Prince, Part 2

On the title track of Prince's fourth album Controversy he introduces a major supporting character who crops up in much of his future music. This character is named "God." Maybe you've heard of him. These days he's apparently in the business of deciding the outcomes of NFL games, if post-contest press conferences are to be believed. But back in his day he was a popular philosopher. A little cryptic, but he got around.

Ostensibly "Controversy" was about the furor Prince had kicked up with the subject matter on Dirty Mind: "I just can't believe all the things people say/Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?" (I honestly don't remember the controversy being publicized at the time, unless it was in the pages of counter-cultural periodicals, or magazines pretending to be.) The single edit of "Controversy" cuts out at 3:39, but on the album's seven-minute version Prince launches into the Lord's Prayer. He closes out with a mantra: "People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules." I believe that's in the Book of Genesis.

The second song contains one of my favorite Prince spoken segments:
We live in a world overrun by tourists
Tourists -- 89 flowers on their back
Inventors of the Accu-Jack
They look at life through a pocket camera
What? No flash again??
They're all a bunch of double drags who teach their kids that love is bad
Half of the staff of their brain is on vacation...
We need a new breed -- leaders, stand up, organize
Don't let your children watch television until they know how to read
Or else all they'll know how to do is cuss, fight and breed
No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere
If they're in the company of tourists, alcohol and US history
What's to be expected is 3 minus 3... absolutely nothing
The song's called "Sexuality." It contains no sexual content except for the title ("Sexuality is all we ever need") and the mention of the Accu-Jack, a device designed to assist men with masturbation. (Not as well-received as the RoboSuck.) Taken with the extract above it's simply an argument in favor of naturalism and engagement. To Prince the most insulting thing in the world is detached observation, encountering the actions of others from arm's length or greater. It's not just a defense of his sexuality, it's a precept for the entire creative process and development of a belief system, two matters also frequently linked with God.

Many in the '80s were unable to reconcile all this. Sexuality was shuttled into the arena of morality. Even the meditation required to create art was viewed as circumspect by some ecclesiastical authorities who believed cogitation on anything other than God was a waste of time. And here Prince was equating sexual urge with the search for God, as an objective tenet in the progress of humankind. People could not wrap their heads around this. I have to think Prince loved this kind of dissonance, even if he really believed what he was saying, and I'm sure he did.

Remember when Trent Reznor tried to get someone to have sex with him because doing so made him feel "closer to God"? That's essentially what Prince was trying to do, except Trent sang it like a guy who just got laid off from the lumber mill.* Prince sang it with conviction. It's obvious enough that sex and spirituality have rapture as their termini: the orgasm and the resurrection. But back then the idea that sex and religion had enough in common that Prince would ask them both the same questions was heresy, definitely to God proponents and probably to sexual beings. I certainly didn't get it at the time, but I could claim youth, plus the fact that I listened to ELO albums as well.**

On 1999 Prince toyed with the so-called Moral Majority's acid reflux even more. The title track is our most beloved apocalyptic anthem, but his Judgment Day arrives in the form of boring politicos' nuclear holocaust ("Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?"). "Let's Pretend We're Married" uses the higher purpose of matrimony to cure an immediate need, and he can't decide whether it's for "the next couple of hours" or "the next seven years." In case you've forgotten he restates it in the coda: "Whatever U heard about me is true/I change the rules and do what I wanna do/I'm in love with God, he's the only way/'Cuz U and I know we gotta die some day." In the spoken part of "Lady Cab Driver" he uses the chain lashings in an S&M session as exorcism for crimes personal and public: bored politicians, discrimination, greed, and "tourists" again, specifically ones at Disneyland. Then he settles into romantic wonder at the Creator, the beauty of womankind, agapé love and the awesome splendor of being alive. He does not, however, halt the whipping.

As provocative art 1999 was closer to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon than Piss Christ, but despite its complexities it was still a tricky sell in Reagan's America. Two of its songs, "Little Red Corvette" (attempted conversion to monogamy) and "Delirious" (rockabilly hormones), did make the Top 10. But the titillation was still too brash for many to digest, and Prince erected another filter by turning the "1" in "1999" on the album cover into a penis. There's a great story in Questlove's brilliant autobiography Mo' Meta Blues about his having to buy 1999 on repeated occasions because his mother kept throwing it out. He eventually resorted to hiding the records in the covers of other albums.

Prince had laid the groundwork for an eventual mass-audience breakout, having explained his cosmology very well even if some just couldn't get it. For a true breakthrough to mass appeal there'd have to be... well, not so much a "toning down" as an outreach to more Victorian sensibilities. And that's when Prince conquered all media.

Purple Rain was the consummation of MTV as cultural agent. Prince was as videogenic a performer as has ever existed, and in letting film cameras follow him around he brought music video's flash and skeletal storytelling into the multiplex. The acting's not Olivier level, but it didn't have to be. Bravura acting chops might have even been a distraction.

Given its foibles, which tend to happen when most of your actors are musicians, Purple Rain offered a new way to construct self-mythology that was, in retrospect, pretty gutsy. Prince's character The Kid is both talented beyond belief and deeply flawed. He's all-in onstage, but it's not always met with warm reception. Offstage he's cautiously introverted, bullheaded and unable to keep his conflicts off his face. He acts impulsively, comes close to wrecking others, but ultimately finds a thin stream of generosity he allows himself to exhibit. When he discovers reams of his father's sheet music in the midst of a power tantrum it calms him immediately, causing him to marvel at its existence. He knows his father has passed down a legacy bound to be complicated forever, and at the end of the movie The Kid very calmly, efficiently tries to put it back together and find the blueprints within.

It's safe to say there's at least some autobiography in Purple Rain, but thankfully not much in the way of hagiography. It went out of its way to paint The Kid in conflict, bringing some narrative to the non-verbal cues of those music videos that weren't extended party sequences. It would be like Elvis devoting a sequence in the middle of Clambake to admit his prescription drug problem. ("Babe, I'm awful crazy about you, but if Daddy can't get some Dexies this beach is gonna burn.") The music on the soundtrack also took a little vacation from the going concerns of his previous three albums, with the exception of Tipper Gore's masturbating nemesis "Darling Nikki."

Purple Rain was, of course, an unqualified success with the soundtrack going platinum thirteen times over. But it's funny, because with the possible exception of Controversy it was the strangest album he'd put out to date. "Take Me With U" was a hippie love song with Stravinsky strings. "Computer Blue" was mainly an instrumental pushed by a guitar solo that copped from jazz fusion and Coltrane. "When Doves Cry" gains incredible tension via the deletion of all bass lines, and "I Would Die 4 U" pairs one of Prince's best hooks with an almost heedlessly fast hi-hat pulse. And the title track's practically a country song, or maybe a Neil Young song.

With the game plan for the battle of heaven and hell arranged, The Kid had his creative prerogative set for the rest of his career. But exactly where Prince was going to go would be a surprise no matter what it was. The diversity he'd shown in his composition had trickled down into his motive and message, and he had the clarity and confidence to pull it off. Prince's restlessness was not an obstacle - as is supposed to be the case with artists, it was the source of all his power. It was keeping the lights on.

To be concluded.

* Not a criticism.

** Usage of the past tense in talking about listening to ELO albums is bullshit. I still listen to ELO albums. We Pearsons just commit to the bit.

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