Prince, pop, race and America: How a difficult, pansexual genius remade our culture

He vowed 2 die 4 us, and maybe he did: The legacy of an American pop genius and his unrealized dance-floor utopia

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 21, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Prince   (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Prince (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

I once had a girlfriend, a thousand years ago across the continent, who got her dark curly hair cut into an off-center wedge that hung across the right half of her face. She liked to wear purple paisley-pattern dresses, and cut out her own paisley stencil to use in repainting her red 1969 Vespa scooter. She used to talk dreamily about the affair she’d have with Prince someday, which would not jeopardize our relationship — I mean, surely I would understand — and which for some reason involved a house on Lake Geneva. (She and I are still close friends, and in fact she is also a New York journalist now. It wouldn’t be fair to out her in this context.)

I don’t think my friend ever got to have her Swiss escapade with Prince, which sounds like an episode out of an undiscovered Henry James novel, and it’s too late now. Prince Rogers Nelson, formerly the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, one of the most talented, exuberant and profoundly frustrating songwriters and musical performers of our time, was found dead at his Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis on Thursday. She had a point, though, when it came to my reaction to her proposed liaison: What could I possibly have said? At the peak of his powers, Prince was an ambiguous, erotic figure of tremendous potency and protean symbolism. I’m not a woman, he sang to us in 1984. I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand.

Prince was not a generation-spanning, culture-shaping genius who transcended or transformed all questions of style and genre, as the late David Bowie was. He was a massive influence on one micro-generation — which happens to be mine — and something of a mixed and mysterious legend to those younger or older. He recorded and released too much music too fast and too carelessly, to the point that the albums he made after about 1994 (at the latest) often feel like the work of a different and far less focused artist. His struggles with religion, the Internet, his fans, and record companies and promoters became a bigger part of the story than his recordings or performances.

None of that was unique in the annals of pop music, to be sure, but Prince was such an outsize talent and — how do I put this on the day of his death? — such a challenging personality that everything about his story felt exaggerated. In any case, the similarities between Prince and Bowie are unavoidable, and I feel certain the two artists studied each other’s musical output and mercurial personas with fascination. The fact that the former was not quite the latter reflected various things, from race and nationality to timing and temperament, but definitely not a lack of talent or ambition. Prince was a prodigious natural musician who could play almost any instrument and sing in any male vocal range from falsetto to baritone. If Bowie was a relentless chameleon who experimented with every possible style, Prince was the ultimate pop synthesist of his era. While the mixture of rock and funk was pretty much atmospheric in the 1980s, few hitmakers of that decade understood both genres as deeply as Prince did.

Prince’s distinctive brand of hybridized American dance-pop no doubt had something to do with growing up as an African-American kid in Minneapolis, then a predominantly white city. One of his most endearing qualities was his relationship to his hometown; while he spent extended periods in Los Angeles and London and various European cities, he never abandoned the Gopher State altogether. But you also get the sense that Prince was his own creation, and might have forged himself the same way in Harlem or Amsterdam or Juneau, Alaska.

It’s so often a useless cliché to say that a pop artist was ahead of his time, and in fact Prince’s ascension perfectly distilled the pansexual, multiracial, hedonistic and downwardly mobile cultural politics of the Reagan era, when those of us who lived in cities where our friends were dying of a disease the president wouldn’t name out loud had good reason to feel hated and rejected by the so-called mainstream. But he also anticipated so many things, including an era when artificial distinctions between “black music” and “white music” have largely evaporated. No one finds it peculiar now when a hip-hop record incorporates heavy-metal guitar, or when members of the Roots talk about how much they love Brian Wilson.

If you want to talk about influences on Prince’s music you can pretty much stick a pin in the map of pop history, from Tin Pan Alley to doo-wop to 1960s psychedelia. For me he epitomizes a remark attributed to Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, another musical genius we lost barely two months ago: White people sometimes assume that black people didn’t listen to the Beatles, or weren’t affected by them. No African-American artist I can think of is more obviously and self-consciously Beatle-esque than Prince, who seemed to channel each of the Fab Four at different moments. If the aforementioned “I Would Die 4 U” — for my money one of Prince’s very best — has the bravado and ambition of a John Lennon song, then “Raspberry Beret” has the infectious pop craftsmanship of Paul McCartney. (Yes, I know: Production-wise, it’s closer to the L.A. psychedelic sound.)

After his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2004, Prince played an extended guitar solo during an ensemble performance of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Barely a month earlier, he had played a memorable duet with Beyoncé at the Grammys, performing her hit “Crazy in Love” as well as “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” That was the world he had created, and there were quite a few moments like that in his later career, live performances where it all seemed to come together one more time. In 2006, he played a medley of Chaka Khan hits (several of which he wrote) at the BET Awards. His Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, featuring covers of “Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “We Will Rock You,” may yet be the best single performance in the history of that peculiar showcase (if you don’t count Katy Perry’s land shark).

I won’t claim to have paid equal or fair attention to the indiscriminate onslaught of recordings that flowed from the breakdown of Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. in the ‘90s; I’m not sure anyone could have. Counting live albums, remixes and greatest-hits collections, he released at least 21 records between 1995 and 2005. There were successes like “Musicology” in 2004 (his most consistent release in at least a decade) and semi-lost critical fave-raves like “The Gold Experience” from 1995, which remains difficult to find by legal means. But just as often Prince seemed devoted to sabotaging his career as a perverse act of performance art: He shoved aside the much-anticipated “Black Album” for years, releasing the slapdash “Lovesexy” instead. Anyone with ears could tell that the jazz tradition had profoundly shaped his sensibility; that didn’t mean he had to spend several years and several albums playing his own mediocre jazz compositions.

Prince understood, as we all understood, that the seven albums he recorded from “Dirty Mind” in 1980 to the double-length masterpiece “Sign o’ the Times” in 1987 represented a creative peak, and a creative fusion, that neither he nor anyone else could match. I haven’t mentioned his hits from that period because I don’t need to: After the opening chords of “Little Red Corvette” or “When Doves Cry” or “Kiss,” almost any person of any race or nationality who lived within the Western cultural economy of the 1980s reaches over to turn up the car radio. Prince captured, embodied and symbolized a multicultural dance-floor utopia that was never quite reality, but was all the more beautiful for that. He was a difficult person who taught us to love each other, resist evil and dance while the world ended: 1999 came and went, long ago. Losing Prince is a bitter reminder that we never partied quite the way we should.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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