The Immortal Prince: Dance, Music, Sex, and God
This past weekend I was moving the last of my belongings out of my old childhood home, and in the midst of this tedium, I was greeted by nostalgia in the form of a high school yearbook from my senior year. As I was leaving high school, I didn’t think much of it. At the time, commemorating my high school experience seemed silly if not sad—all I wanted was to escape that awkward place and never look back.
But, almost 10 years later, I found myself flipping through my class’s senior quotes with intrigue. As one would expect of 18-year-olds, many of the quotes are sappy, banal, and cliché, but upon perusal, the best quote of my whole class came from a fellow named Mark, and I can’t believe the faculty allowed it:
“Never look back.”
After fits of laughter, I failed to take honest Abe’s fictitious advice and kept looking back only to come across my own senior quote. Despite my general disdain for yearbooks, it appears my 18-year-old self took the matter seriously:
“Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last
All good things they say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past”
Not even a week after this rediscovery, I sit here today writing on April 21, 2016, and I am sad to report one if those “sometimes” is upon us. It’s snowing this April once again.
Prince Rogers Nelson is dead at the age of 57.
Upon first hearing the news of his passing, it felt as though an icy hand had clutched my heart and broken it into frozen droplets meant to melt and stream through my eyes. As the song that provided my senior quote also says, “Always cry for love, never cry for pain,” and my love for this man’s music and words is undeniable.
However, instead of tears, I would rather pay homage to this artist who has had such a profound effect upon my life.
Prince aka His Royal Badness aka the Purple One aka Christopher Tracy aka the Purple Yoda, was an innovator in every aspect of the word, a tinkering genius who seemed to transcend conventional standards much to the delight and sometimes dismay of the public.
If art’s aim is “to reveal art and conceal the artist,” Prince’s life was the epitome of this Wildean maxim.
Whereas today’s “reality” culture domesticates our pop stars and tries to make them the boy or girl next door by giving us every little detail of their lives, Prince was able to maintain a level of mystique and mystery. He was decadent, androgynous, mercurial, and aloof. The American epicene. A dandy on the level of Valentino, yet much more talented.
His whole appearance could morph just as fast as his musical style. He could jump from drums to bass to piano to guitar to front man to back up vocals without missing a beat. But despite this constant state of flux, he maintained many of the same themes in his music time and time again, mixing eros and agape, male and female, black and white into one unified whole.
So let us go on a quick journey through the beginning of his musical career from 1978-1984.
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here 2 tell u
There’s something else
A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day or night
So when u call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
U know the one – Dr Everything’ll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby
‘Cuz in this life
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life
You’re on your own
For You (1978)
Prince’s first album, For You, is a delightful and ambitious debut album, showcasing a young man with vision and drive. Prince took it upon himself to produce the album. He made it clear from the start to his record company that he would have creative control of his work. And in my opinion, the album does not disappoint.
Whether it be the opening a cappella track “For You” (in which Prince provides all the vocal parts himself,) the suggestive pop funk track “Soft and Wet,” or the rocker “I’m Yours,” the For You album served as an excellent opening salvo for a brilliant career.
The album does leave you wanting more; it serves as more of a promise of greatness rather than a full realization of his genius, and Prince would certainly make good on that promise.
Prince’s second self-titled album shows the artist coming into his own. The album expresses much more of his unique personality, in particular his androgyne approach to sexuality.
The hit opening track “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is a sleek pop/funk workout in which we hear Prince proclaiming in his falsetto, “I wanna be your brother/I wanna be your mother and your sister, too/There ain’t no other/That can do the things that I’ll do to you.”
Another great track is “Bambi,” a raucous, stripped down rock song with drums, bass, and guitar in which we hear Prince lamenting to a lost, now lesbian, lover, “Bambi, can’t you understand?/Bambi, it’s better with a man,” followed up by face melting guitar solos.
However, on the track “I Feel For You” Prince drops the rock-god pose, and provides a well-crafted soul cut that would go on to be a hit for Chaka Khan.
Dirty Mind (1980)
Dirty Mind showed a marked change from Prince’s first two efforts. Recorded mostly by himself at his home studio, the album certainly lives up to it’s name.
Here we hear Prince’s decadent sexuality come into full bloom. No longer is the sex sublimated or carried out through innuendo. No, this album comes right out and talks about gender-bending and unclean sheets on the track “When You Were Mine,”as well as incest on the weird rock track “Sister.” The dirtiest track on album though has to be the song “Head,” in which a soon to be married virgin, gives our singer head and marries him instead.
The last track on the album, “Partyup” shows Prince becoming more politically aware. The song is a hard-hitting antiwar statement. “Fightin’ war is such a fuckin’ bore,” says the song, followed by the chant to close the song and album, “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war ’cause we don’t wanna fight no more.”
Peace and sexual liberation all rolled into one.
The Controversy album builds off Dirty Mind with many of the same rude boy themes, e.g. songs such as “Sexuality,” “Private Joy,” “Jack U Off,” and “Do Me Baby,” but it also shows flashes of what was to come with 1999 and Purple Rain both musically and thematically.
The music is much more synth heavy, and the quintessential Prince scratch rhythm guitar is prominent on most of the tracks. Thematically, the title track “Controversy” showcases the first full expression of Prince’s artistic persona, blurring the lines between sex, divinity, gender, and race. The opening lines read, “I just can’t believe all the things people say/Controversy/Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?/Controversy/Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?” The track then takes a strange turn, as Prince recites the Lord’s prayer “Our Father” over the stripped down electronic funk beat only to then start chanting, “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.”
If that chant doesn’t sum up the themes of Prince’s artistry, I don’t know what does.
The 1999 album was Prince’s breakthrough into the mainstream. The title track “1999” is an apocalyptic dance party. Faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War, Prince responds with hedonistic decadence, “War is all around us, my mind says prepare 2 fight/So if I gotta die I’m gonna listen 2 my body tonight.”
The track “Little Red Corvette” was also a huge hit off the album, displaying a master of pop music at work. The track is still dirty yet also accessible. As the song says, “Move over baby/Gimme the keys/I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine.”
However, there are many great deep cuts on 1999, including “Delirious,” “D.M.S.R,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute).”
Purple Rain (1984)
Purple Rain was the pinnacle of Prince’s success. Many of the tracks are well known, but this moment in Prince’s career made him more than just a famous musician. He became a cultural phenomenon, holding the number album, single, and movie in the same week.
The movie is not really that great, but the concert scenes carry the film. The performance of the “Beautiful Ones” is still one of my favorite rock moments of all time. As the song says, “Paint a perfect/Bring to life a vision in one’s mind/ The beautiful ones always smash the picture/Always, every time.”
The song “Purple Rain” is a perfect expression of where Prince was going all along as an artist. A mix of gospel, pop, and rock, the song calls for a fusion of man and woman, sex and spirit.
The song “Darling Nikki” is just downright nasty wherein our singer encounters a “sex fiend” with “some many devices.” The song is so explicit, it became a point of political scandal by spurring Tipper Gore in the ass so much, she called for censorship of explicit albums.
The hit song “When Doves Cry” was apparently recorded in a single night. Personally, the track hit home for me. “This is what it sounds like when doves cry” was more than just a clever turn of phrase to me; I already knew that sound from my own life. I had become so used to hearing yelling throughout my home, all I wanted was to somehow make the world of sound into something transcendent and beautiful, and Prince provide just that. A soundtrack for a broken home.
I remember escaping to my car one late afternoon in a heavy down pour. Though it was raining so heavily, I had to escape the turmoil of my house, and as the rain fell on my windshield, I remember listening to crescendo of “Purple Rain” blasting through my speakers. For some reason the world no longer seemed so forlorn or hopeless. Through music and art, we can reach for the stars even in our darkest hours.
Thus ends our journey through beginning of Prince’s career.
I only stop my survey of Prince’s albums now because Purple Rain was the culmination of my love for Prince. The table had been set.
Of course, I would go on to adore 1985’s Around the World In A Day, 1986’s Parade, 1987’s Sign O’ The Times, 1988’s Lovesexy, etc. There are so many of his songs to name and to share whether it be “The Ladder,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Adore,” “Erotic City,” or “Irresistable Bitch.” And so many more songs he wrote for other artists.
The vast Prince catalog. This isn’t even everything!
Nonetheless, I return to my yearbook and, now 27, look at my 18-year-self only to wonder where the next 10 years of life will lead. I could always count on Prince to provide more to my life’s soundtrack. And though he is now dead, the music lives on. There is speculation over how his “Vault” of unreleased songs and videos will be treated. I hope they will be released for the world to see.
My only regret is I never got to see him in concert. I almost went to his last show in Atlanta, and I will always regret not attending. But again, the music lives on.
I care little for the speculation of how he died because I did not know the man. I did not fall in love with Prince Rogers Nelson, the man. I fell in love with the artist and his work.
As I said before, Prince lived up to the Wildean maxim, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” and that is the effect I hope more future artists aim to achieve. We need more distance between artist and audience than ever before, a chthonic barrier to help spur our Apollonian dreams ever higher into the heavens.
Has our society forgotten the beauty of mystery and dreams? Has it forgotten how myths are made in our midst? Has it forgotten that gender-bending should be a passionate, confident display rather than a political fight over who can be the bigger victim? Has it been struck so blind to the fact that the spiritual realm is to be discovered through creativity rather than repeating old worn out forms? Have we forgotten that our lives can become works of art?
On all counts, Prince provided an example of how to remember these truths about the power of art in our lives.
Though we may wish “life was never ending” we must remember, “All good things they say, never last, and love, it isn’t love until it’s past.”
"The fool doth think he is wise..."