Prince playing Madison Square Garden in February of 2011.
Kevin Mazur /Getty Images
Kevin Mazur /Getty Images
Prince playing Madison Square Garden in February of 2011.
Kevin Mazur /Getty Images
Something tells me that 300 or maybe even 3,000 years from now — if we still have breathable air and if we haven’t relocated to Mars, and if super-intelligent robots haven’t colonized us Matrix-style — we’ll still be trying our best to dissect and parse out the überfunky, hyper-synaptic, wildly eccentric, crazy-magical boho black genius of Prince Rogers Nelson. The Minneapolis maestro died at age 57 on Thursday from causes that have yet to be clarified at this time. Prince’s oeuvre since the late 1970s remains so profoundly voluminous (even just the news of it being in kept in a vault has always sounded impressive),and so musically and sonically ambitious, that it immediately turns any attempt to summarize its legacy succinctly into a half-hearted and incomplete gesture. I doubt that anybody could write the ultimate, wrapped-in-a-bow thinkpiece on Prince: there is no read long enough, no format collaborative enough, to do justice to his prolific life and work in one fell swoop. To the degree that nobody blinks an eye when we talk about Mozart or Beethoven studies, it’s not a stretch to say that we need more Prince scholars writing Prince tomes teaching Prince classes in schools where his legacy emerges as a matter of priority.
Prince’s death feels like a sucker punch, in part because he was such a powerhouse force in mainstream pop that he sometimes seemed to stand in for creativity itself. In the mid-’90s — during the period in which he demanded to be referred to as a symbol (or The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) given his legal struggle with record label Warner over the use of his name — many of us resorted to shorthand and called him, simply, The Artist. Which emerging pop star today would, or could, deserve that sort of expansive title? I look at 1978-1988 as Prince’s golden age of commercial and critical success (which is not to diminish any of the glorious work he did before or after). No recording artist during the ’80s delivered as many sophisticated musical ideas as Prince over the course of successive albums within a ten-year period. No artist in that decade showed more willingness or more ability to engage with avant-garde, risky musical ideas in the context of MTV-ready pop. And no artist in the ’80s demonstrated more outright talent as a singer, guitar shredder, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer, producer and visual innovator all rolled into one.
What some of us may be experiencing in this moment of collective grief is the fear that we will never again experience that kind of monumental excellence in pop, especially given today’s fractured, atomized and low-stakes music business. A tremendously shrewd industry player, Prince came to emblematize 35 years of changes in the making and distribution of music — from the “time-capsule” approach to marketing pop stars and pop albums that emerged in the ’80s; to the increasing synergy between music and films demonstrated by the success of Purple Rain; to the development of the Internet in the ’90s and the concomitant debates about musicians’ rights in an economic value chain; to the return of live music in the ’00s social media era as a primary source of profitability for touring musicians. Prince was at the forefront of all these changes.
More than three decades after his debut, he still had the greatest live act on the planet, bolstered by a sprawling, impressive catalog of hits. And so Prince’s passing (in tandem with that of Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Maurice White and so many other defining icons of the ’70s and ’80s that we’ve lost in the last seven years) feels like merely the latest reminder that we may have hit the terminal end of the traditional recorded music era. The times, they have definitely a-changed.
Prince may have been the greatest self-contained musical genius to emerge since the late ’70s, but we should consider how he followed in the footsteps of performer-songwriter-producer hybrids like Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder. Prince would have been between eight and ten years old in 1966-1968, that crucial two-year stretch in which the Beatles released audacious game-changer concept albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album. In 1967, James Brown further changed the game by introducing the rhythmic funk innovation of “Cold Sweat,” and in 1968 Hendrix redefined rock-guitar-god-heroism and the idea of the recording studio as a laboratory with Electric Ladyland. Those tectonic shifts, along with other musical developments, opened up even more space for ambitious musicians into the early and mid-’70s, when artists as wide-ranging as Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Roxy Music, Queen, Jeff Lynne, David Bowie and Paul Simon (to name just a few) ventured into a diversity of experimental pop modes. And a spate of black and Latino singer-songwriters with profound musical gifts and socio-political messages to boot, such as Sly Stone, Maurice White, George Clinton, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Carlos Santana and Curtis Mayfield, delivered some of the most transcendent records of the era.
This musical context is the world of prodigiousness out of which Prince was formed; despite persistent myths, he did not spring into success out of some cultural vacuum nor did he jump out of the womb as a fully-formed rock star. Born to musician parents of southern extraction, the young prodigy knew he wanted to pursue a music career by age 12 — that is to say, around 1970 — and he could not have made that decision at a more opportune time, since all he had to do was tune into black radio stations like KUXL to hear R&B and prog soul and then switch the dial to a white rock station like KQRS to hear prog rock and singer-songwriter pop. His listening habits were formed in a moment of unprecedented access to musical diversity.
If geniuses are made rather than born, it’s important to note that as part of his Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice, teenage Prince recorded with and formed his own Minneapolis high school bands (Grand Central, Champagne, 94 East),shopped around failed demo tapes and clocked in endless hours jamming with like-minded musicians including André Cymone and Morris Day. The twin city Minneapolis / St. Paul environs that gave forth artists like the Andrews Sisters and Bob Dylan to this day remains a racially divided one; it’s no surprise that by the ’80s Prince’s crossover, genre-busting music positioned him as a kind of pre-Obama racial reconciler, bringing together whites and non-whites. He also grew up in a broken home (his parents divorced when he was eight),and so it’s not a stretch to imagine that Prince, who came of musical age in the gender-bending glam era, might have also seen himself as a bridge between men and women not only in his music and life but maybe even in his own physical body — one possible explanation for the transcendently androgynous image he came to embody in the late ’70s and beyond.
By 1977, Stevie Wonder had racked up three Album of the Year Grammys in four years, and major labels were insistent on finding the “next Stevie” — that self-contained black artist who could write, produce, perform and, most importantly, generate profitable hits. Warner bet its money on teenage Prince; and along with manager Owen Husney, the kid genius fought for and received unprecedented artistic control over his debut album, 1978’s For You. He ended up playing more than 20 instruments on the record; and though accomplished, For You still sounds tentative — groover “Soft and Wet” made only a modest splash on the R&B charts.
Prince’s next five records, however — Prince (1979),Dirty Mind (1980),Controversy (1981),1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984) — raised the bar, setting a possibly unmatched standard of artistic accomplishment within a five-year period. Those of us fortunate enough to come of age in these formative years are prone to deify Prince’s cool, pimp-informed swagger, his practiced enigma and his audacious musical heroism. Those qualities were in full display on his eponymous album, brimming over with authoritative disco-funk grenades like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Sexy Dancer” and intimate ballads like “With You,” as breezy as the singer’s blowout on the album cover.
Appearing on shows like American Bandstand, Prince began his lifelong practice of giving terminally weird, pseudo-camera shy interviews (my late father once referred to Prince as a “worm.”) Prince was diminished by some as nothing more than a Rick James clone; but in truth he was, at that time, an alternative, risqué soul music dynamo who had supplanted The Jacksons on the covers of the sort of teenybopper magazines that endlessly speculated about his romantic affiliation with peer multi-instrumentalist Patrice Rushen (for whom “I Wanna be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You” were originally intended). With a piercing falsetto, a lush romantic baritone and a lethal gospel squall that sounded like 1,000 seagulls being guillotined at once, Prince had willed himself into a great singer.
He’d also become a masterful songwriter. Dirty Mind was a phenomenal attempt to fuse the then-trendy New Wave sound (think Blondie, Devo) with post-disco synth-funk in the strategic effort to cross over to a wider pop audience. It worked. Who could have minded the calculation, given Prince’s stellar songwriting and minimalist production on tunes like wistful “When You Were Mine” and groovy “Do It All Night”? Controversy followed suit with the swaggering title track (which Meshell Ndegeocello once praised as the slick sound of a musical “fashion runway”),hard-rocking “Sexuality,” bustling “Let’s Work” and dreamy Quiet Storm radio mainstay “Do Me Baby.”
1999 helped Prince reach an even wider audience, as it crested on popular tunes like synth-rockabilly “Delirious,” automobile-meets-oral-sex classic “Little Red Corvette” and galvanizing “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” Prince emerged as the most valuable contributor to the burgeoning Minneapolis sound, a diverse fusion of synth pop, new wave, funk and rock sounds featuring heavily gated, programmed drums and analog synths replacing traditional funk horns. But no one sound has ever defined Prince. Even by the early ’80s it was evident that there was no real end to his grab bag of musical ideas or sounds, even on the course of a single album.
For 1984’s Purple Rain, Prince attempted to do what his closest artistic rival Michael Jackson could not: establish himself as a bona fide film star. Drawing on the business model Robert Stigwood created for 1977 box office bonanza Saturday Night Fever, Prince mythologized his own ascension to stardom in a loosely autobiographical film that rode to glory on a phenomenal soundtrack with long-legged pop-rock hits like “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” Purple Rain, like Thriller before it, was the recorded music album as blockbuster, pop as mass cultural moment. At the height of MTV’s newfound ’80s success, the soundtrack set entirely new standards for the degree to which a black artist could cross over to the mainstream.
Enjoying his global superstardom, Prince had already settled into a curious penchant for all things purple, and his supercool fashion choices included skin-tight pants with royal court blazers with over-the-top ruffles and heels. An aloof but freaky-deaky lothario, Prince became the people’s guitar hero but not the kind celebrity you imagine hanging out with at parties or sitting on your living room couch throwing back beers. (Well, depending on who you are and what kind of living room you have.) Prince staked his claim as the musical royalty that his birthname had always already suggested. In the process, he racked up enormous multi-platinum sales, and took home multiple Grammys and an Oscar.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential election marked a new conservative era in American life and politics. It’s important to remember, especially for those of us who were young then, that the ’80s were something of a frightening time, defined by frightful news stories about nuclear brinkmanship and the onslaught of acid rain. In films like 1982’s First Blood and 1984’s Red Dawn, we saw the disturbing trend of a toughened, hardbodied machismo and a political cynicism to match. That decade, generally speaking, also saw a burgeoning celebrity culture tied to the rise of a greed-driven secular materialism and an increasingly inward turn (after Tom Wolfe’s me-decade description of the ’70s) to focus on the physical body (Olivia Newton John’s 1982 “Physical” and Jane Fonda’s highly-popular aerobics videos come to mind here). Black poor and working-class communities in the U.S. were economically devastated by the Reagan administration’s massive cuts in spending on social services and on urban development; conditions in inner cities suffered blight due to the social devastation of crack cocaine, well-documented by topical rap songs like 1982’s “The Message.”
In some ways, Prince’s ’80s “Dance Music Sex Romance” mantra offered a thrilling counter-representation, and even a direct critique, to the foreclosure of liberal, ethical, spiritual and erotic possibility that Reaganism proffered. On his classic Oberheim-synth-driven hit “1999,” which still doesn’t seem dated some 16 years after Y2K, Prince encouraged us to party hard like it was the end of the world — and given how imminent many of us thought nuclear escalation was in 1982, the end sometimes did feel nigh. Prince also courted politics on songs like 1981’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” and “Annie Christian,” on political party jams like 1980’s “Partyup” as well as later on the magnificent 1987 Sign of the Times title track, of course (to name just a few of his powerful political moments on record). He remained deeply engaged with topical social issues his entire career, as demonstrated by last year’s “Baltimore” written to memorialize Freddie Gray’s violent death while in police custody.
Though Prince didn’t necessarily have a coherent political program in the ’80s, what crucially distinguished him was his willingness to break cultural taboos. Borrowing and transmuting ideas from a long line of shock R&B stars ranging from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Millie Jackson to Blowfly and Rick James, Prince was the ’80s greatest provocateur, not only cursing on songs but singing explicitly about subjects like giving head (“Head”),fantasizing about sex with his sister (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”). To say his music was intensely sexual is a massive understatement: this is the man who brought us such classics as “Irresistible B****,” “Jack U Off,” “Scarlet P****,” “Feel U Up” and my personal favorite, 1984’s “Erotic City” (I distinctly remember having to turn down the volume on my boombox in the presence of my mother every time the word “f***” came through the loudspeakers). Given that his synth-driven, boho-new-wave inspired pop fusion often sounded akin to a black robot trying its hand at funk with awesome results, and given that he frequently penned impressionistic, dreamlike lyrical images of the future, Prince in some ways prefigured and anticipated the mainstreaming of the Afro-Futurism and Afropunk movements.
Prince also deserves recognition for creating multi-gender, multi-racial bands like the Revolution and the New Power Generation; in so doing, he offered us a nonconformist ideal that could serve as reprieve from neo-conservatism’s racial homogenization and from the persistent threat of social marginalization. In that context, Prince himself came to revolutionize the presentation of expressive black masculinity. Physically beautiful, racially ambiguous and frequently androgynous, Prince was openly fond of paisley and lace, and he spoke in a lithe voice that was more than a little femme. He was slight, and short, but always seemed to be surrounded by beautiful women he either worked with or dated, or both, from Sheila E. to Sheena Easton to Vanity and Apollonia. Prince’s macho-fey rebel persona owes a huge debt to queer camp pioneers like Little Richard, Tony Washington of the Dynamic Superiors, Freddie Mercury, Jobriath, David Bowie, Elton John and Sylvester, all of whom helped paved the way for Prince to be free to be himself in the public arena.
As did Bowie, Prince showed us that you could self-fashion — you could live a life not strictly determined by how others defined you, but more often by how you defined yourself. The impact of that message of transformative self-liberation, especially as it became mainstreamed through Prince’s enormous success in the ’80s, instigated incalculable effects on successive generations of LGBT and trans folks, freedom seeking libertarians, antiracist dreamers, nudist exhibitionists, anarchist revolutionaries, and multitudes of others around the planet.
No black artist who came before Prince aggregated so many diverse people in the service of anti-normativity and perverse polymorphism; the world is a better and richer place for it. Indeed, the introduction of the perverse into mainstream Top 40 pop was core to Prince’s cultural power in his golden period. Madonna followed suit, as did others. And by the late ’00s, Lady Gaga drew from the Madonna and Prince playbook, taking it further even, to redefine provocation through performance art traditions and the visual grotesque. Those hoping to recreate Prince’s enigma-wrapped path to glory in 2016 should beware: it’s no longer clear what perversity looks and feels like anymore in an age of Xtube.com and casual teen sexting. We now live at a time when strategically-leaked sex tapes might actually be your quickest path to reality television success. Good luck with that.
Prince followed Purple Rain with movie flops like 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon and 1990’s Graffiti Bridge as well as mixed-bag, still-fascinating albums like Around the World in a Day and Parade. But he delivered his career masterpiece with 1987’s Sign of the Times, in which electro-funk tunes like “U Got the Look” sit on the same double album as the Joni Mitchell inspired avant-poetry of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and psychosexual mini-dramas (“If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship”),religious joints (“The Cross”) and party bangers (“Housequake”). I’m intentionally sidestepping the massive and amazing body of work he released after SOTT, in the late ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, only because there’s no way to cover it all here.
As if Prince’s musical ventures weren’t enough, he was also an entrepreneur who eagerly developed other artists, including Sheila E., The Time and The Bangles, by writing and producing classic tracks for them. His Paisley Park label and recording studio complex served as a major part of his business operations, and by the ’90s he began actively fighting with Warner for control over his copyrights by declaring himself a slave and carving the word into his beard in controversial manner. Years later, the anti-corporate struggle resulted in Prince getting back some ownership of his masters, though it arguably drained him of artistic energy, given that the records kept coming but the hits did not.
Prince never failed to provide unwavering support for other serious musicians, especially women like Mavis Staples and Chaka Khan, and more recently Esperanza Spalding, Lianne Le Havas, Judith Hill and his all female band 3rdeyegirl. Prince wanted you to know that he did not usually suffer musical foolishness (though his porno-chic proclivities sometimes meant he was quite business-minded about promoting mediocre singers who looked like they could have stepped out of a Victoria Secret’s catalog). If he showed up on stage to perform with an artist, it’s generally because he thought that artist had a gift to offer the world.
Prince also emerged as a public advocate for the labor rights of other musicians, and he was an active if under-the-radar philanthropist, donating millions to causes and projects that he feltmattered, including Van Jones’ Yes We Code initiative to give underserved young people training. Prince’s lifelong support of the black community both in his music and his personal life meant that he was known to put his considerable money where his mouth was, in ways that also served to put to rest charges of colorism that plagued his earlier career.
Let’s face it, though: Prince had his shady moments too. He was a copyright maximalist who could be incredibly inflexible around the application of his own musical assets. Though by the late ’90s he had emerged as a revolutionary with respect to various sorts of musical distribution on the Internet, he relentlessly disallowed his own music to circulate freely (not that he should have) and even allegedly sued fans who uploaded his content illegally. He could also be hypocritical in that he was hostile and dismissive and even ungenerous if other artists wanted to cover his music, but he regularly covered other artists’ songs live and on record.
His maximalist approach to these matters was often underwritten by the argument that he was merely attempting to control the distribution of his own music in a free-for-all Internet economy which has reduced the perceptual value of music to nil — and he might have been right. But given his commitment to the creative process, his approach ran afoul of the generative DIY creativity and opportunities for “copyleft” sharing that the Internet itself technologically makes possible. Ironically, though a whole host of millenials are not intimately familiar with the Prince catalog because it has been stripped from the Internet (with the exception of Tidal),he has re-emerged as a viral Internet meme, like in the wildly popular video series “Got 2B Real,” where his image has been manipulated to make him appear as a shady judge in rivalry with fellow musicians ranging from Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé. When comedian Dave Chappelle humorously parodied Prince in a sketch on The Chappelle Show, Prince cheekily fired back by using an image of Chappelle in Prince drag on the cover of his 2013 single “Breakfast Can Wait.” In his later years, Prince managed to gleefully and winkingly undercut his imposing presence as the era’s reigning musical sovereign and Internet disciplinarian — and endear himself to younger generations — with such impulsive, “I’m in on the joke too” gestures.
One other point: No image anywhere in Michael Jackson’s entire creative output is as violent, pugilistic and misogynistically repulsive as the scene in Purple Rain where Prince’s character punches Apollonia in the face, though some have argued the film is a subversive text about masculinity, gender and domestic abuse. Even as a child, I found the image ugly: I’ve never been able to forget it. Ironically, despite the way Prince’s libertarian ethos acted as a powerful retort to Republican-era repression, Prince himself eventually came to represent a certain strain of social conservatism. In the early ’00s, he converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith and became a bit of a public Bible thumper, even railing against the mainstreaming of trans identity on 2013’s “Da Bourgeoisie” (a new millennium update of his early anti-lesbian track “Bambi”). Middle-aged Prince refused to revisit some of the more explicit tracks and albums from his golden years, and this remains, for me, an unfortunate disappointment. That refusal separates Prince from his Afropunk peer Grace Jones, who seems to have largely sustained her pursuit of polymorphic pleasure well into her 60s. We’d do well to remember that there can be no revolution, no collective utopia, without the pursuit of total sexual and erotic freedom (insofar as people treat each other with mutual respect). That freedom includes the kink Prince willfully purveyed at the start of his career, but then abandoned.
Still, none of this is to take away from Prince’s stunning legacy. By some accounts, a rainbow appeared over Prince’s Paisley Park home in Minneapolis in the hours after his death. The song that immediately came to mind, for me, when I heard the news of his passing, given the month that we’re in, was 1986’s eerily melancholy “Sometimes it Snows in April” — a ballad featuring a poignant lyric that now seems quaint in the age of climate change. But it strikes me that, in Bowie fashion, Prince may have been a prophet of even his own demise. What Prince always managed to do throughout his career was operate in an antiracist, multigender, polysexual funky boho avant-garde space of freedom that infused his image, sound/music and sometimes his lyrics. That free space doesn’t yet exist in our increasingly xenophobic, privatized, divided world — but we can get there, and Prince illuminated it for us. In that sense, Prince was not only ahead of his time, but we can think of him as a clairvoyant whose prophecies are yet to be realized.
One way to honor Prince in our grief is to remind ourselves how good and how important is to be, well, a weirdo, to let your freak flag fly, to live life out loud and proud, to shock the bourgeoisie, to cultivate a social conscience, to make ethical art that is connected to a spiritual purpose, to own your work and to own your name in a culture of commodification, to stay rooted to your beginnings and to practice and master your craft. We’re here to get through this thing called Life, and through the example of his music, Prince has left us the richest possible blueprint with which to do so.