The Prince Position

It may be trite to say that Prince broke down boundaries, but that's what made his music such a revelation.

One of the most beloved musicians of our time, Prince made music that defied genre conventions and pushed the medium forward. (World's Direction/Flickr)

Genres are fictions, categories whose social weight comes almost entirely from money and marketing. They exist only because over time enough people can be pushed to believe they exist. Ultimately, the concept of genre — this kind of song should sound like this, while others should not — holds back the evolution of music far more than aids it.

On some level, Prince understood this — he’s been credited with essentially inventing a whole new style of music. The irony is that he did so by annihilating the divisions between those that already existed.

Some might say that the “Minneapolis sound” he helped assemble was basically R&B and soul “fused” with the spirit of funk, psychedelia, and rock and roll. Another assessment would be that he created a style whose R&B elements were more “authentic,” precisely because he hearkened back to the time when it and rock were essentially the same. Neither are particularly accurate.

Prince was not a nostalgia act. His stylistic components were assembled uniquely, their points of convergence completely different to where they had been twenty years prior. This was both new by reference to the old, and a different way of looking at the old through the newness of possibility.

What made Prince Prince, then, wasn’t just his sound but his methodology. In the 1980s, sounds associated with black America were being aggressively corralled into the broad-yet-restrictive category of “urban music.” Prince took all the characteristics and tropes that the industry hung on that term and cast them back out into music as a whole. They left innumerable ripples in their wake and redefined popular music.

Amid Reaganism, it felt almost like a different future being mapped out, an alternate timeline set apart from the straight-laced diktats of “what must be.”

That the height of Prince’s influence came when it did — right when Reagan seemed his most invincible — was surely no coincidence. The shimmer and flash couldn’t be dismissed so easily partially because they were charged with a sharp refusal. Shades of the sometimes zany absurdism that characterized other funkmasters like George Clinton were certainly there, but swaggering in a more upright position, with a bit of a sneer.

The playfulness was hard-edged, as we hear in his most recognizable song:

The sky was all purple,
There were people runnin’ everywhere
Tryin’ 2 run from the destruction,
U know I didn’t even care…

Yeah, everybody’s got a bomb,
We could all die any day
But before I’ll let that happen,
I’ll dance my life away

Then there was Purple Rain. The film was uneven, but compelling nonetheless. The Minneapolis of the movie is dark and seedy; the music a kind of dream catalyst, part of the surrounding world but also separate from it.

Rumors have long persisted that Purple Rain was partially inspired by Samuel R. Delany’s fantastical masterpiece Dhalgren. Both stories’ protagonists are referred to only as “the Kid,” and there is indeed a resemblance between Delany’s crumbling Midwestern town Bellona and Prince’s Minneapolis. It could be just a rumor, but Prince was known for being an eclectic and voracious reader, and the resemblance is there.

There were, infamously, those who couldn’t tolerate such cathartic abandon. Even in the face of Armageddon. The story goes that Tipper Gore once heard her twelve-old-daughter listening to Prince sing about female masturbation. The wife of the future vice president clutched her pearls so hard she squeezed out a bipartisan censorship group.

The song in question, “Darling Nikki,” topped the Parental Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen,” the list of records held up as proof that the industry needed to rein in its artists. The industry, of course, relented.

As is always the case in any culture war, there was a lot more to it than mere moral outrage. Rather, it was about whose power was called into question and who walked away from a song feeling emboldened. As Richard Kim writes at the Nation: “On one side of your childhood, there is Reagan and AIDS and nuclear war and the yelling Christians. And on the other side, there is Prince.”

No Singular Genius

Focusing on one artist — particularly one regarded as so singularly iconic as Prince — brings with it a hazard of tunnel vision. A spotlight is shone on their accomplishments without asking what it is that made them so groundbreaking. It’s a hazard that rather automatically gives credence to the narrative of the culture industry: tales of “greatness” are held above the rest of the world by the gravity-defying powers of “genius.”

Great is great because it’s great, which means you should buy the record without question. Past parameters or conventions may be shattered, but let’s not talk of who was holding them in place to begin with. What this narrative obscures is that there is always an “us,” a “them,” and in the middle of the two a popular culture whose ground is constantly shifting between their influence.

For this kind of contradiction to show up even within the same human being, in the same artist, is commonplace. In the days since Prince’s death there has been a small flurry of articles attempting to square his raunchy, ribald lyrics with the fact that he was also a Jehovah’s Witness.

One cannot fuck their way to freedom any more than they can pray their way into it. But when one sees both as a kind of communion — a chance to connect with someone or something outside of and more than the alienated self — they can become surprisingly complimentary.

The sex Prince effortlessly oozed sat mysteriously well with the frequently religious themes in his lyrics (most of which were more esoteric than tracts from The Watchtower anyway). Faint tinges of William Blake begin to peek out. The contradiction remains, but it better explains how it is that a man who opposed same-sex marriage could also be looked to as a queer icon, a symbol of shaking off personal repression.

This kind of confounding paradox mirrors Prince’s uniquely odd place in relation to the recording industry. He was considered, almost without exception, a legend in that industry, but at the same time he would so frequently confound his label and executives. It was clear that he could make them a lot of money, but that was rarely his priority.

Prince’s music and career was therefore a simultaneous abstraction of mass popularity, artistic experimentation, and the paradoxical relationship between the two. Case in point: Sign o’ the Times, his double album released in 1987, and his first without the support of the Revolution as backup band. It was a massive step forward not just for the artist’s musical palette but in how well the palette coheres.

Pieced together from no fewer than three previously scrapped projects going back at least five years, the songs’ funk, soul, jazz, electronic, pop and rock influences hang together remarkably well through a minimalist’s use of empty space. There is a sense on the album that Prince is simply letting the music speak for itself, falling into place of its own accord while he lets his subject matter go where it will. The marketing department at Warner Brothers was stymied, giving Sign o’ the Times a slapdash, clumsy release. Today it is regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 1980s.

This irreverent approach to both his own material and the concerns of record companies only increased throughout Prince’s career. He made sprawling triple albums that would be available through mail order before they hit the stores. He experimented with instrumental jazz and further augmented his styles with alternative rock and hip-hop.

His online releases in the wake of Napster shunned the labels entirely well before iTunes arrived on the scene. And, of course, he changed his name to an unpronounceable image that combined the symbols for male and female (“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand”). It was a move which prompted Warner Brothers to mail out thousands of floppy disks with a special font just so music magazines would be able to type the artist’s name!

Prince was, of course, in a unique position; he could afford to ask “what if?” before “how much money will this make?” Though the results of these experiments may not have always been “successful,” their mere existence called into question the very meaning of “success” on an artistic level.

It’s something that should happen a lot more than it currently does. At its most basic level, music is a sonic manipulation of time and space. A successful piece of music takes the listener’s consciousness to a different place. It can slow down or speed up their perception of time. Placing limits on this is both pointless and arbitrary, but such restrictions are natural outgrowths in a world that is always finding new ways to tell us where and when to be.

It is therefore unsurprising that shifts in these limitations frequently reflect a change in socio-political attitudes. In the early ‘80s, when “1999” hit, MTV was playing virtually no artists of color in its primetime rotations. Prince was one of the first to break that barrier. By the end of the decade a massive shakeup in the parameters of genre and style was underway. Artists everywhere were mixing punk rock with funk, metal with free jazz, hip-hop with synth pop and so much else. The fiction couldn’t hold forever. Prince wasn’t the only musician who sought to transcend these types of boundaries, but it is difficult to imagine this particular musical moment without him.

This amounted, particularly in the 1980s, to a kind of nascent subversive biopolitic — a notion that one should be able to exist as they please. It’s a simple concept, but one that becomes radical against certain backdrops. Prince helped shape and foment it.

It wasn’t so much that there was something wrong with the world that made him resonate; that sentiment was evident in a surprising amount of pop music from the era. It was the notion that the bodies and minds of Prince and his listeners had an irresistible instinct toward their own personal liberation. Some might say “music should stand for something.” To Prince it was more nuanced, not so much what music stood for as where and how it stood in relation to the world around it.

The Rebel Prince

Freddie Gray, the twenty-five-year-old black man whose death at the hands of Baltimore police touched off last spring’s urban rebellions, was arrested and beaten simply for making eye contact and running. It was a case not so much of “wrong place, wrong time” as “wrong person, wrong world.” So many neighborhoods like Gray’s resemble the creeping dystopia of Delany’s Bellona or Prince’s Minneapolis. Even more strongly than they did thirty years ago. Their residents are treated as if their skin color makes them unworthy to move and relate to the world as they please.

At the heart of uprisings like Baltimore aren’t just the indignities committed against those like Gray but the idea that people’s environments should belong to them, and that they deserve better than blight and brutality from the state.

Reenter the Purple One. In the days since his death it has come out that he secretly gave large sums of money to the family of Trayvon Martin after he was murdered by George Zimmerman. At the Grammys two months prior to Gray’s death, he had dropped a subtle hint: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” A radical Prince may never have been, but he was still a black man in America.

He also, by the time of Baltimore, had come to be regarded as a progenitor of Afrofuturism in music: Sun Ra, P-Funk, Alice Coltrane, Prince. The role his songs played in reimagining the black experience had already inspired the standard-bearer of Afrofuturism, Janelle Monae, to have him guest on her landmark album The Electric Lady.

When he released “Baltimore” — a song dedicated to Gray, Michael Brown, and the protesters — it was something of a convergence. Black rebellion had infused the soul and funk of two generations before. Prince was now reviving these sounds by once again paring them down. The song uses minimal instrumentation, and listeners find themselves weaving through subtle cracks of empty space, asking where they might fit. A crying guitar line, clockwork drums, and nouveau-gospel backup vocals subtly help them find their place.

The song dropped alongside an announcement that Prince would hold a “Rally 4 Peace” concert on May 10, 2015. The concert, powerful as it may have been for those in attendance, also bore the mark of another celebrity benefit, easily integrated back into mealy-mouthed notions of “tolerance” and “can’t we all get along?” Even the notion of a concert for “peace” while young people were doing battle with police in the city itself rang of equating the violence of oppressor and oppressed.

Prince himself was far less equivocal. “The system is broken,” he said in a press release. The lyrics in “Baltimore” strike a less confrontational tone, but one that leaves very little question of sides:

Nobody got in nobody’s way
So I guess you could say it was a good day
Least a little better than the day in Baltimore

Does anybody hear us pray
For Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?
Peace is more than the absence of war

The spiritual and religious overtones are unmistakable here. So is the invitation to not just imagine something different, but to place yourself within that imagined world. It’s not the most remarkable of Prince’s songs, but it certainly holds enough in common with his signature methodology that it deserves to be remembered. It’s not something that can be reduced to funk or rock or R&B or neo-soul or any of its components. It’s various straws spun into something simply golden, ultimately human beyond restrictions.

Genres, like all boundaries, are fictions. They deserve to be erased.