Pure & Sexy: Prince’s Allure
Prince, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, has for the last decade or so been a relatively quiet presence in the pop culture world. Before moving on, I should qualify that statement. He has been quiet compared to his striding, titanic status in the 1980s. He has never disappeared, never stopped putting out recordings–however difficult they might be to find–and always kept up his profile enough so that people can’t forget about him.
Lately, he has been pushing himself further into the spotlight, and I can only see that as a good thing. Whatever the quality of the recordings he puts out, Prince represents a certain breed of pop superstar that is rare in any age: a prodigious musician, master of spectacle, and sexual/quasi-religious icon all mixed into one man. Few others have bent gender conventions as skillfully, sung about sex so soulfully, or played live shows with as much gusto and raw charisma as Prince. But those are quantitative differences. Many pop stars, present and past are talented or have fascinating or enigmatic personal lives. What are the unique qualities that make Prince’s music and persona so fascinating to a feline such as me?
Sexuality is the default topic for pop music. Popular songs are laced with so many hormones I’m surprised neither the RIAA nor its captive radio audience hasn’t collapsed from pituitary shutdown at this point. NPR reported here on the strong correlation between “reproductive” messages in songs and their popularity on the Billboard charts. Music has this uncanny ability to align us with its rhythms, to take our bodies and turn them into dancing conduits. Our rational faculties often have no say in the matter–music strips us down to the hardware and starts pushing buttons and crossing wires, sometimes in pleasurable ways and sometimes in ways that leave us sore or discombobulated. Dance music has a particularly potent, sometimes I would say weaponized, form of this manipulation. Prince fits well into the pop music world, then. “Reproductive messages” abound in his work, and onstage the man has a notoriously glorious lack of hangups.
Back in the 1980s, I could say that Prince would have had a notably brazen approach to writing sexual lyrics. This is the artist responsible for giving us enough parental outcry to ruin hip-hop cover art forever with parental guidance stickers. And for what? Lyrics like this:
She had so many devices
Everything that money could buy
She said, “Sign your name on the dotted line”
The lights went out and Nikki started to grind
Wholesome family entertainment–basically Prince’s middle name. That’s from “Darling Nikki,” one of the greatest songs about mind-blowing sexual ecstasy ever written. Let’s look at our own time, however. Far more explicit lyrics have and will be written every day than His Purple Majesty could hope to match. At least in quantity. So the shock value is no longer there. What continues to draw me?
I would say that the most compelling part of Prince’s music is its constant, self-conscious wrestling with sexuality as a part of something larger. His songs are often shine like neon strip club sign and angelic halos at the same time. He is a Jehovah’s Witness. Intimacy to him is almost always connected to glory, to a spiritual connection found between people and between people and God. It is often bleak, always blunt, but in more cases than not is reaching for a kind of transcendence. Listening to “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Adore,” “Temptation,” and others is a more surreal and complicated experience than your standard edition pop fare. The first song on that list, especially, feels too close for comfort, inviting the listener into a warped but oddly pure world. Pure. What Prince has is a purity, perhaps a naïvety even. He is convinced the music can change the world and that love can be true, whatever other attendant messiness you might encounter. I am skeptical of this, being a tiger after all, but it’s an intriguing sentiment nonetheless.
It is this quality, this straight-faced, open and sincere investigation of sex in lyrics and stage presentation that sets Prince apart. Combined with the other qualities I listed above, it is absolutely clear to me that, despite wildly uneven output, we can consider Prince’s body of work one of the most (oddly) sensitive and poignant in the pop canon.