This article appears in our 2008 Summer issue, Genesis. Subscribe today!
Dig if you will the picture—the United States, 1982. Ronald Reagan is in his second year as the president who will have waited until 21,000 Americans have died of AIDS before discussing it in a speech. The Equal Rights Amendment once again fails to be ratified, thanks in large part to Phyllis Schlafly and the religious right. A Gallup poll reveals that 51 percent of Americans find homosexuality immoral. And beamed onto television screens across this recession-plagued nation, from a fledging cable channel known as MTV, a diminutive man sporting a purple trenchcoat, mascara, heels, and the most lascivious smile this side of Rhett Butler gyrates on a soundstage, singing an innuendo-drenched song called “Little Red Corvette.” His name is Prince, and he’s come for your children.
Throughout the next two decades, he will fill their young, impressionable minds with lyrics that champion sexual and racial equality, androgyny, God, and the joys of masturbation. He will pen lyrics about the pain of incest (“Sister”), spin a rags-to-riches tale of a woman who triumphs over every man who gets in her way (“Pussy Control”), long openly to be a woman so as to better understand his lover (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), and cry foul over the misogyny of gangsta rap (“Days of Wild”). He’ll also star in a blatantly misogynistic box-office hit (1984’s Purple Rain), write songs with titles like “Good Pussy” and “Irresistible Bitch,” strut through the ’80s and much of the ’90s with a reputation as one of rockdom’s most notorious playboys, and eventually become a Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to swear in his lyrics or sing the songs that once made him the Moses of sexual freedom.
More so than any other popular male musician of the last three decades, the chart-topping artist known as Prince has extolled some of the strongest feminist and diversity-championing lyrics ever to come out of a speaker system. But considering how many times he’s contradicted himself, is it possible that maybe he really was dreaming when he wrote them?
1980s: “am i black or white?/
am i straight or gay?”
If you joined the Columbia House Record and Tape Club in the early ’80s, you would find that on the enrollment card under “Musical Interest,” “Black music” had its own tidy category. But Prince’s Dirty Mind album, a taut, 30-minute ode to sexual anarchy, greeted the Decade of Greed with an open invitation to everyone—gay, straight, man, woman, Black, white, whatever—to join a party where the only thing that mattered was how nasty you could get.
The precociously self-assured, barely-out-of-his-teens Prince kick-started the musical orgy with the song “Uptown,” his vision of a sexual and racial utopia where it was “white, black, Puerto Rican/ Everybody just a-freakin.’” The number opens with Prince being stopped in the street by a woman who asks him “Are you gay?” Unmoved, he responds, “No, are you?” and boogies on, chalking the woman’s attitude up to simple ignorance (“She’s just a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed-up dame/ She’s just a victim of society and all its games”). Elsewhere on the album is “Head,” a song that finds our hero receiving oral sex from a bride on her way to the altar. But what could have been just another boastful, raunchy funk number about the joys of womanizing gets turned on its head when Prince returns the favor and promises to please his lady—who “married [him] instead”—with nonstop cunnilingus. Indeed, the majority of Prince’s racy material focuses on the female orgasm, from early efforts like 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (“I wanna be the only one who makes you cum…running!”) to his 1991 no. 1 hit “Cream” (“Cream/ Get on top/ Cream/ You will cop”) to the obscure B-side “I Love U in Me” (“I promise myself not to cum until she does/ Then she took both hands/ And a liar I was”).
With the release of his next effort, 1981’s Controversy, Prince perfected his manifesto. The title track dispensed with metaphor and got down to business, with Prince directly addressing the critics who found his material salacious and possibly dangerous to the youth of America. He concludes the title song with a rapped verse: “People call me rude/ I wish we were all nude/ I wish there was no black or white/ I wish there were no rules.” The following track, “Sexuality,” is a rallying cry for his brothers-and-sisters-in-arms to attack the oppressive moral and social norms around them (“Sexuality is all you’ll ever need/ Sexuality/ Let your body be free”). And several years before the term “safe sex” ever passed the lips of a public health official, the album-losing boogie-woogie ditty “Jack U Off” found Prince offering to manually masturbate his date at the movies.
Prince’s sexual persona was even more energized after the advent of MTV, when videos from his 1982 album 1999 kicked into heavy rotation. But even as the new medium of music video was making household names out of androgynous musicians like Grace Jones, Adam Ant, and Annie Lennox, Prince (along with Jones and Michael Jackson, among the first black performers to appear on the channel) was a confounding spectacle for mainstream America—a sexually provocative man who danced in high-heeled suede boots in one video and was tied to a bed and whipped by two women in another. When he opened for the Rolling Stones in the early ’80s, he was quickly booed offstage.
Clearly, this was a man ahead of his time. “The world wasn’t ready for a performer like Prince,” recalls Edna Gundersen, a rock critic for USA Today and a longtime Prince fan. “There had never been a performer so brazenly sexual, and even though some artists around that time were making heads turn, Prince was the first artist to really stand up and shout “Sex is good.” He didn’t treat sex as something to simply get attention with. And as a woman, I thought that was so liberating.”
But then came 1984 and the release of Purple Rain. The movie’s soundtrack still ranks high on many critics’ lists of the best albums ever recorded. The film itself, though, took Prince’s sex-freak persona to a darker, more sinister place than any of his previous music. The film, Prince’s only box-office success, casts him as a struggling musician with an abusive father who has passed along his habit of hitting women to his son. Throughout the film, Morris Day and Jerome Benton (who fronted the Prince-formed R&B outfit The Time) refer to women as “bitches,” and one notorious scene shows Benton picking up Day’s scorned girlfriend and throwing her into a dumpster. Prince’s character, The Kid, is equally prone to violence against women, in one scene punching his girlfriend (Apollonia) after she tells him she’s joining Day’s band.
The Kid was definitely a disturbing departure and left many of us worried that the pro-lady sex machine of “Uptown,” “Head,” and others was a ruse—especially since the film was billed as semiautobiographical. The film’s vile treatment of women did not go unnoticed by critics. Leonard Maltin praised the film’s concert sequences—some of the best ever filmed—but said “the film suffers from sexist, unappealing characters (especially Prince’s).” Gundersen, who has interviewed the notoriously press-wary musician a few times over the years, agrees that Purple Rain’s treatment of women is difficult to defend, but doesn’t believe that the character of The Kid is an accurate representation of Prince. “He contradicts himself on occasion, as we all do. But [Prince] has a great deal of respect for women. He’s always taken female sexuality very seriously, and that’s rare for a male artist.”
For some, in fact, Prince apparently took female sexuality a bit too seriously. Tipper Gore, for one, was inspired to found the watchdog group Parents Music Resource Center after walking by her 8-year-old daughter’s room and hearing “Darling Nikki,” in which Prince sings of the title character, “I met her in a hotel lobby/ Masturbating with a magazine.” Purple Rain, which was perched atop Billboard’s album charts for a stunning 23 weeks, was soon being dissected and analyzed—from cover art to lyrics—by members of a shocked and apalled Congress. The record industry soon adopted the now-commonplace Parental Advisory sticker in response to albums like Purple Rain, as well as those by contemporaries like Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, and Wendy O. Williams.
But parental-advisory warnings notwithstanding, Prince continued to complicate the way sexuality and gender were dealt with in mainstream music. His magnum opus had to be “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” from 1987’s Sign O’ The Times. Twenty years later, it remains one of the most genderfuck songs ever recorded. The vocals on the track are credited to an alter ego, “Camille,” and his voice is sped up to a high-pitched tone that sounds neither male nor female but alien. Predictably, it flopped as a single. America may have tolerated Prince’s high-heeled boots and bikini briefs, but it wasn’t going to stomach a song in which a man ponders what it would be like to be his lover’s female friend so that he could truly know her deepest thoughts and feelings (“If I was your girlfriend/ Would you remember/ To tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?”).
As Liz Jones wrote in her Prince biography, Purple Reign, “[Prince] invites men to imagine a different way of relating to women and invites women to imagine men who could imagine such things.” When you consider that 1987 was the same year gangsta-rap pioneers N.W.A. released their debut album, which featured songs like “A Bitch Iz a Bitch” and introduced suburban kids to terms like “ho” and “skank,” such imagination seems rare indeed.
1990s: “a woman everyday should
be thanked/ not disrespected, not raped or spanked”
In 1991, nine years after he first strutted across MTV screens, Prince was back on the channel, this time dressed in a buttocks-baring banana-yellow suit. His performance of the sultry jam “Gett Off” at the 1991 MTV Video Awards was undeniably one of his best live efforts; even the numerous jokes about the buttless pants couldn’t overshadow the power of the performance.
The 1990s will forever be remembered as the decade hip hop broke through to become a full-blown cultural force and one of the dominant musical mediums, and our mascaraed dandy couldn’t compete with the aggression of Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre. Prince, who had never been comfortable with rap, and once even wrote a song parodying it (“Dead On It”), suddenly found himself looking dangerously old hat. No matter how shocking a lyric like “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste of your mouth” had been in 1982, it was no match for the in-your-face rhymes offered by the Notorious B.I.G., Eazy-E, or Too $hort (“She’s like another girl named Christina/ Bitch so dumb, I named her ‘misdemeanor’”).
Prince’s 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls—considered by many critics to be his “sellout” album, with its unabashed appropriation of hip hop—would be his last bona fide smash album of the millennium. Like many ’80s megastars, Prince was quickly demoted to he-was-cool-once-upon-a-time status, and his ’90s output was earmarked by two crucial events—his marriage to former bandmate Mayte Garcia and his struggle to free himself from his contract with Warner Bros. Records. The effort to draw attention to the money-over-creativity workings of major labels was well in line with Prince’s provocateur character; unfortunately, spending the mid-’90s with the word “slave” scrawled on his cheek at public appearances, and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, led mostly to his becoming a punch line for late-night talk-show hosts.
But slumping record sales didn’t stop Prince from continuing to pen songs like “Pussy Control,” a you-go-girl anthem starring an impoverished, bullied girl who rises to attain wealth and success, all the while ignoring the advances of pick-up artists and trifling players (“Pussy got bank in her pockets/ Before she got dick in her drawers/ If a brother didn’t have good and plenty of his own/ In love, Pussy never did fall”). One of his top hits of the ’90s, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” reassured women that, contrary to the rigid physical beauty standards imposed upon them, true beauty comes from within (“’Cause honey, this kind of beauty has got no reason to ever be shy/ ’Cause honey, this kind of beauty is the kind that comes from inside”). Corny? Absolutely. But for 1994—where Prince found himself having more in common, attitude-wise, with Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill than with the average mainstream male singer—his ballad stood out.
Though Prince’s ’90s albums were consistently greeted with mixed reviews, they reflect a growing maturity in his approach to life, women, and relationships. During his long banishment to the pop culture wilderness, Prince was still challenging sexual and gender roles, albeit on a less obvious scale. In a 1996 interview with Oprah Winfrey, he candidly discussed his name change to “the symbol,” which was a fusion of the male and female biological signs. Prince (who Oprah said “looked pretty”) told his host that, through therapy, he had discovered that he had another person inside him, saying, “And I haven’t discovered what sex that person is yet.”
Following 1996’s Emancipation, Prince rarely returned to the smolderingly sexual material that once made him Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of parents and hand-wringing conservatives. But remaining ahead of his time in some ways couldn’t stop Prince for falling behind it in others. Genuinely aghast at the culture of contemporary music, Prince’s stomping, raucous funk number “Days of Wild”—from 1997’s self-released Crystal Ball—lashed out at the entertainment industry with salvos aimed specifically at the rampant misogyny of hip hop (“Hooker, bitch and ho?/ I don’t think so/ I only knew one and never told her though/ I thought about it many times/ But that’s the kinda shit to make you check your mind”). The song ends with a heartfelt shout-out to women: “Much props to the…baddest, freezer-burnin’, head-turnin’, make-a-brother-yearnin’ sistas (who are) walkin’ the face/ You know who you are.”
Prince ended the ’90s on a fascinating note. His 1999 album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, though yet another commercial flop, shows the notorious control freak collaborating with tough female artists like Gwen Stefani (“So Far, So Pleased”), Eve (“Undisputed”), and Ani Difranco (“I Love U But I Don’t Trust U Anymore”). It’s hard to imagine any of these women taking shit from any man.
Yet this is precisely what makes Prince such a frustratingly contradictory artist. His love for working with strong women aside, Prince has often toed a thin line between championing female sexual empowerment and expounding garden-variety sexism. Alex Hahn’s dishy bio Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince paints him as domineering in relationships (he reputedly made ex-flame Carmen Electra “be immaculately dressed and groomed, even while doing errands”) and strongly judgmental, at one point telling ex-bandmates and romantic couple Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, “You’re gonna burn in hell for your lifestyle!”
And what are we to make of the songs he wrote for female artists like Sheena Easton, who scored one of her biggest hits with the Prince-penned “Sugar Walls”? Easton purrs her way through lyrics like “Come spend the night inside my sugar walls” and “Take advantage, it’s alright/ Your body’s on fire, admit it/ Come inside.” Is Easton a sexually liberated woman or a projection of Prince’s fantasies? And then there was the Prince-created girl group Vanity 6, a trio of lingerie-clad vamps who cooed songs like “Nasty Girl” and “Vibrator.” Prince originally wanted to call the group The Hookers, and before he christened group member Denise Mathews “Vanity,” he suggested her stage name be “Vagina.”
Who was this mysterious person who could acknowledge a female presence inside him and even give it a name, who could make women the center of his world one minute and then reduce them to their genitalia the next? It seemed, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that Prince himself may never have been sure—but his next move was one that no one expected.
2000 and beyond: “no, i ain’t
dead yet/ but what about you?”
In November 2001, Prince dropped a jazzy, complex, and commercially ignored album called The Rainbow Children. There was no swearing. No appearances from his Camille persona. None of the “salvation through sex” anthems that once helped him amass a racially and sexually diverse fan base of millions who believed, like him, that “making love and music are the only things worth fighting for.” (Or who just liked the music.)
Instead, The Rainbow Children, a concept album packed with allusions to Prince’s newly adopted Jehovah’s Witness faith—a notoriously conservative, patriarchal sect of Christianity—included a song called “Muse 2 the Pharaoh,” which contained the lyric “There is nothing he wouldn’t give her, see/ For the future of the nation rests in her belly/ And if the Proverbs of the 31 and verse 10/ Becomes the verse she sings again and again/ She might be Queen.” Behold the King James Version of Proverbs 31:10 —“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”
Clearly, this was not your older brother’s Prince.
Thankfully, Prince’s subsequent albums mostly refrained from such obvious patriarchal preachiness, but while his recent output doesn’t negate his earlier pro-feminist/pro-freak material, it’s apparent that Prince has moved far out of the Uptown neighborhood of sexual and social nonconformity that he once sang about. But then again, don’t all artists usually mellow out at some point, leaving it to the young acolytes they influenced to carry on the tradition of keeping parents angry and the masses riled?
The Madonna who created the Sex book, embarked on “The Girlie Show” tour, and fellated Evian bottles has been replaced by a sophisticated mother of two who now cuts entertaining, but certainly more innocuous, albums. Famed ’70s hellraiser Rod Stewart has reinvented himself as a neo-crooner, singing inoffensive songs from the ’40s and ’50s to stadiums full of retirees. Even human peacock Elton John, who once co-wrote songs about drugged-up young lesbians (“All the Girls Love Alice”) and cruising (“Big Dipper”), now finds himself writing songs for children’s movies. The difference, perhaps, is that none of these artists condemn their former work in their current output.
The last few years have seen Prince’s fortunes change once again. Following a jaw-dropping duet with Beyoncé at the 2004 Grammy Awards and his admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Prince returned to the top of the charts for the first time since the early ’90s, with the albums Musicology and 3121. His older fans have mostly forgotten that they used to ridicule him for the symbol name or the assless pants, and instead remember him for his stunning 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, his residency concerts in Las Vegas, or one of his many sold-out tours; the younger fans just like the music.
Surveying his long, contradictory career, it’s not hard to argue that Prince is the most complicated and confounding male artist of the modern rock era—a man who played and toyed with sex, gender, and race like few others ever have. Looking through a feminist lens at Prince’s canon of work reveals a complicated kaleidoscope of potentially empowering songs with messages of sexual and social equality, mixed in with the occasional sidestep into standard-issue pop-music sexism.
To be sure, he’ll never be canonized as a feminist saint; it’s tough to get around songs with titles like “Scarlet Pussy” and “Billy Jack Bitch.” But in a male-dominated rock world known for celebrating machismo at its basest level, Prince still stands apart from the pack. Whatever his missteps, dearly beloved, Prince’s sexual-spiritual belief that men and women are more alike than different is something that few other male artists have expressed with such ardor or style—that sexy MF.