I was dating someone in the music industry in 1981 and one night they excitedly put a cassette in a tape player that contained a song by an artist I’d never heard of. For those who don’t know or can’t remember what cassettes are, think of it this way:
- Reel-to-reel tape
- Eight track tape
- Downloadable content
- Virtual Reality
Anyway, that’s not the point and it only makes me, and perhaps some of you, feel right on the precipice. What is pertinent is that I thought my industry pseudo boyfriend, who worked for a company associated with Warner Bros., would lose his mind as he cued up the tape and gushed that the about-to-be-heard song was by this kid from Minnesota who did everything. He played every instrument; wrote, produced and mixed all of his own songs; performed them with abandon; had a gay androgynous look complete with makeup; and, most importantly, was quite short and sexy. Of course, me being massively insecure, in my early twenties and only 5’7” I immediately forgot the artist and appropriated the last two adjectives into a personal compliment – one that positively ensured my future with the Industry Guy.
This, of course, is something only someone in his or her twenties can or should be allowed to do – seeing the world totally in terms of yourself and appropriating free-floating compliments as your own. That is because it blinds you to the greatness of what’s right in front of you. In this case, it wasn’t the boyfriend (Ahem – that didn’t end well). It was the artist….formerly known as Prince…who when he unexpectedly died on Thursday of this week was once again simply known as…
His song was a nice little Prince ditty called Controversy and while I liked it I can’t honestly say I was overly impressed. Though after the 12th time it was played – yeah, this industry guy was nothing if not insistent about me sharing his opinion of things – I started to get it. And knew, at least this one time, he was right.
There was something about the beat, the repetitiveness of words – some of which I couldn’t even understand, the sometime squeaky yet tuneful multi-octave voice that sounded like nothing I’d ever really heard before. Eventually I couldn’t get the song or this kid/guy/artist/whatever Prince out of my head. And that was before I had actually read and studied the words:
I just can’t believe all the things people say/Controversy/
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?/Controversy
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
I can’t understand human curiosity/Controversy
Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be?/Controversy
Do you get high, does your daddy cry?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
Yeah, oh yeah
There are more verses but this sort of says it. He wasn’t quite drawing on the sexual fluidity of David Bowie, who came right before him, and he bore little resemblance to Michael Jackson – the other young Black, somewhat androgynous artist we had all grown up with. At that time, and probably at any time, there was never anything sexy about MJ no matter how often he grabbed his crotch and gyrated in later years. But Prince? He was kind of…dangerous? The embodiment of the performer you’d see if you snuck into the fantasy club your parents would never let you attend.
What made Prince special were so many things musical. As a writer he not only churned out hits for himself but handed off songs he had written to countless other performers that became their signatures – Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U and Manic Monday for The Bangles are just two examples. His live shows were massively colorful, even edgy theatre pieces with costumes that evoked a sort of schizoid mix of Liberace, Little Richard and James Brown. But even when he stripped things down, literally – they didn’t take a back seat to what he was singing or he and his bands were playing.
When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy, 1999, Kiss, Purple Rain. I could go on and on for years and years – duets, solo records, thousands of hours of unreleased material he notoriously stocked that we may or may not hear one day. But again, you get the picture.
I guess what I want to say is what he did he did it. As himself. Yet somehow maintained an enigma. Some people that knew him didn’t know him and others that did knew him well. But by all accounts, no one entirely knew him. As you can’t really know anyone. What a dichotomy in an age when we know too much about everybody – even those we don’t know.
There’s talent and then there’s egotism. Of course, there is a double edge to talent. Not everyone is brilliant at everything. No one could ever accuse him of being a great film director (Graffiti Bridge). Nevertheless, he won an Oscar. Some wouldn’t call him a great business person for signing a contract that he later felt enslaved him to WB Records and cause him to forgo his real name for a number of years when he asked people to refer to him as a symbol – and then simply The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. But that too he did with originality – whether we liked it or not.
Not every one of us is Prince. No one in fact. But we do all have the ability to chart our own path, listen to our own voice and forge our own journeys artistically and otherwise. At 5’2” he was the tallest guy in the room and there is always something sexy about that. Not the height – but the stature.