Prince changed music by not giving a f**k
It’s been just a few days since the news broke of Prince’s death, and there’ve already been hundreds of covers, memories and thinkpieces. No two are identical. That’s the beautiful thing about figures like Prince and David Bowie: everything you can say about them is interesting. But where Bowie lived many different lives across the decades, on Purple Rain, it felt like Prince was living all of his at once.
No one person ever dominated a summer quite like Prince in 1984. In the last week of July, Purple Rain was the number one film at the US box office, breaking Ghostbusters’ seven-week streak. The Purple Rain album – so much more than a mere soundtrack – sat atop Billboard‘s pop and R&B charts, while ‘When Doves Cry’ was the number one pop, R&B and dance single. One person had the top film, album and single in the country – a feat we’ll likely never see again.
A guitarist to rival Hendrix, a bandleader as commanding as James Brown, a studio polymath like Stevie Wonder
Purple Rain was lightning in a bottle. That same electricity ran through Prince’s sprawling late-’80s records, but the hits were more scattered. In the mid-’90s, with no patience for major labels or pop radio, his creative muse retreated into his Paisley Park studio and never left. Was he intimidated by his earlier, world-conquering successes? Or was he totally unconcerned with fame, happy to make music at his own prolific pace? There were great moments, but we stopped talking about new Prince albums a decade ago, maybe two.
Not that it mattered – Prince never became a nostalgia act. Most artists need time to be reevaluated, but Prince has remained an influence on popular music at every point in the last 30-odd years. Sinéad O’Connor, Mariah Carey, The Fugees, D’Angelo, Justin Timberlake, The Neptunes, Kanye, Beyoncé, Robyn, Miguel and countless others owe a massive debt to Prince’s work. Artists can spend whole careers just rewriting one song from Purple Rain.
Purple Rain, the album, encompassed nearly everything we thought of as “popular music” in 1984 – pop, rock, R&B, new wave, funk – at a time when new technologies had thrown all of those genres off balance. There was no formula to any one of them – just look at the sheer variety in the 1984 charts. Prince had become his own genre. He was a guitarist to rival Hendrix, a bandleader as commanding as James Brown, a studio polymath like Stevie Wonder. His band, The Revolution, were a utopian vision of mixed race, gender and orientation, in a time when music was even more of a boys’ club than it is now. Prince was singular, and he was plural.
Prince was singular, and he was plural
Rock ‘n’ roll began by bringing together polar opposites: the world-weariness of the blues with youth, gospel with sex. Prince took the thinly veiled sexuality of someone like Little Richard, and made it very, very literal. ‘Darling Nikki’ is so explicit it directly led to the creation of the Parental Advisory sticker. But even his most religious songs built to an orgasmic climax.
Like Mick Jagger and David Bowie before him, Prince turned masculinity into a performance. Ruffle shirts and heels weren’t cool – Prince made them cool, by simply not giving a fuck. The album art for Lovesexy, Dirty Mind and countless other photoshoots were so daring that they never became punchlines. His 2007 Super Bowl performance yielded perhaps the most phallic image of a guitar ever seen. But it was a wink at censorship and the Janet Jackson incident; there was no macho rockstar ego to it.
It’s easy to say that you can live however you want, love whoever you want, dress how you like. But we’re not there yet. We’re still governed by social norms – some subconscious, some hateful. If we’re still embarrassed by our “guilty pleasures”, something as inconsequential as our taste in music, imagine what else we’re repressing? Sex, gender, genre – they’re all boundaries our minds create. Every decade or so, we need someone to remind us that it’s all bullshit. Prince wasn’t just a musician, he was a godlike genius, a transgressive icon and a symbol of so much more.
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. Follow him on Twitter at @Richaod.