For a generation of youth–queer and non-queer alike–Prince cleared the path to a different way of embodying gender and sexuality.
I recited the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” at my wedding reception in 2006, to a room of largely puzzled fifty- and sixty-somethings. When the news of Prince’s passing dropped this afternoon, a wave of horror ripped through my Media Studies class, and almost by instinct I stood before the students and spoke the Purple One’s classic words once again:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life. Electric word ‘life,’ it means forever and that’s a mighty long time but I’m here to tell you there’s something else… the afterworld…
It seemed all too fitting—life and death, marriage and rebirth—all the big themes were there in those few short words written by Prince in the 1980s. They always felt simultaneously profound and jokey, a lark tacked onto the front of one of the most rip-roaring, killer rock songs of all time. It was like Prince was daring radio to play it. And, of course, they did.
Prince was always challenging the world and then raising the stakes even higher. Though he started out as what appeared to be a fairly mainstream R&B artist in the late 1970s, his inner genius and irrespressible weirdness could not be contained for long. He sang about menages a trois and masturbation at a time when the New Right and other assorted and sundry morality police were trying to sanitize American culture in the 1980s. (Hi, Tipper Gore!)
He mixed rock, R&B, gospel, psychedelia and just about everything else at a time when MTV wasn’t even willing to play black artists, and the lines between white music (country, rock) and black music (R&B, hip-hop) seemed to be hardening after the hangover from disco’s multicultural moment in the 1970s. He could shred chords with the best of them, while casually tossing off an R&B smash like “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” or a silky acoustic ballad like “Dinner with Dolores.” He was like Michael Jordan if he had been a truly great baseball player—and mastered hockey to boot.
Prince railed against his record company for trying to hold back his copious output. He made a record—1987’s notorious Black Album—and then pulled it minutes before it hit the street; a few loose copies allowed it to become one of the biggest and most sought-after bootlegs of all time. Prince being Prince, he already had another album, Lovesexy, locked and loaded to release in its stead—a fluffier offering that featured the Purple One ludicrously posing naked on a flower like a goddamn cherub.
Perhaps most notoriously, Prince defied the world to accept him on his own terms by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. He went on to have hits anyway, even though no one knew what to call him except for “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince” or, simply, “the Artist.”
It was not hard to notice that the Symbol seemed to be a meshing of male and female icononography, and to me this is one of Prince’s biggest contributions (apart, of course, from his mind-bogglingly huge catalog of gifted pillow talk). For Prince was unique in explicitly and straightforwardly embracing a queer aesthetic.
It’s not that he directly addressed sexual orientation all that often—if anything his image was unabashedly hetero, always surrounded by and seducing scores of adoring women—but in his gender presentation he made it as clear as day that he just didn’t give a damn about traditional masculinity. Conventional machismo was like a skin that he sloughed off with ease and never looked back.
For young people in the 1980s and 1990s—and I suspect especially for boys—this was a revelation. You could be powerful, attractive, lusted-after and accepted even if you wore a purple blouse, makeup, and assless yellow chaps. You could be sexy without being overtly “male” in the way of most rock stars.
Of course, Prince was not the first to do this. David Bowie and the glam movement broke open the horizons of possibility for youth in the 1970s in much the same way. (Director Todd Haynes, a giant of queer cinema, made Bowie’s liberating influence a major theme of his film Velvet Goldmine.) Even the Beatles charted a path for men to be sexy in a way that was witty, erudite, shaggy-haired and a bit androgynous. Nirvana continued the theme when they wore dresses and eye-liner on stage, embracing their image as “fudge-packing, crack-smoking, Satan-worshipping motherfuckers.”
But there was something about Prince—the way his music transcended lines of genre and race (yes, Bowie did this too, at least at times) and commanded a massive pop audience. Michael Jackson may have also read as feminine at times and eschewed old-school machismo, but he never seemed to feel as at peace with his own identity as Prince did.
The Purple One’s music put this complex gender play front and center in his work, fusing his androgynous presentation with an explicit and effusive sense of straight male libido. An abstemious Jehovah’s Witness he might have been, but his character was that of a genderqueer Casanova, a Don Juan in drag.
In other words, Prince made it clear that there were more colors to the palette, more ways of being male or female or anything outside or in between those lines. For gay, bi, trans, straight or simply questioning kids from the 1980s onward, that was a precious thing.
Of course, he also made his own path in other ways. He got out of his record contract in the 1990s and spearheaded a defiant indie operation of his own, issuing records like 1997’s sprawling, three-disc Emancipation (with unsung classics such as “Joint 2 Joint”) to albums as weird and uneven as The Rainbow Children. Like Woody Allen or Robert Pollard, he refused an editor and wanted to give the world as much he could create, without compromise.
Notably, Prince experienced a late-career Renaissance with Musicology (2004) and 3121 (2006), but he was characteristically defiant as ever. He resisted allowing his music to be available on iTunes or YouTube or Spotify, denying many the chance to revisit or discover his vast catalog in a format that lacked the filters and limits of the old record-company system he abhorred. (I wish there were any easy way to listen to “Let’s Go Crazy” right now; fortunately, a Minneapolis radio station is ready to help.) To me, that was an unfortunate choice. However, seeing the look of utter shock and despair on the faces of a classroom full of 20-year-old college students makes me think that the younger generation found out about his genius one way or another.
It’s good to know that the Afterworld is a “world of neverending happiness.” Farewell, sweet Prince.