Sacred. Profane. Lover. Slave. Coy. Explicit. Intimate. Epic. Human. Messiah. Prince was a study in oppositions, ambiguity, and resistance.
He refused to be pinned down on his racial identity, telling interviewers that he was mixed, quarter black and/or half Italian (in fact both his parents were African American), and he played with a racially diverse band. He started out as a funk artist and over time fused funk with punk ethics, gospel, R&B, new wave, rock, pop, and hip hop.
His fluidity with musical styles reflected his virtuosity. But his musical fusions were also driven by his desire to expand his fan base, to cross over from a primarily black audience to a white one. He realized that goal with his multi-award winning 1984 album Purple Rain.
The ghost of Jimi Hendrix was in the title, and in this Prince established himself in a lineage of rock royalty. (The Hendrix connection was obvious, Prince would claim, instead citing Joni Mitchell as a more significant musical influence.)
Tracks from the album, including the title song, also incorporated the African American gospel tradition, in the content and preacherly delivery of lyrics about grand themes, and in the ecstatic joy of his performance in songs like Let’s Go Crazy. That song opens the album with a sermon:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
The album, and particularly its title song, also echoed rock anthems such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Stairway to Heaven, beginning softly and building to a crescendo. In merging styles on this album, Prince desegregated the black funk/white rock divide that had emerged during the 1970s. He paid homage to the black roots of rock'n'roll, a musical form that by the 1980s had become known simply as “rock” and was associated with white musicians.
The film that accompanied the album, was read as semi-autobiographical. In it, Prince plays a musician raised by parents who abuse each other. His character is on track to repeat that history, but is transformed by love and music.
Purple Rain is the last song he performs in the film and the last song on the album. In light of what has come before, it becomes a song of redemption, of transcendence and pain. Prince’s ability as a communicator is striking here. We don’t need to ask what purple rain actually is: the emotion he sings tells us that it is the rain that absolves, cleanses, makes everything alright.
The album also contains the song Darling Nikki, about a woman Prince describes as a “sex fiend” he met “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” The lyrics inspired Tipper Gore to found the Parents Music Resource Center, the organisation that campaigned for parental advisory sticker warnings on CDs and albums.
Apart from triggering the formal censorship of popular music lyrics, the song is an example of Prince’s thematic engagement with unbridled and unapologetic female desire.
Prince’s relationships with women as performed in his songs and in the film Purple Rain were complex, vacillating between objectifying and worshipping.
Yet Prince always gave the sense that a woman’s sexual pleasure was his ultimate purpose and reward, and this was part of his allure. He offset his diminutive stature by intimating that he was a giant in bed.
And by performing so lustfully, he granted everyone permission for pleasure. In a decade when the rise of AIDs fuelled a conservative backlash against sexual liberation, Prince’s overt sexuality was both protest and license.
But as he played with racial identity, he also played with gendered and sexual categories. In his early years of performing, he would sometimes dress in women’s clothes.
His adoption of purple, frills, cummerbunds, and heels, made him a visual dandy, and contrasted with the heterosexuality of his lyrics.
In these ways, he flipped the script of macho, hetero, white cock rockers. Was he bisexual? Was he gay? What was his relationship with bandmates Wendy and Lisa, who flanked him in press photographs, and when he accepted an Oscar for best motion picture song?
The artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby once argued that black male artists have had to emasculate themselves in order to appeal to white audiences, saying,
Prince has had to play the bisexual image, cast aspersions as to his dominant heterosexuality.
But as the scholar Marybeth Hamilton has argued in her work on Little Richard, this analysis ignores the history of effeminate masculinity as an “indigenous black tradition”.
And, the analysis also elides Prince’s agency and brilliance in creating himself as an elusive being. When he sang: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand” he refused binary categorisation. Prince opened himself up as an object of desire, identification, projection, and admiration for people across spectrums of gender and sexuality. Prince’s queerness resisted and undermined norms, even as he became a pop idol.
Prince’s desire to resist and evade, also manifest in the battle he began with his record label Warner Bros in 1993 and his advocacy for artist’s rights in the face of corporate ownership. Warner Bros wanted to control the speed of his output. He wanted ownership of his music and control over how he released it. Prince released 39 albums in total but is said to have left behind thousands more songs in a vault at Paisley Park.
It is interesting to consider whether his later conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness in some way reflected his desire to have a direct relationship with his audience, unmediated by a corporation. (Jehovah’s Witnesses see themselves as having a direct relationship with God.)
As part of his protest, Prince appeared in public with “slave” written on his face. In a 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, in a typical move, he denied that he meant to invoke or compare himself to slaves of the past.
Yet, because of Prince’s perceived blackness, the connection could not be explained away. His use of the word “slave” also drew attention to the ways that slavery endured after emancipation, including in the popular music industry’s exploitation of black artists.
Prince’s brilliant legal tactic, often dismissed as eccentricity, was to adopt the moniker “Love Symbol”. Although Warner Bros owned his birth name and any musical output associated with it, he argued, they had no right to anything released under his new name.
Prince’s desire to own and control his own creative productions also manifest in his refusal to allow his songs or videos to be made available free of charge online. Why and how should he — or any other artist — labour for nothing?
The question that Prince posed through his actions is central to the future of a music industry already gutted by internet-enabled free access to music. Prince’s stance and integrity on this is part of his legacy.
But Prince’s position on this has also hurt his legacy. His fight with Warner Bros cost him promotion opportunities and audiences. By being inaccessible to new generations raised online, and as his early audiences age, Prince all but disappears from popular memory. In the aftermath of his death, when we go to the internet to find his music, we only meet its absence.
Yet, in a typically paradoxical Prince move, this confirms his genius as a master of elusion. Perhaps this is his enduring act of resistance: when we reach for him, he slips away.
Dr Rebecca Sheehan is a lecturer at the University's United States Studies Centre. This article was first published in The Conversation.
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