What did Prince mean?
This sounds like a stupid question, based in outdated rockist ideals of expression, integrity, momentousness, and other questionable notions. But since those ideals have often helped us grasp just what, exactly, pop musicians are up to, one can’t help but wonder. When Bowie died, there appeared a consensus about his genre-hopping, his command of multiple personas, his obsession with performance as an end to itself. The discourse surrounding Prince has generated an extraordinary amount of excellent rock criticism through the ages — I recommend Carol Cooper’s astounding “Someday Your Prince Will Come” (The Face, 1983), in which Cooper, having been denied an interview with Prince, puts words in his mouth and writes her own — but is considerably more evasive, typically highlighting his insane talent, musical singularity, and artistic universality while either giving his philosophy way too much credence as a coherent worldview or declining to analyze it under the assumption that it won’t hold up. Maybe such analyses are reserved only for the grandest of rock heroes, a stuffy category we consider Prince too good for, but really now. If Prince was the greatest popular musician of his time and the ultimate rock star, as many have claimed, surely he deserves nothing less, no?
First in a panoply of thematic obsessions is sex, a subject nobody’s sung about more seductively, more maniacally, with so much relish. Where most love songs to this day communicate through shared figurative/idiomatic language, Prince describes erotic matters with exaggerated, pornographic candor, indulging every filthy fantasy that pops into his head. “I’m physically attracted to you”; “You’re a sinner I don’t care/I just want your creamy thighs”; “You wouldn’t have stopped/but I came on your wedding gown”; one could quote lyrics forever. What’s more, sex is political for Prince in a way it’s not for, say, R. Kelly, as a way to fight repression and oppression, but by that same token sex doesn’t define his music the way it does R. Kelly’s; it’s one theme among many. Then there’s his religious fixation, born from the same urge as his erotic passion but rarely articulated as clearly — his many odes to the glory of God frequently contradict each other and invite extreme suspension of disbelief (“Ghettos to the left of us, flowers to the right/there’ll be bread for all of us if we can just bear the cross”). He’s also fascinated by the apocalypse, related to the religion (in obvious ways) and the sex (“if I gotta die I’m gonna listen to my body tonight”), but also as its own distinct theme, and possibly his silliest one unless one treats it as a metaphor, a catalyst for the urgency of his hedonism, and even so it’s the laziest excuse for hedonism in the book. No matter the subject, Prince makes plenty of big, heroic, rock-expressionist moves, both in musical scale and in the magnitude of his tropes, but rarely does he provide the direct expressive content one expects from such a stance. Faced with an anthem as powerful as “Purple Rain,” one has no choice but to pump one’s fist and get carried away with the emotion, but to name it the greatest single of the ‘80s, as Pitchfork has done, is either to earnestly proclaim the apocalypse imminent or to overstate the song’s use value as kitsch — the latter a contrarian misreading, the former (among other things) too literal an assent by far.
Prince has written more profound songs than anyone could hope to tally. Certain tendencies in critical thought distort his achievement, that’s all. Rock heroes are silly things, silly people, silly ways to conceptualize an artist. But when Prince lets loose a power ballad as ginormous as “Purple Rain,” when he makes incoherent pronouncements about the Antichrist in “Annie Christian,” when he makes incoherent pronouncements about social issues in “Sign o’ the Times,” when he makes very coherent pronouncements about the bomb in “1999,” every time he opens his mouth about war or the government or the masses or the critics, every time he posits sex as a remedy for the evils of this world, every time he launches into an epic guitar solo — to pick the most obvious examples — he invites us to treat him like a rock hero, reverence and all. “Purple Rain,” what with its slow buildup, increasingly wild vocal performance, stately melody, huge gospel chorus, absurdly magnificent guitar heroics, inarticulate spiritual howl at the climax, big loud ending note that lingers for a whole two minutes, and everything else that makes it a terrific rock anthem, imparts not just a pseudoprophetic message about purple rain enveloping the world as we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and not just a compassionate message about romantic love —nor is it a conflation of the two, in which bathing in the purple rain and/or entering the Kingdom of Heaven stands as yet another metaphor for sexual ecstasy (or is it the other way around?). The song’s also about an enormous sense of scale; in fact, that’s mainly what the song’s about. Ditto for all his rock hero moves, whose main takeaway has less to do with hedonism as political protest or hedonism as means to redemption, than with the insistence that he, Prince, is a genuine Rock Hero, an artiste, an avatar of significance. Given all his other thematic obsessions, given the music he played, given his place in history, this insistence isn’t silly at all. It’s profound.
It’s profound because in the early ‘80s, the rock hero was a role denied black musicians, who, very broadly speaking, were typically consigned to more purely functional (rather than expressive) artistic modes, like “pop” or “dance” or any number of less visible, less presumptuous niche markets. It’s profound because the rock hero was a role denied the sexually androgynous, whose niche markets were even tinier and even less visible when they existed at all. It’s profound because it inspires nitpickers like me to debate the finer points regarding his philosophy and what he stands for, thus implicitly placing him in an ostensibly higher aesthetic plane by default, when on a purely functional level his music a) has reached a level of perfect formal mastery worth celebrating in itself, and b) carries all sorts of meanings on its own even before we start thinking about the words. It’s profound because the music carried his true message; it’s profound given who the music told us Prince was.
Take a song like, let’s go with something obvious, “U Got the Look,” which leads disc two of 1987’s epic double album Sign o’ the Times, and just try to categorize it. You can’t — what the fuck genre is this? There’s liquid bass on the bottom, steady power chords on top. The beat is a regular 4/4 march, although played by a group of assembled drum machines significantly more dextrous than the rock drummers typically attracted to the time signature, the product of disco drum sound even if Prince eschews disco’s slinkier rhythms for straightahead whomp. Melodically, it’s a standard blues chord progression, but that’s not the way it feels; it’s too cheerful, too mechanical, too technologically savvy. There’s keyboard coloring all over the place, a guitar solo so shriekingly high it could be a synthesizer, gorgeous soul falsetto, backup singers chiming in and giggling and blowing raspberries, glitz, sparkle, confetti. Is this rock, pop, soul, funk, R&B, psychdelia, disco, punk, what have you, all at once, mixed together into an indelibly calculated studio concoction? Is it none of these things?
Take a song like, oh, how about the very next song on the album, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” in which he wonders if maybe his beloved would open up to him more were they platonic friends of the same gender rather than lovers, achieving such a chilling, needy, heartbreaking tone the whole thing shudders with emotion. Here, the slapped funk bass and the off-kilter drum machine and the scratchy, descending synthesizer hook combine in totally different ways to form a melancholy backdrop over which Prince alters and overdubs his voice, mixing in several chattering, dinky, sped-up permutations of himself to harmonize, scream, and cry with each other. Whatever giddy party-music dimension that “U Got the Look” lived in, this casually demented late-night ballad/plea is lightyears away. Need I add that no two songs on the album sound alike? Need I add that no song on the album fits into a neat little genre category — or rather, one genre to the exclusion of another? Need I add that they all sound like Prince anyway?
Prince’s music presents a varied, consistent, multivalent, pan-global rainbow kaleidoscope of every genre and sound known to the human race and beyond. He somehow figured out a way to incorporate any and every major popular 20th-century musical form. Some more than others, naturally — funk plus rock were the main components, already a striking combination rising from disco’s historical aftermath. Nor did he swallow each genre whole, preferring to pick and choose among specific musical elements from everywhere — streamlined rhythm guitar and hyperactive bass here, steady straightahead rock beats and flashy guitar solos over there, now for aching quietstorm horns and moaning backup singers, now for monster grooves straight from the James Brown playbook, now for classic pop showtunes that could have come from the prerock era, now for psychedelic alienation effects to rival the late Beatles, plus a soul-derived vocal style that veered effortlessly between soft/wet croon and harsh/crazed shriek while hitting every note in between, and let’s not forget the zippiest, crunchiest, slickest, most elegant synthesizer sound ever to split the difference between American disco and British new wave. That’s just the beginning; the ingredient list goes on and on. All this he achieved in the studio playing each instrument himself and then mixing everything together, although he also made records and toured with live bands like the Revolution and the New Power Generation. The recently deceased Bowie did his fair share of genre-hopping too, but only in succession — he’d inhabit one role, one genre, then another the next year, and so on. Prince did everything at once, contained it all within himself, and, far from sounding scattered, everything cohered into one supergenre, each diverse musical element coexisting under the umbrella of an outrageous persona and the closest anybody’s ever come to a single, timeless, totally unified universal pop style.
Prince was a consummate singles artist, having scored over fifty Top 40 hits worldwide and five #1 singles in the United States alone, and he knew how to put an album together, too. But this is the kind of aesthetic vision so insanely huge that the albums add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Focus on Purple Rain (1984), his biggest, grandest arena-rock statement; or Dirty Mind (1980), eight demos Prince recorded in his basement and never intended for release until his label noticed that he’d somehow produced a slick, exciting pop veneer all on his own; or Diamonds and Pearls (1991), the closest he’s ever come to adult contemporary; or Controversy (1981), where he first announced that he was the Antichrist; or Parade (1986), where he wound his funk tighter than the preset on a drum machine; or Around the World in a Day (1985), in which he takes acid, watches Yellow Submarine, and has a bad trip; or any number of mostly excellent latter-day albums, and you’d miss at least part of the big picture, simply because his project existed on a scale broader than any one album could contain. The two that come closest are Sign o’ the Times (1987), which took genre-fucking sprawl as its form, and 1999 (1982), on which funk and rock lie deeply entwined in equal proportions, squirming against each other, one ready to bite the other’s head off — and both are double albums, simultaneously tight and messy. I also enjoy his 1993 compilation The Hits/The B-Sides: two discs of familiar singles and album highlights, with one disc of classic B-sides unavailable anywhere else (“Erotic City”! “Scarlet Pussy”! “Irresistible Bitch”!). If you can abide the radio edits applied to songs whose longer/more complete versions you may already know, you’ll find some pretty amazing stuff cut short, but the edits also ensure constant, natural flow. This compilation provides a clear and representative picture of Prince’s ‘80s period, and while he never made a bad album afterwards, remaining consistent and inventive long after most musicians lose their spark, it was in the ‘80s that Prince’s supergenre truly came to fruition.
Musically, formally, sonically, spiritually, through the language of genre, Prince’s music carries a message of radical inclusion and acceptance that extends as far as the range of his many sounds and styles. His ostensibly silly, certainly pretentious rock hero moves serve not to express their own verbal ideas but rather, by lending it a mouthpiece and a persona, to contextualize the message already implicit in the music. For Prince wasn’t just an amazingly talented one-man-band who commanded a unified supergenre-spectrum, he was a charismatic and personable character who contained that spectrum within his outrageous self, a character who’d smile and whisper, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” The worldview articulated in words was incoherent and sensationalistic. The constructed, imagined personality who would express such a worldview, on the other hand, was wild, unpredictable, irresistible, emotional, crazy, messy, glorious. He loved sex, art, religion, philosophy, big ideas; he loved any form of intimacy; he loved to be adored. He was needy; he took things way too hard and felt things way too deeply. He engaged in acts of debauchery most people will never experience, and he wanted to share them with you. Astutely aware of his own mortality, he knew life was fragile, which was why he lived harder and faster and edgier than anybody. He was a familiar type, discernible in every sex symbol who’s ever seduced you from a stage and every spiritual seeker who’s ever found redemption in popular music. Prince was that type’s exemplar and apotheosis. He played a character exactly as all-encompassing as his sonic palette.
The historically-minded would say that he synthesized several movements and audiences that had previously been kept separate. Those concerned with social issues might posit that he coded multiple identities into his music and his persona for the sake of affirming different communities. I’ll just call him the ultimate rock star.
Rest in peace, dearly beloved.