I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand
– the opening lyrics to “I Would Die 4 U”
It was only back in January [*deep sigh*] that I had to ponder on here, “Well, what can one say about David Bowie that hasn’t already been said?” Now, we have to ponder the same thing about Prince, whose untimely passing on Thursday [*another deep sigh*] has generated a great amount of well-deserved analysis and praise for his work and his influence.
Many of you will automatically think that it all started off for Prince with 1999. But while that album and its title song were far from his very first work (matter of fact, he had been recording and performing well before then), their releases certainly seemed, to me at least, to be a turning point when everyone really stood up and took notice at his songcrafting prowess — not to mention how he could enrapture an audience in a groundbreaking way. My mom and sister was watching him perform “1999” (the song) on Solid Gold one weekend in early 1983. (Kids, ask your parents what Solid Gold was about.) I was one room over in the kitchen but I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of his performance blaring from the living room. It was in that performance that Mom and Sis… well, sounded as if they couldn’t get past the appearance factor: There was Prince performing in front of his band in his eyeliner, his androgynous style, and the shades of purple that would instantly become his trademark color.
Initially, I was enraptured by Prince’s appearance as well through that Solid Gold performance. Mom and Sis openly thought, “What kind of outfit his he wearing?” and “He kind of looks girly.” But unlike Mom and Sis, however, I didn’t think of it as a question of gender presentation or sexual identity (Prince identified as a straight male). Rather, I got the impression that, when watching Prince on Solid Gold, this was a new example of masculine presentation.
Now, why do I say “new example of masculine presentation”? Well, at the same time Prince was hitting it really big with 1999, a certain British band with a gender-blurring lead singer was also gaining prominence. But while fronting Culture Club, Boy George was one to… shall we say, have an either/or approach when presenting on-stage; he was a talented gentleman underneath those clearly feminine costumes, makeup, and even wigs. (As he put it at the 1984 Grammy Awards, “You know a good drag queen when you see one.”).
But unlike Boy George, Prince had more of an androgynous approach to the playing of gender barriers. His was an approach akin to, say… David Bowie. Prince blurred the lines, proudly and brilliantly: He wasn’t above wearing eyeliner (the better to accentuate that alluring stare); he proudly wore outfits in sequins and satin (and purple); and he confidently walked across the stage in those platform shoes as if he owned the place. As opposed to Boy George’s “drag queen” approach, Prince used his style and charisma to enforce a point that you could be masculine and sensual without having to resort to the conservative approach of wearing a suit, tie, and Brylcreem (an approach older generations are still trying to wrap their brains around here in 2016). It was an ambiguity that he celebrated even without appearing in front of the camera. A specific example of that was work surrounding his 2013 single “Breakfast Can Wait“: The single’s art work featured an image of Dave Chappelle posing as Prince, while the video didn’t feature Prince at all but rather its director, Dani Leigh, impersonating Prince (as Leigh recounted to CBC Radio’s Day 6 this weekend, her impersonation surprised and impressed The Purple One himself).
Of course, Prince wasn’t all about bending and blurring the lines of masculinity. Just as he was unapologetic about his style of fashion, he was unapologetic about his style of music. Seriously, Prince’s musical work had a lot of substance: He wrote, arranged, and performed most of the work on his recordings, many of which went beyond R&B to include pop, soul, and even hard-edged rock; indeed, he was a music virtuoso to some. The lyrics of his songs pushed the boundaries of sexual seduction — or break them wide open — in ways that were passionate and lustful but sometimes very playful. But lest the novice (and the Tipper Gores of the world) think Prince’s music was all about doing the horizontal bop, think again: He pondered infatuation (“Delirious,” a joyful listen), platonic friendships (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), not doing the horizontal bop (“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man“), and socio-political issues both broad (“Sign o’ the Times“) and specific (“Baltimore”). And, yes, Prince’s song catalog included professions of lust-free love to “a happy boy or a girl” (“Diamonds and Pearls,” my all-time, drop-everything-and-listen favorite Prince song).
As much as Prince has been an influence to his contemporaries, proteges, and future artists, it’s for sure he had his own influences. Now that I’m a little more clear-headed than the child of the 80s that I (and, for the record, my sister, who was really into Prince during his Purple Rain days) once was, Prince certainly had to have some inspiration from the likes of Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Seriously, listen to how Prince masters the multiple vocalists’ distinct styles on “1999” and you can’t help but think of a Sly Stone song like “Dance to the Music.” Think of how Prince’s screeching (and very captivating) growl near the end of “Little Red Corvette” could have been a nod to Sly’s screeching at the very end of “Family Affair.” And don’t forget how his devilish hard-rock guitar work on “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain” sounded as if they were right out of the Hendrix playbook.
This week, I was really struck by the outpouring of comments from those in the LGBT community over Prince’s passing. It seemed that the unifying belief in their thoughts about Prince was this: He showed and encouraged others to pave their own unique way. Whether it was someone who was freely bending or blending genders and gender roles, or someone who held to a firm vision of the work they wanted to do, Prince showed that there was no problem to that at all, so long as you were proud and unapologetic, had a great amount of self-respect, and didn’t mind what those in the status quo thought of you. Can I say that Prince had a direct influence on my living the crossdresser’s life? No, I can’t say that. But ever since that performance on Solid Gold, I can’t help but think that Prince indirectly said it was okay for me to be… me.
One last thought: Since the news of Prince’s passing, there’s one song of his that’s been stuck in my head: “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Yes, Prince indeed wrote and composed the song; it’s just that Sinead O’Connor took it out of his hands in 1990 and ran with it all the way to the end zone. But a few years after that iconic version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Prince performed the song in a live duet with Rosie Gaines. I came across their version late last year while listening online to an all-90s music channel, and let me tell you, their version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a gut-busting slow jam; it beautifully combined smouldering soul, R&B piano, and Gaines’ raise-the-roof gospel-style vocals. If you have the chance, search for their version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on your favorite music service, and just like me, you’ll find that it will stick with you forever… not unlike how Prince’s music and influence will stick with all of us forever.