June 7, 1958– Prince Rogers Nelson:
“What’s missing from pop music is danger.”
I am not squeamish about death, having come within a few breaths of leaving this world in 2014. Still, the passing of an icon can take its toll emotionally. I grieved for the shocking loss of David Bowie, one of the most influential artists of my lifetime, by listening to his music, especially his fine final album that was eerily released on the day of his passing on January 10, two days after his 69th birthday. I cried a bit when I heard the news, but then I went on a trip through my memory, checking off all the times in three and a half decades where his songs became a soundtrack for my life.
When Prince left this world in spring 2016, it was again a shock. He had been doing a series of small concerts and he seemed as vital and creative as ever. Like I did with Bowie, I took an inventory of where I was and what I was doing when I first heard each of my favorite songs by that little purple paisley genius. As a gay guy, his songs spoke to me with their sexual heat and off-beat lyrics (this was a guy who wrote an intensely catchy, immensely popular tune about a girl choosing a hat at a thrift store). Prince has given me a handful of his thousands of songs that always seemed very personal, reflecting on my own life.
Again, on the day of his passing, I played his albums all day. But, I also reflected on Prince’s conflicted relationship to LGBTQ people, some of his biggest fans.
It’s been known for more than a decade that Prince was a real Jehovah’s Witness who would go door-to-door in an attempt to win converts to his austere faith. Prince had been growing apart from the liberal artistic values that were so much a part of show biz during his career. He had a friendship with Denver’s Christian Conservative media mogul Philip Anschutz, and he became vocal in his opposition to Marriage Equality and gay people adopting. When asked about his perspective on social issues: Gay Rights, abortion, sexual liberation, Prince would tap his Bible and state:
“God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough’.“
Prince got a lot of attention for his views, airing them amid nationwide demonstrations against the passage of a California’s Prop 8 in 2008. What does for the term “celibate” possibly mean to his sales and popularity, when he is the same guy that gave us Controversy, 1999, and Darling Nikki? How did all this fit with the man who wrote:
“I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
She said: how’d you like to waste some time?
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind…“
Prince was a pop star who became world famous with his effete, fey, androgynous “is he gay or not?” persona. But for the last third of his long career, Prince actively avoided talking about Gay Rights, and some fans found a subtle homophobia in his later lyrics.
Dig, if you will, a picture of an artist who once preached the very idea of “sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever” even with a magazine. Why did he become so conservative and religious? The answer is simple really: People change and we never know why.
After Prince became a devout Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s, his performances often featured cleaned-up versions of the lyrics to his naughtiest songs. Prince:
“When you’re 20 years old, you’re looking for the ledge. You want to see how far you can push everything and then you make changes. There’s a lot of things I don’t do now that I did 30 years ago. And then there are some things I still do.“
When I discovered Prince in 1979, I was drawn to his image as a hairy, frequently naked man, or was he a man? Well there was his junk bulging beneath a satiny bikini bottom. His eyes were rimmed in black and he had those full, pouty lips, and he was posing like a pin-up girl. He had long hair. He was diminutive, svelte, ethnically ambiguous and he simply radiated lust.
Prince, in the 1980s, was unafraid of being called feminine or gay or perverted. If I Was Your Girlfriend was a fantasy about some gender swapping. Controversy asks: “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?”. I Would Die 4 U states: “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.” In 2015, a joke by Boy George about having had sex with Prince seemed totally plausible and was misconstrued as a confession.
Still, on this day, when Prince would have celebrated his 62nd birthday with some raspberry cake, I think that despite Prince’s conservative provocations late in his career, there is no debate that he had a gigantic influence on queer people with his music and his persona.
“When I first started out in the music industry, I was most concerned with freedom. Freedom to produce, freedom to play all the instruments on my records, freedom to say anything I wanted to.“
When Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, in a tribute to George Harrison, Prince played a guitar solo during an all-star version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps that left the audience stunned.
In his 37 year long career, Prince won seven Grammy Awards. His Top 10 hits included my favorite Prince tunes: Little Red Corvette, When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy, and Kiss. He recorded 39 studio albums (four in the last two years alone), five soundtrack albums, four live albums, five compilation albums, 17 video albums, and twelve extended play records. His albums like Dirty Mind, 1999 and Sign O’ The Times were full-length manifestos. His songs also became hits for other artists: Nothing Compares 2 U for Sinead O’Connor, Manic Monday for The Bangles and I Feel For You for Chaka Khan. In an unlikely choice, Stephen Rutledge does a bang-up cover of Little Red Corvette in his act.
With his rather messy film Purple Rain (1984) he told a slightly fictionalized version of his own story: biracial, gifted, a dizzying ambition. His score won an Academy Award, and the soundtrack album sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. He followed it with a nearly incomprehensible movie, Under The Cherry Moon (1986), that is still loads of fun to watch.
His music was so embracing of different genres: R&B, Blues, Rock, Hip-Hop, Pop, Funk, Dance, Techno, New Wave, Soul, Rock. He was brutal as a rapper, tender as a crooner, swooping smoothly from baritone to falsetto; his music brought a sort of freedom to his gay fans.
But, Prince was not always so free himself. In 1993, he fought his record company, Warner Bros, because they weren’t releasing his albums fast enough to keep up with the music he made. He defied them because the name “Prince” was their property, not his. Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that combined, gracefully, the male and female signs.
Prince will always remain one of my favorite recording artists. My favorite President is a fan too. Barack Obama:
“Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer. ‘A strong spirit transcends rules’, Prince once said, and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.“