The death of Prince made me pause, in the same way the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and David Bowie did. Shock at their untimely, unexpected passings was part of it, of course, but there was more. I was born in 1976, and Prince, Bowie, Jackson and Houston provided a huge chunk of the soundtrack to my life. It’s hard to believe we lost them all in the space of less than six years. Their talent can’t be replaced, and their influence was huge.
I’ll admit, I’m not Prince’s biggest fan, but the songs I like by him are ones I’d want to take with me to a desert island. “Erotic City,” “Controversy,” “Thieves in the Temple,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” “A Love Bizarre.” All meet my simple criteria for great music — you can play them multiple times and not get bored. “Purple Rain” was Prince taking his heart out of his chest and laying it at our feet. I’m embarrassed it took his death for me to realize that.
But that’s the thing about a famous person’s death. It forces us to consider (or reconsider) a life — and the life of Prince Rogers Nelson was a fascinating, joyous, controversial and complicated thing.
Musically, Prince covered a lot of ground — disco, pop, rock, jazz, R&B. One of his biggest influences, he told Rolling Stone, was Carlos Santana. The magazine called Prince one of the top 100 best guitarists (#33, specifically), but the general public didn’t see him as a guitar guy. Our stupidity.
Prince wrote both sweet, romantic ballads you could play at your wedding and baby-making music with titles that seemed to come directly off adult-movie marquees. He was the brains behind “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “I Feel For You,” two songs that couldn’t be more diverse, sung by two artists (Sinead O’Connor and Chaka Khan, respectively) at opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He also gave “Manic Monday” to The Bangles and co-wrote “Stand Back” for Stevie Nicks. Other than “I Feel For You,” none seem like typical Prince songs. But that was Prince. He surprised.
His songwriting matched the sophistication of his music, exploring themes like the end of the world in “1999,” religion in “I Would Die 4 U,” AIDS, gangs and drugs in “Sign O’ The Times,” nuclear holocaust in “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” poverty and war in “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” — while keeping it all catchy.
And while his music spanned all sorts of genres and subjects, his presentation spanned genders. He wasn’t afraid to wear ruffles, heels, eyeliner and long hair, and he flocked to girly purple like it was a long-lost cousin. And yet he appeared, for all intents and purposes, straight. Was he secretly bi, a repressed gay man, a repressed trans woman or just a really feminine straight dude? If Prince was out, he would have likely run into some trouble, but as a sexual question mark, he was safe, and what’s more, he intrigued.
Prince’s sexual lyrics indirectly changed the record industry when, in the mid-’80s, Tipper Gore, future Vice President Al Gore’s wife, created the Parents Music Resource Center, in part after hearing “Darling Nikki.” (“I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine.”) The PMRC led to the creation of the Parental Advisory label, still in use today. But the artist who was too hot for Tipper eventually became sexually conservative himself.
According to Billboard, in 2001, Prince “cut a number of songs from his repertoire that he deemed too explicit, and even stopped swearing. Paisley Park [his home/studio complex], which always had been dry, felt to many more like a junior-high dance than the sex-drenched den of sin from years past.” He became a Jehovah’s Witness around that time.
His relationship with the gay community was also problematic. He revealed to Chris Rock on a 1997 MTV News show that he didn’t sing on Michael Jackson’s “Bad” because he took issue with the lyric “Your butt is mine.” “Now listen,” Prince said in a half-joking, half-tough guy manner, “who gonna sing that to whom? Cause you sure ain’t singing it to me. And I sure ain’t singing it to you. So right there we got, you know…. Right there we got a problem.”
In a 2008 interview with the New Yorker, Prince said gay marriage wasn’t “right,” and was quoted as saying, “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out.” (A source who spoke to celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton claimed Prince was misquoted; the New Yorker disagreed.)
And yet, one can not deny he was a champion of civil rights. “Albums still matter,” Prince said at the 2015 Grammy awards. “Like books and black lives, albums still matter. Tonight and always.” This time last year, Prince’s song “Baltimore,” about the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, was making news. He also gave money to Trayvon Martin’s family and funded Yes We Code, a nonprofit group helping inner-city youth develop skills for careers in tech-related fields.
It’s hard to believe all these different Princes existed in the same person — including the more troubling side we didn’t know about until recently. “Pop Life” contains lyrics that could sadly wind up being prophetic after the cause of his death is revealed:
“The river of addiction flows/You think it’s hot, but there won’t be no -water/When the fire blows.” Prince’s fire is out, but man, those flames were surely something to look at while they lasted.