Illustration by Katrina Muir
One of popular culture’s most humanist qualities is its ability to build empathy among disparate people and groups. When David Bowie died, both the Vatican and the Church of England acknowledged his impact. And for His Royal Badness, Prince Rogers Nelson, tributes have come in from Barack Obama and Donald Trump, from the NAACP and Pornhub.
I can’t imagine Prince using the word “postmodern,” but the high-heeled shoe fits: he was a boundary-breaking paradox of an artist and a person, in perpetual creative motion like Frank Zappa or Andy Warhol. Prince compared himself to Mozart; today I’ll let him have it.
With somewhere around 1,000 song credits, Prince wasn’t all about sex. His “Sunday Songs” were social and spiritual meditations like “Sign o’ the Times,” where he addresses youth gangs, drug abuse, gun violence, infanticide, HIV/AIDS and the Challenger disaster. He also wrote what might be the world’s only Jehovah’s Witness concept album, The Rainbow Children. Similar to many African American artists, Christian and gospel traditions loomed large in Prince’s output. Other jams like “Play in the Sunshine” were just good clean fun.
Yet Prince’s heyday belonged to a period wherein, to paraphrase sociologist Charles Winick, America’s sexual culture changed more in two decades than it had in the previous two centuries. Prince’s first record arrived 10 years after the Motion Picture Association of America introduced the X-rating in 1968, allowing for film pornography’s en masse liberalization. About a decade prior, in 1957, the now infamous trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” resulted in a decision that made “obscenity” almost impossible to prosecute in the U.S. legal system. Of course, that didn’t mean artistic content couldn’t be regulated, and in 1984, it was a Prince-penned song, “Darling Nikki,” that spurred senate hearings and eventually resulted in “Parental Advisory” warning labels on albums. This week, an American DJ recalled how he was banned from playing it in, of all places, a strip joint.
Prince’s back catalogue is among the nastiest in popular music. Whereas Anthony Keidis and others could equal Prince’s explicit tendencies, even Zappa — the closest comparison at hand in terms of a rock musician with a prolific output — had fewer songs about what Prince might call “it.” Prince’s 1980 album Dirty Mind was so sexual that it inspired rock critic Robert Christgau—a Rolling Stones fan—to declare, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.” (To be fair, the Stones once toured with a giant inflatable foam-spraying phallus that did have to be folded up at the end of shows.) Instead, Jagger invited Prince to open for the Stones, where the crowd pelted the upstart artist and his band with projectiles after Prince played “Jack U Off” in underwear and a pair of leg warmers.
Prince synthesized so many influences that much of his music defies any genre: “When Doves Cry,” his biggest hit, features metal shredding, pop keyboards and an electrofunk beat, but not the bass you would expect from a dancefloor anthem. “Prince” became a style unto itself, the only neat way to describe tracks as lush as “Computer Blue” or the ever-mutating sample-a-thon, “Batdance.”
Yet Prince is sometimes overlooked as a lyricist, presumably for being shallow. To dive deep into his back catalogue is to discover a Tolkienesque appreciation for allusion, with quotations and iconography that draw together The Song of Solomon, Roman orgies and Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. “Scarlet Pussy,” for example, is equal parts George Clinton, Shakespeare and Saturday morning cartoon. Sex has always been the invisible loin guiding rock ’n ’ roll, and, at one time, the terms were synonymous. “Rock ’n’ roll don’t come from your head,” James Franco’s character on Freaks and Geeks joked. “It comes from your crotch.” And Prince, more than any other artist before or since, expanded rock’s libidinous vernacular. Fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan was inspired to write “a Prince song” when he crafted “Dirty World” with the Travelling Wilburies, creating a purple pastiche: “He loves your sexy body, he loves your dirty mind.” Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds seems an obvious nod to Prince’s portmanteau album title, Lovesexy. Before Rihanna wrote “S&M,” there were 50 shades of Prince fetishes abounding in “Darling Nikki,” “Sexy MF,” “Automatic” etc.
Prince had endlessly convoluted ways to describe “the act,” which sounded brilliant when they rolled off his tongue. Take the ballad, “Damn U”: “When we make love, I can’t hold back / It’s like having a hundred million little heart attacks.” He could also switch gears in a heartbeat: “That one was for the lovers… this one’s for the whores.” It’s not at all surprising his music is found on the soundtrack of four Hollywood films about sex work.
While he objectified women as he did himself, he had all shapes and sizes in his songs, as was the case when he sampled James Brown in “Gett Off”: “I like ’em fat, I like ’em proud / you’ve gotta have a mother for me, now move your big ass ‘round” (in the accompanying Caligula-inspired video, Prince raps these lyrics at a rail-thin dancer).
Prince also moralized on the subject of sex. If “Little Red Corvette” has a slut-shaming element, it was also a warning from an era where government agencies were ignoring the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In “Sexuality,” he warned, “Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read / or else all they’ll know how to do is cuss, fight and breed.” Whereas Jagger sang about sleeping with underage girls, in “Lolita,” Prince tells a fan, “U’re much 2 young 2 peep my stash / U’re trying to write checks ur body can’t cash.” He also gave good advice to the slouches (“Do it like she like it so ur baby don’t wanna sleep around”) and recommended “pussy control” as a key tool to women’s financial empowerment. “Pussy got bank in her pockets,” Prince rapped, “before she got dick in her drawers.”
A lot of what happens in Prince songs is considered politically incorrect these days. In a culture morally panicked over catcalling, Prince raps like the patron saint of street harassment: “Let me put your body against a parking meter/ Strip your dress down like I was stripping a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy / Let me show you baby I’m a talented boy.” Yet his unabashed pick-up artist routine somehow comes across innocent and playful. “Pretty little whip, you’ve got me drippin’, drippin’ all over the floor,” he freestyles in “Lovesexy”… “If I come back as a woman, I want a body like yours.”
Prince gets away with being a Lothario because of how deftly he could navigate between exploiting people (no one more than himself) and joking at his own expense. In “U Got the Look,” he imagines a nightclub rendezvous after last call: “Closing time, ugly lights, everybody’s inspected / But U are a natural beauty unaffected / Did I say an hour? My face is red, I stand corrected.” Sometimes, his “Little Red Corvette” wasn’t the only thing moving too fast.
Prince often made both his subject and the listener complicit in the debauchery: “U want me just as much as I want U;” “U want me to write my name on ur walls;” “Temperature’s running hot / Baby, u’ve got to stop / cause if u don’t I’m gonna explode and girl I’ve got a lot.”
“I’m gonna talk so sexy she’ll want me from my head to my feet,” he boasted in “Alphabet Street,” regaling audiences with cartoonish romps (“Head,” wherein he steals away a virgin bride-to-be from her wedding and messes up her dress) and nightmarish dancefloor freak-outs (“Shockadlica,” “Irresistible Bitch”); tales of polyamory gone wrong (“When You Were Mine”) and incest gone oh-so-right (“Sister”); he sang about “making love till cherry’s gone” and losing his virginity surrounded by barnyard animals. Remember the fable about the princess and the frog? “I don’t love you,” His Royal Badness sang. “I’m just a horny toad.” And as for long-term commitment? Try listening to “Forever in my Life” without falling for Ol’ Doe Eyes just a little.
Often, Prince’s spiritual and sexual impulses overlapped. He had this routine worked out long before Madonna’s Like a Prayer: in “Controversy,” Prince would remix the “Our Father,” before 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.” On “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” Prince puts the filth meter into the red, promising “I’m not saying this just to be nasty, I sincerely wanna fuck the taste outta your mouth.” Seconds later he offers the following PSA: “I’m in love with God / He’s the only way/ ‘Cause you and I know / We gotta die some day.” Only Prince would interpret the golden rule thusly: “U kiss your enemies like u know you should, then u jerk your body like a horny pony would.”
This tension between puritanism and sexual surrender cuts to the core of America’s dichotomous attitude toward erotica. As Eric Schlosser observes in “An Empire of the Obscene,” out of all the western industrialized nations, the U.S. has some of the toughest restrictions on sexually explicit materials and remains the world’s leading producer of porn. In “If I Was Ur Girlfriend,” Prince refutes a basic tenet of Christian fundamentalist attitudes toward sex: “We don’t have to make children to make love / And we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm.”
How complicated do Prince’s sex lyrics get? In “Lady Cab Driver,” Prince plays a black man who finally lands a taxi. Separated from his history, he tells the driver he can only pay in tears and begs her to exorcise his demons. An alarming monologue follows, where Prince fucks away the problems he sees in America with every angry stroke: greed, poverty, discrimination, warmongering politicians and, as a villainous representative of the frontier myth, Yosemite Sam. When he’s through unleashing his inner devil on his lover he turns his attention to her, to God and the cosmos. “This one’s for the women, so beautifully complex,” he coos, no longer playing misogynist. “This one’s for love without sex.”
Of course, some of his songs were considered “vulgar” because they celebrated a sexuality that wasn’t masculine: “Darling Nikki” was controversial for a reference to a girl “masturbating with a magazine.” Still, for all of the tributes pouring in calling Prince a pansexual voice for free sexual expression (which he was at one point in his decades-long career) sometimes Prince was the uncle at the table who said intolerant things. And let’s also not go crazy and call Prince a staunch feminist: he once wrote a song about tying up an ex-lover in court and having his way with her to legally demonstrate ownership over her bod, angrily titling this one “I Hate U.”
Prince was varied in his erotic tales, and it would be fallacious to assume they’re always from his own perspective: for example, “Sister” isn’t factual, and “Nasty Girl” is meant for a woman to sing. A few songs, like “Shockadelica,” play out like gothic narratives. “This curiosity, it knows no shame,” he sang in “Pheromone,” a song wherein his character watches his crush play sex games involving a gun with another man in a castle. From a certain point of view, these songs were about the value of free speech no matter how puerile: in “Electric Chair,” he sings to a dance partner, “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.” In the utopian “When 2 R in Love,” he wanted to “kiss with one synonymous notion that nothing’s forbidden and nothing’s taboo.”
It’s possible Prince’s aversion to Internet sharing had something to do with the racier elements of his back catalogue, which he abandoned after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. In an interview, Prince admitted to doing things earlier in his career to gain attention — an understatement for an artist who once rocked the MTV Video Awards in assless pants.
Yet Prince’s record was cleaner — much cleaner — than other rockers: he never exposed himself to a crowd, wired a camera into a ladies room, masturbated in front of a cop or relieved himself on the Alamo. Despite his many love affairs and for all his well-publicized eccentricities, I haven’t read a single rumour about him having it off with a prime minister’s wife or a 13 year-old cousin. There are no stories about him abusing underage groupies with urine or seafood or throwing tampons at his fans. Yes, we saw him backhand Appollonia onscreen in Purple Rain, but unlike contemporaries Rick James, James Brown and Chris Brown, Prince was never subject to domestic violence charges, either. Whereas his closest competitor’s legacy is tarnished by child sexual abuse allegations, there is no Prince mugshot or even an innocuous pirated sex tape in circulation. In an arena where rockers have been convicted of sexually abusing infants, Prince seemed a surprising example of upstanding sexual conduct — the Purple One’s erotic excesses seem to have stayed onstage and in the studio. It’s possible he was too busy for sex. “I love ya baby,” Prince sang late in his career after two attempts at marriage, “but not like I love my guitar.”
From the earliest stages of his career, Prince knew the value of innuendo and recognized sex as a driving force behind people’s consumption of popular music. Prince’s songs asked incisive questions about sex, but, no matter the dialogue, it seems what he wanted most was to please everyone he could by offering up any fantasy scenario that came to his dirty mind. And now that Prince has passed — but not before bringing the world to la petite mort — the questions he asks in 1981’s “Controversy” take on another meaning:
“Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?” ■
Read Stefan Sereda’s review of Prince’s Montreal afterparty (March 22, 2016) here.