I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray…
The obituaries for Prince have covered a lot of ground, particularly regarding his support for women and his pioneering of gender fluidity. I support anyone who points out that however many hits he had or didn’t have, half the artists of the 1980s owe their sound to him. Haven’t read this anywhere: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were Prince’s high school friends and his disciples, and if you Wikipedia all the people they produced, you get a better idea of just how widespread Prince’s influence was.
I offer this blog post as a supplement to cover what the eulogies didn’t. For example, anyone else notice that Prince lived exactly 17 years on either side of his 1982 prediction of a big party in 1999? And he made his first album when he was 17. Perhaps that’s nothing, but “17” feels to me like a Prince-ian number – angled, suggestive.
By liberally using 2, 4, and U for longer words, Prince suggested the language of texting, at least before the current tyranny of auto-correct. Prince wasn’t trying to tell us how to text (sext, maybe), but playing with language was another way of playing with identity, of re-purposing the received symbols of the world for play and love (as with the famous glyph), making his written lyrics a crucial precedent for our text-driven, emoji-driven, avatar-driven century.
Actually, Prince’s relationship to internet culture was probably the most fascinating things about his last two decades, and can’t be easily summarized. In the end, all his battles against musical sharing and his battles with Warner Bros. that resulted in his “glyph” symbol (and the word “slave” deployed on his forehead) seem, in retrospect, not just fights for artistry but fights for something that’s all but vanished in the 21st century – the best word for it (assuming I can’t use a glyph) is probably mystique. Prince came up in a time when the biggest stars didn’t do talk shows and often let the art speak for itself. We didn’t think of them as just another person like us, as Twitter and other social media encourages. They were more, and part of the mourning is that even the Beyoncés now are somehow less.
Back during golden age hip-hop, I used to joke with my friends that you didn’t hear James Taylor mention a lot of years in his music. Spoken references to 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, suffused the contemporary work of acts like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Ice-T. But really, did anyone feature a year in her song before Prince did it in 1982? By invoking fears of nuclear Armageddon while pointing toward the (religious) epoch change due to take place in 1999 and 2000, Prince created rhetorical space for the way golden age hip-hop would use years in lyrics. For example, when P.E. began “Fight the Power” with “1989,” the subtext was “it’s this year already, and America still ain’t done right by us.” On some level, Prince created that subtext, and it’s interesting that since the actual year 1999, no one has bothered with it.
Purple Rain isn’t a perfect film, but it’s by far the best rock album to be a narrative film and not a concert movie. I say this as a rabid Beatles fan who, in the 1990s, tracked down a VHS of their nearly-impossible-to-find movie Let it Be. The best of the five Beatles films is probably the first, A Hard Day’s Night, but there’s no way the fourth-best song on that album is as good as the fourth-best song on Purple Rain, and besides, Purple Rain’s narrative is tied much closer to the songs. Those two movies, released exactly two decades apart, are the two highest peaks in the mountain range of MTV-related cinema: one pioneered MTV’s postmodern editing and exuberance, the other, coming a year after a film universally reviewed as the “first MTV-style film” (Flashdance; Prince wrote Apollonia’s role for Jennifer Beals, but she turned it down), was the first film to truly play like a two-hour MTV video, even as it also served as a rebuke to MTV’s only recently repealed whites-only policy.
Purple Rain, the movie, actually seems more astonishing now than it did then, partly because of the sheer audacity of Prince convincing Warner Bros. to make a starless film on the strength of what was, in the simplest financial terms, two modest hits, “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.” It would have been like if Paramount had committed to a Rick Astley movie after “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever.” We also now have thirty more years of evidence that most artists coming into their career peak don’t bother to make compromises with major movie studios to make cinema of their magnum opuses. Eminem’s 8 Mile certainly had the masterpiece song “Lose Yourself,” but the rest of that soundtrack doesn’t hold up to Eminem’s better albums the way “Purple Rain” holds up to, well, anything.
Back in the 1980s, way too many periodicals compared Michael Jackson to Prince, as though to say: “hey, two famous black singers, let’s put them in a cage match!” I’m glad that most of the postmortems have avoided that. For me, Prince’s operative comparison during his peak stardom may have been Eddie Murphy. Culturally, 1982-1984 wasn’t always a great time for black representation – TV was more “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Webster” than it was “Good Times” or “Sanford and Son.” Then you had these two twentysomethings with the mustaches of thirtysomethings and the buttocks of teenagers (uh, Murphy and Prince’s posteriors were mentioned in magazines and on talk shows all the time) basically sticking a middle-finger to the establishment, raunchy and real all at the same time. And yes, part of that is inextricable from blackness. No matter how popular they were – and they were – laughing to Murphy and dancing to Prince was somehow still subversive, somehow always cool. Michael Jackson, not so much.
Where white people sometimes see a Jackie Robinson or Shirley Chisholm or yes, Michael Jackson, “proving” that race doesn’t matter, in fact, those people had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good by large swaths of white America. When “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” came out they charted on Billboard’s BLACK SINGLES chart (look it up). When David Bowie, in the clip that went viral after his death, asked MTV why it wasn’t playing videos by black people, he was talking partly about Prince. When the Parents Music Resource Center was formed – putting censorship labels on albums for the first time – because a white mom (Tipper Gore) was worried about her blonde teen daughter listening to “Purple Rain,” I doubt any black person learned of that, shrugged, and said, “meh, could have just as easily happened because of Van Halen.” In other words, whatever you may have heard, Prince shattered barriers.
Furthermore, as an Alice Walker reader, I don’t see the color purple as randomly chosen. (When Paul McCartney dies, what color will light up the world’s monuments?) There’s a reason white men look terrible in purple suits, and black men don’t. Purple is the darkest part of the rainbow. Beyond brown and black, which are achingly literal for many black people, purple is the darkest reminder of the natural beauty and purity of opacity. Where some whites hear “Purple Rain” and figure he might as well have chosen “Orange Rain,” black people know better.
For me, born in 1971, yes, I take Prince’s death too personally. I did intentionally give my first-born the initials of one of Prince’s classic songs, “D.M.S.R.” I don’t think it takes anything away from his genius to say that us former Berkeley teenagers may see him with rose, uh, purple-colored lenses, since 1980s Berkeley could not have invented a more perfect artist for itself. “Paisley Park” and the peace sign in “Sign (peace) the Times”…Prince was a neo-hippie, but in the most modern way possible, and he bridged boundaries of coolness and race and gender fluidity that no one, not even Bowie or MJ, could claim. We know that Berkeley schools, at 40% white 40% black and 20% other, often had (and have) a racial integration problem. In my high school years, from 1984 to 1988, a “Purple Rain” shirt, especially an artfully torn one, was never the wrong thing to wear in any part of Berkeley High School; you can’t say that about any other artist (except maybe Run DMC). It’s weird to me that Richard Lyons of Negativland died on the same day (and at the same age) as Prince and almost no one noticed. I spent much of high school assuming my pop-oriented taste in music (including Prince) was stupid and that if I were cool, I would like bands like Negativland; somehow, I suppose through his guitar and his persona, Prince either erased or transcended such distinctions. When we were alone, he made us feel less alone; when we weren’t, he brought us closer together.
Thank you, Prince, and rest in purple-tuity.