“Sometimes, it snows in April…” – Prince
Since news broke of Prince’s untimely passing, I have struggled to find a way to articulate what Prince and his music have meant for me personally (I can’t speak for the world, we all have our own experiences with his body of work and ultimately, legacy). Prince has long been one of my favorite artists and humans and there is simply so much to say in the face of his silence. I figured a good place to start will be to discuss my initial association with his work, and why his passing has stirred up so many feelings for me. In the wake of his death, I felt the best way to pay tribute to this singular artist was to visit his entire discography; a task I’m learning is monumental. As with all things Prince, there is SO much ground to cover.
Prince Rogers Nelson has long fascinated me. While I can’t pinpoint the exact moment he drew me in, I can certainly identify specific milestones in his career that I connected the most with, namely spanning from 1984-1995.
An unlikely point of entry into my love for this artist is bad Prince movies, which have long been a guilty pleasure. Prince starred in three films, none of which was exceptional, yet they are memorable (except for Graffiti Bridge, which I still can’t bring myself to watch front to end).
Purple Rain (1984)
For all its melodrama and bad 80s clichés, Purple Rain is astonishing. The storyline between performances can be a bit much, but fortunately, the film is mostly performances, and you literally get the opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest artists center stage, doing what he does best, and a man truly of the moment, in his prime, and at the height of greatness. It’s hard to watch this and not think it’s not some of the best concert footage you’ve ever seen. I recall attending a revival screening of this in LA a decade ago, and a young man remarking incredulously “How did I not know about Prince?!” Implying that while he had some familiarity with the name and image, he had no idea how truly capable and exciting this artist truly was. The film is also a great snapshot of the Minneapolis music scene at the time the “Minneapolis sound” was being crafted by Prince, who also wrote featured songs for The Time and Vanity 6, also appearing in the film. What great music and unique performances. These pieces elevate this film and ultimately, it’s easy to see how this was a seminal piece of pop culture that catapulted Prince to 80s megastardom.
Many considered the film to be biographical (though Prince insisted that wasn’t the case). The storyline centers around a moody brooding musician from a broken home grappling with domestic violence, love, rivalry, and ego. Perhaps nuanced differences in script allowed Prince to feel more comfortable allowing some of his less-loveable traits make it to the screen. The film was written for Prince, and to some degree, is about him. The scenes where his character, The Kid, feuds with Prince’s then-real life band The Revolution seem really true to life. It is no secret that Prince came from a broken home; his onscreen father is a pianist filled with resentment towards his family for not getting his chance at a big break, a real life dilemma that plagued the relationship between Prince and his father John Nelson, whose music is actually featured in the film (‘Father’s Song’ was a John Nelson composition). The soundtrack to this film became legendary; Purple Rain remains one of my all-time favorite albums and is frankly one of the best records I’ve ever heard. The songs complement each other very well, to the point where it feels like one extended track with various verses.
My only real gripe with Purple Rain is the amount of violence against women portrayed in the film. The Kid witnesses his parents domestic violence, a trait he carries into a romantic relationship. In a shocking scene that would never be allowed for today, Morris Day (The Time) throws a woman in a dumpster who he is arguing with. It should be noted that Prince did not write the film and that the real-life Prince was generally very respectful and supportive of/to women. In a later song (Days of Wild), Prince notes “A woman every day should be thanked, not disrespected, not raped or spanked. And if a woman ever said I did… She’s a mother****** liar and I’m a set up kid.”
Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
This curious film was directed/written/starring/music by Prince and shot entirely in black and white in lush Monaco. Voted “Best Worse Movie of all Time” by Playboy magazine, it is an intentionally campy European romp where Prince’s character plays Christopher Tracy, a gigolo bent on swindling a 21-year old heiress out of her fortune, only to fall helplessly in love with her. Jerome Benton (of The Time, also featured in Purple Rain) stars as his foil in this over-the-top adventure that can only truly be described as so bad it’s thoroughly enjoyable. This film has some genuinely hilarious moments, thanks to Prince’s exaggerated Tracy. In real life, Prince was known by those closest to him as a prankster with a great sense of humor. With this movie it’s easy to see, he in no way takes himself seriously and it’s a refreshing turn for an artist who publicly often wore a serious face. The film is set to the soundtrack of one of Prince’s best albums, Parade, and features the hit song “Kiss”. Interestingly, Prince’s father John Nelson’s music also makes an appearance in this film where he enjoys co-writing credits; Prince wrote lyrics to and reworked two of his father’s songs into “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” and “Under the Cherry Moon”. John Nelson was clearly a large influence on Prince’s music and their melodies share similarities. Parade was the last album featuring The Revolution, my favorite Prince band.
By the time I was born, Prince was already making records. My exposure to (and knowledge of) Prince’s musical career encompassed a very specific time period, of which I was a huge fan: Purple Rain (1984) through The Gold Experience (1995). I had little knowledge of Prince’s catalogue before and after those dates, and was unaware that the songs Controversy and 1999 pre-dated Purple Rain.
My favorite Prince album, Purple Rain, truly doesn’t falter. From the intriguing opening line “Dearly beloved… we are here gathered here today to get through this thing called life…”, we are exposed to the infectious groove that is Let’s Go Crazy, a song that makes it virtually impossible to sit still. The Beautiful Ones lives up to its name, and is the most lovely track on the album. Computer Blue gives us a funky altogether unique ode to the impending digital age. Darling Nikki is the film’s most shocking number, equipped with an onstage performance where Prince dry humps the stage floor. This saucy track is sacred to fans, but did not win over politicians – some of whom were outraged by the over-the-top tale of a woman masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby. The song was influential on the development of the parental advisory lyrics sticker. When Doves Cry is such a minimalist song yet filled with genius masterstrokes. This was a truly unique sound for its era. I Would Die 4 U is wonderful… and revealing. Sings Prince, “I’m not your woman, I’m not your man. I am something that you’ll never understand.” Truer words about Prince have never been spoken. And of course, who could forget the album’s title track, which became an 80s anthem and is often considered the definitive Prince track, endlessly played in the aftermath of Prince’s life.
There are simply too many great Prince tracks to note. Songs that frequented my playlist included Raspberry Beret, 1999, When You Were Mine, Kiss, P control, 7, Little Red Corvette, Prince covers (Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You”, Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”), and the incredibly fun Gold, one of the truly underrated Prince songs and a song he himself once said was better than Purple Rain.
I was always drawn to eccentric Prince. He was an artist who blurred boundaries and was impossible to categorize. I loved Prince’s funky style and fearless fashion, often wearing mix-and-match male and female clothing and accessories. I could relate to Prince’s androgynous sensibilities and really appreciated that he seemed so unafraid to exist in the world as himself. I liked that he was a male that could wear makeup and be short and still be exceedingly desirable to women. He was such an outlier, and if people could forgive Prince of any perceived faults and connect with his work, than maybe there was hope for us all. Not everyone fits into neat little boxes, and Prince sent a strong message that this was OK. In a sense, he stood up for weirdos, just by being fierce and unapologetic. I enjoyed how dainty he was and how much he seemed to relish in his ruffles and lace and didn’t seem to care what anyone had to say about his life. You could always count on Prince to give you more than you bargained for as an entertainer.
I was always amused by Prince’s quirks and attitude. I loved that he flaunted what he had and sold himself as sexy and embodied a unique sensuality often not reserved for men. He is a great reminder that it’s what you do with what you have that makes a difference, and that beauty comes in many forms. How you feel about yourself goes a long way in how others will perceive you. He defined and crafted his own image and seemed to wield a control over it that few artists seem to maintain or master. He understood branding. But he was also deeply committed to expressing his own inner truth. I appreciated how he fully accessed and wielded the ‘feminine’ aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from blurring the gender binary. He seemed so comfortable with his body and with himself and so unconcerned about societal expectations. Prince was also fearless in his portrayal of sexuality, especially during the earliest parts of his career when the risks were likely the greatest.
Prince stood up for himself, at great personal cost. He defended his right to produce his own records as a teenager from the start of his career, and fought record labels most his life for creative control and authorship over his work, eventually changing his name to an unpronouncable symbol in protest O(->
I loved Prince’s support of women. He wrote countless songs for women and was one of the early artists to include females in key roles, both in his band and in production, including female song engineers. He truly defended women and many of the artists he developed and mentored throughout his life were women.
Prince was also a genius. His songwriting catalogue seemed endless and he played multiple instruments to perfection. Prince, like Michael Jackson (an artist he was often compared and contrasted with, yet significantly differed from), defied boundaries and limitations, and that made for a world that was more interesting and also encouraged people to be more liberated. These men also were the standard-bearers of their generation, pushing such perfection and excellence into the music world that it gave other artists something to aspire to. I think, for me, this was one of the main reasons his passing was so painful. He was singular and irreplaceable. Who was going to keep that torch going by inspiring younger artists to achieve so much? Just existing in the world, he set a phenomenal example of what was possible creatively and helped younger artists, creative people, and weirdos around the world find themselves.
Prince’s death left me devastated, to a magnitude I couldn’t have imagined. What a loss for the world! I am so grateful for his many contributions, for how his songs made me want to dance, and how amusing I always found him. He brought me so much joy. And thanks to the magic that is recorded audio and video, he always will.
Thank you, Prince. For all your glitter and gold.