPLE Appreciation: What Prince Meant to Music – and an Entire Generation of Fans

04/21/2016 AT 04:10 PM EDT

In 1984, I was 7 years old , and "When Doves Cry," the song from both the film and album Purple Rain, was a massive radio hit. From the backseat of my parent's station wagon, I listened eagerly, absorbed every word, and sang it verbatim to the teenagers at the local pool. (Much to their delight.) Even at that young age, I knew the lyrics were poignant and kind of heartbreaking – I also knew it was the greatest song I'd ever heard. The same can still be said today.

The great thing about Prince, who died on Thursday, was that his music wasn't just for a select audience. Prince's music was for everyone. Young, old, black, white – it didn't matter. It was just so easy to digest, so funky and poppy and sexy and cool – all at the same time. But for a certain generation, Prince, much like Madonna, Whitney, and several other '80s and '90s pop icons, he was the soundtrack of our youth. Even if you didn't get into Prince the first time around, you eventually discovered old Prince. (I think I was in middle school when I finally got, and wore out, the 1999 album.)

To say Prince was prolific as an artist is an understatement. In the '80s and '90s, he practically churned out an album a year. Here's just a taste of his discography from that period – 1986's Parade (the single "Kiss," a Tom Jones cover, came from that), 1987's Sign 'O' The Times, 1988's LoveSexy ("Alphabet St.") ; 1999's Batman soundtrack; 1990's Graffiti Bridge, 1991's Diamond and Pearls ("Cream").

In high school in the '90s, we danced to "Sexy M.F." and "My Name is Prince," from the 1994 Gold album. We made up a choreographed dance to "7." We followed the drama as he changed himself to the unpronounceable symbol, and performed with the word "slave" on his face, a missive directed at his record label Warner Bros. because of a bad contract he felt stuck under.



On Dec. 31, 1998, we, along with the rest of the entire universe, blasted the song "1999" and didn't we all party like it was 1999? Like it was practically the end of the world?

Prince never stopped playing and performing music, even if he got less radio play in recent years than he did in his heyday. He also continued touring, packing venues with fans. And like other music legends who are gone to soon, Prince will remain immortal through his music. In fact, he's already reaching a new generation – in my son's kindergarten class, they sing along to "Starfish and Coffee."

When my 5 year old was was teaching me this song, he asked how I knew all the words. I told him that the singer was someone I grew up with, who I'd listened to my whole life. That Sign 'O' The Times was an album I had on a vacation with college friends, a trip that cemented our lifelong bond as we lay in the sand giggling and singing along. The same girls (now women) with whom I've been sending sad texts with all day on Thursday when the news of his death broke.

Now that my son has gotten a taste of how awesome Prince is, I can't wait to introduce him to the rest of the legendary musician's oeuvre.
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