Prince’s Legacy: ‘Set your mind free’

Published in: September-October 2016 issue.


PRINCE ROGERS NELSON was as loved by fans at the end of his life as at any time of his career. When he took the stage of the 2015 Grammy Awards, even the stars were star-struck. The entire audience leapt to its feet at the sight of him and roared its approval. But the Grammys’ adoration was a stark contrast to the racial and sexual hostility that marked his initial rise. Prince debuted as a disco artist at precisely the moment when Stonewall’s revolution was giving way to Reagan’s.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 were, as a practical matter, a revolt against New York City’s cabaret laws. As George Chauncey notes in his 1994 book Gay New York, these laws were not just repressive for gays; they could be used to criminalize any form of sex outside marriage, even heterosexual sex, as amateur prostitution. Chauncey thus casts “saloons, cabarets, and other social venues where men and women transgressed Victorian gender conventions” as political frontiers where basic civil liberties were at stake. Although some of these laws remain on the books even today, Stonewall became a tipping point after which their enforcement declined. This gave nightlife venues and the music played in them a remarkably important role in the politics of sexual identity. Hence the newly emergent disco music, like jazz before it, became what the young scholar Nico Rosario characterized as “the music of the marginalized.”

Disco music rapidly became an integrated effort on all levels—a musical genre undeniably more open to gay men than traditional R&B and more open to African-Americans and women than country or rock. The VH1 documentary When Disco Ruled the World opens with music producer Nile Rodgers offering the following superlative: “It was probably, in my humble opinion, the most liberated period in the history of the world.” In December 1977, the film Saturday Night Fever brought disco to its commercial apex, topping the box office and Billboard music charts simultaneously. The soundtrack would become one of the best-selling albums of all time. But the fact that the film and its soundtrack were largely heterosexual and white was portentous. The mainstreaming of the disco-lib movement was complete, but a cultural backlash was around the corner.

In the summer of 1979, two disc jockeys in Chicago invited listeners to an unusual event at Comiskey Park billed as Disco Demolition Night. Author Gillian Frank reported in an article called “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash against Disco” that attendance at the event surged to 70,000, greatly exceeding PRINCE July 18 - FINALthe park’s capacity. Fans were given reduced admission if they brought a disco record to put on a large pyre. The demolition was not merely ceremonial; nor was it confined to records. Fans destroyed baseball equipment, uprooted the turf, and set fires in various parts of the park. Frank observed that the violent scene “transformed disco from a socially acceptable form of music and culture to one that was highly stigmatized. However, the backlash was not directed simply at a musical genre but at the identities linked to disco culture,” namely women, blacks, and gays. Comiskey, coming almost exactly ten years after Stonewall, was its cultural and political antithesis.

Given the national coverage that Comiskey received, there’s little chance it escaped Prince’s notice. “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the disco/funk love song that became his first mainstream hit, would be released just one month later. People often refer to artists as being ahead of their time, but, in many ways, Prince was behind his. The image that he presented that night trailed the most flamboyant days of Elton John and David Bowie, or even the flashy African-American groups like Parliament, Labelle, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Every- thing that those ballpark fans were trying to burn, Prince in his breakthrough single had tried to become. So when his talent caught the eye of Mick Jagger, who personally invited Prince to open for the Rolling Stones on their 1981 American tour, the disaster that ensued should have been foreseen. Prince tried to open on two dates in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, October 9 and 11. His stage persona at the time resembled no one more than Jagger himself—save for Prince’s transparent trench coat, bikini briefs, and high heels. As Dave Ford recalls in a eulogy to Prince for The Bay Area Reporter, the “sadly conformist throng expressed their displeasure first by booing and screaming ‘Faggot!’ and then by pelt[ing]the stage with beer bottles.” Prince was unable to complete his set on either night.

Perhaps those nights with the Stones partially account for why the persona that Prince constructed for the blockbuster 1999 album the following year little resembled the one who got rejected in L.A. that night. Throughout his career, Prince would continue to experiment with gender and sexual boundaries, but the most politically radical part of his 35-year career was already behind him.

Prince’s For You was a remarkable accomplishment as a debut album in that he composed every song and played every instrument. However, his second album in many ways should have been his first. The self-titled second album contained the songs that inaugurated Prince’s early sound: the aforementioned “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” and perhaps most significantly, “I Feel for You,” which Chaka Khan would transform into one of the biggest adaptations in the Prince songbook. While the first album cover showed Prince dimly lit and out of focus, the image on Prince is brightly lit, and his gaze directly addresses the viewer in a manner that his next two album covers would replicate. The For You afro is replaced with the processed hair that Prince would keep for most of his career. The clarity and confidence of the second album render his effeminate persona that much more striking. Of course, long, permed hair was not the exclusive territory of women. Barry White had been sporting a down-do for some time. But with his deep voice, prodigious facial hair, and tremendous bearing, White was in no danger of being viewed a sissy. In contrast, Prince at the time sang exclusively in falsetto, and his feminine hairstyle was underscored by his penchant for hoop earrings and high heels.

On Prince’s third and fourth albums, Dirty Mind and Controversy, the hair was not quite as long, and Prince was beginning to explore his lower vocal register. On these projects, the chief shock value lay in his wardrobe—the trench coat and bikini briefs had become his signature—and his song lyrics. Tracks like “Bambi” and “Sister” risked gimmickry with their salacious narratives of rape and incest. But the more affecting political journey began with the song “Uptown”:
She said, “Are you gay?”
Kinda took me by surprise, I didn’t know what to do
I just looked her in her eyes and I said, “No, are you?”

Said to myself, “She’s just a crazy, crazy, crazy little
mixed up dame,
She’s just a victim of society and all its games.”
Now where I come from,
We don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be.
Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care,
It’s all about being there.
Everybody’s going uptown
That’s where I want to be
Set your mind free.
A later lyric, “We do whatever we please,” is a clear invitation to join him in rejecting social rules. There’s a complexity to this song that defies a number of conventions, foremost among them that the meanings of “uptown” and “downtown” are reversed. In the traditional use of the metaphor, “downtown” bohemianism sets itself against the social restrictions of uptown society. But in this song, perhaps mirroring the upside-down geography of Prince’s own Minneapolis, uptown is where liberation and sexual license occur. In “Uptown,” when the woman asks “are you gay,” it’s accusatory. But trapped in her shortsightedness, she becomes the “victim.” This song is a surprisingly sensitive articulation of the social pressures that Prince had been facing in this era, even though the song’s speaker comes across as assertive and defiant.

After Controversy, the fourth album, New York Times critic Robert Palmer presaged Prince’s eventual acceptance by a broader audience: “The fact that white rock fans have tended to banish him to the black-music ghetto says more about racism in contemporary pop music circles than it does about Prince’s songs or his presentation. And their resistance has been crumbling.” Palmer’s review links the crumbling of racial barriers to that of sexual ones, observing that “for Prince, sexual liberation is both a political program and a religion.” But with the release of 1999 in the following year, when Prince rebranded his solo act as the ensemble Prince and the Revolution, the gay subtexts were shelved in favor of an expressly heterosexual version of liberation. The long pressed hair was now tightly curled, the trench coat now layered over somewhat more conservative clothing. Perhaps most importantly, the disco-inflected keyboards were layered under the electric guitar. The mainstreaming of his look and sound continued in the film Purple Rain, a Bildungsroman love story. Prince’s real-life girlfriend Vanity, who also fronted his side group Vanity 6, was the original romantic lead in the film. But when their relationship ended, she was replaced by Apollonia Kotero, who became the second in a long string of alluring side women for Prince, making speculation about his sexuality mostly a thing of the past.

Prince’s success as a singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and, improbably enough, as an actor, emboldened him to make endless demands of Warner Brothers, his record company, in ways that would cast a permanent shadow over that business relationship. He insisted on directing his second movie, Under the Cherry Moon (1986), which failed critically and commercially; and the accompanying soundtrack, while well-received by critics, sold only two million copies, a fifth of the sales of Purple Rain. On the 1986 list of Top Pop Artists of the Year, Billboard ranked Prince and the Revolution merely 29th. One song of note from the soundtrack, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” was a cryptic ballad whose meaning has been parsed a number of ways, including as a prophetic elegy for Prince’s own demise. Following his actual death last April, some fans observed that the male speaker is pining for a man named Tracy (Prince’s character in the film), who “died soon after a long-fought civil war.” Separating the song from the film, the fans read “civil war” as a metaphor for AIDS.

Whether chastened by the failure of the second film or overwhelmed by the dizzying possibilities of his bountiful mind, Prince began to second-guess himself, zigging and zagging in ways that could only have further antagonized Warner Brothers. He brought multiple projects to completion only to retract them at the last minute. One of the most important of these was an album for which he adopted the pseudonym Camille. The Camille LP involved songs that were recorded at low speed to achieve a higher pitch at normal playback. While the album was never released, parts of it were salvaged for what may be Prince’s critical magnum opus, Sign o’ the Times. When the title track was released as a single, its cover art came from a photographic series in which Catherine Glover, his backup dancer, was convincingly made up to look like a gender-bending version of the artist. On the album, songs such as “Strange Relationship” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” portray the complexity of romantic love through the lens of gender confusion. The lyrics of the latter song ask via the helium-voiced Camille whether two women can achieve a level of intimacy unavailable between a man and a woman: “If I was your girlfriend, would you remember to tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?”

The follow-up to Sign o’ the Times was a less political pro-ject titled Lovesexy. It too was the switch for bait that was never released. Prince mothballed an LP that came to be known as the “Black Album,” though its original name was “The Funk Bible.” Lovesexy was lighter and more buoyant than the album it replaced, and the cover featured Prince fully nude, with his leg poised over his genitals and his hand cradling his chest as if he were a topless woman. He is reclined on a bed of oversized flowers, almost like a mermaid, and his hair is nearly as long and flowing as it had been on his eponymous LP. But at this point, fans had effectively seen the last of the “uptown” Prince. None of the content on Lovesexy or any of the releases that followed ever returned to the queer ideals of his career origins.

PRINCE FOUND IT HARD to escape comparisons with Michael Jackson, especially in the mid-1980s when the two were dueling for the title of world’s biggest artist. Their styles were hardly similar, but the comparisons are still intriguing, especially in terms of their complicated brands of masculinity. Both men espoused principles of clean living but died of drug overdoses. Moreover, both became casualties of their onstage performances: Jackson’s drug dependence reportedly began in 1984 when he incurred severe burns to his scalp when filming a pyrotechnic scene for a Pepsi commercial, while Prince’s acute hip pain in middle age began with his high-heeled moves and acrobatic splits during his earlier performances.

Pop music has historically been a business of marketing young artists to young consumers, so it’s no surprise that both Prince and Jackson peaked at age 25. Yet they continued to enjoy unbelievable success after their peak. From Off the Wall to Thriller to Bad, Jackson’s creativity as a songwriter never waned; but when his life became plagued by accusations of sexual impropriety with young boys, and then a growing sense of being surveilled by the police and stalked by the media, his terror found shrieking expression in his songs and videos. With every new record, he traded singing for yelling. He grins all the way through the “Rock With You” video (1979). But the joyful persona soon vanished, and smiles were replaced with snarls and demands that we “beat it,” that we “leave [him]alone,” that we “just stop pressuring” him. That last lyric is from the song “Scream,” a duet with his sister Janet, who uncharacteristically took on the same angry countenance as her embattled brother. The “Scream” video ominously elides Michael with the Edvard Munch painting by the same name.

Prince seldom seemed so angry, but when not singing he didn’t seem at ease either. American Bandstand had a penchant for capturing an artist’s essence in a two-minute interview. Madonna’s proclamation to Dick Clark that she intended “to rule the world” is a memorable case in point. Prince’s sullen 1980 interview is painful to watch as Clark essentially has to answer his own questions after asking them. In one reply, Prince just silently holds up four fingers, as if Clark had asked him how old he was pretending to be. Jackson similarly posed as a publicity ingénue for most of his career, generally avoiding interviews altogether. However, it is widely theorized that he was quite calculating as a media presence, and that some of the early tabloid stories about his sleeping in hyperbaric chambers or bidding on the Elephant Man’s bones were orchestrated by Jackson himself to maintain a buzz between projects. Prince seemed averse not only to interviews but to publicity in general. After Purple Rain, he attempted to release Around the World in a Day with no music videos and no singles. This turned out to be the first salvo in his war with Warner Brothers, which kindled his public anger.

Jackson was obsessed with the commercialism of his music, milking Thriller and Bad for singles until no parts remained untapped for sales or airplay. Prince, in contrast, favored shock-and-awe market saturation, as if release and promotion were bandages to be ripped off. Between 1984 and 1985, he released Purple Rain and Parade under his own name while also becoming a veritable lawn sprinkler of songs for Sheila E, the Time, Apollonia 6, the Bangles, Sheena Easton, André Cymone, the Family, and Chaka Khan. The musicians who orbited Prince existed largely as surrogates for the release of his songs under other names. He seemed to want omnipresence on the airwaves but total absence from the headlines. When he approached his label with the idea of releasing a triple album, the label refused, prompting aberrant decisions like changing his name to the unpronounceable symbol and appearing publicly with the word “slave” written on his face. From here, he retreated into relative obscurity while continuing to release studio albums at the pace of one per year, none of them enjoying the sales or publicity of the first half of his career.

Jackson was viewed as androgynous at the height of his career, but he never demonstrated any interest in challenging masculinist norms. Quite the contrary, gender conformity became his life’s mission. Videos like “Beat It” and “Bad” tried to cast him as a blue-collar street tough, while nearly all of his other videos portrayed him as a wooer of beautiful women: “Thriller,” with Playboy model Ola Ray; “Say Say Say,” with the unusual choice of his sister La Toya; “The Way You Make Me Feel,” with model Tatiana Thumbtzen; “Remember the Time,” with supermodel Iman; the ironically titled “In the Closet,” with supermodel Naomi Campbell; and, most memorably, “You Are Not Alone,” featuring semi-explicit, cringe-worthy love scenes with his real-life wife Lisa Marie Presley. Jackson became determined to document his heterosexuality even prior to multiple criminal inquiries into his relationships with young boys. Outside his videos, Jackson seemed to treat white women (Tatum O’Neal, Brooke Shields, Madonna), exotic pets (Thriller the tiger cub, Bubbles the chimpanzee, Muscles the boa constrictor), and prepubescent boys (Macaulay Culkin, Sean Lennon, and a host of lesser-knowns) as interchangeable escorts. He attended the 1984 Grammys with Brooke Shields while also cradling Webster star Emmanuel Lewis like a toddler, even though Lewis was a teenager. And yet, despite multiple wives and children, the thought of Jackson having sex with women always seemed improbable. Both he and his mother were members of the ultra-conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses. Given his strict religious upbringing and a lifetime in the public eye, one has to wonder what sort of life he really aspired to. He was his family’s highest earner for most of his life, but he remained the most cloistered, neutered, and socially stunted.

Prince may have tamped down his gender-fluid image, but he never seemed so preoccupied by anyone’s approval. His androgyny coexisted with a string of relationships with beautiful women of every hue, each of whom seemed to exist exclusively for his own pleasure. Dez Dickerson, an early bandmate of Prince’s during his Revolution years, told Prince biographer Touré that Prince’s affinity for sex and gender experimentation was entirely about marketing and not his own sexual questioning: “He was courting controversy as a business tactic.” But on some level, all art is fabrication and all pretense is real. Prince’s dress-up games and controversial lyrics may have had a commercial angle, but he risked almost everything to go that route, fully committing to it for several years. Androgyny may not have been his authentic orientation, but it served as his authentic artistic view.

Still, even Prince proved that he was not immune to the need for divine approval. Biographies date his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses at 2001, in close proximity to the breakup of his first marriage and the death of his father. In the years that followed, Prince curtailed the performance of some songs and redacted others to make them more family-friendly. In a 2008 profile for The New Yorker, he told reporter Claire Hoffman: “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’” Prince was allegedly outraged when this comment was interpreted as homophobic. But in the end he did little to rebut his critics or to repair the insult to LGBT fans.

The waves of nostalgia in the aftermath of Prince’s death have been moving, but it’s hard to look at the current music charts and overlook the evisceration of soul music as well as the gender inclusivity that once accompanied it. In the days following his death, before the medical facts were known, Wikipedia contributors and tabloid journalists crafted paranoid myths about Prince’s succumbing to AIDS, as if cultural imagination were as wrathful as Prince’s final concept of God. Prince had once constructed a massive musical and social legacy on a foundation of queer power, but like his own personal fortune, he apparently bequeathed it to no one. Look on his revolution, ye mighty, and despair.


Ken Stuckey is a senior lecturer in English and Media Studies at Bentley University.