Listen To My Body Tonight: How Prince's Transgressive Spirit Broke Boundaries
Somewhere in the back of my closet is a torn photograph from a party in Seattle in 1982. Dig if you will the picture: It's me, in a second-hand chiffon dress that (though the photo is black and white) I'm sure is violet. My hair is a two-toned mass of strawberries and cream, my neck's draped in my mom's big costume pearls; a bracelet of pretend diamonds dangles from my wrist. This is an ordinary look for a college girl with a nightlife obsession in 1982. I'm gazing into a mirror; behind me is my friend Pete, holding the camera, laughing his head off. The room's as off-kilter as we are — chairs pushed toward the wall, wine bottles covering a coffee table, the multicolored throw rug trampled. My eyes, cast upward, communicate a challenge: Can you be as free as we feel right this moment? And I know what's behind that dare; every time I've looked at this blurry chrome snap I hear it. 1999 has just been released, and we're dancing to Prince.
This image is my own reversed portrait of Dorian Gray. (Prince apparently had one, too, at least in his brilliant mind.) It doesn't stop me from getting older; I'm firmly in midlife now, just as the 57-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson was when he inconceivably departed this plane. But even thinking about the look the music put on my face whisks me back to the moment of infinitude ushered by the space-age gospel sounds Prince pulled from his Oberheim OB-8 synths. I am released into a present tense that loosens the strictures of singular identity. Prince was dreaming when he wrote 1999, the album that defined abandon and delight in the early 1980s, or so he said, though his dazzling musical virtuosity and sharp sense of humor reveal his ultimate lucidity. We who first heard him then learned something vital about grounding our fantasies in the multiple realities that pulsed beneath our own skins.
"I'm gonna listen to my body tonight" is the key line in the song "1999," and Prince gave us a new way into our bodies that was brainy, full of feeling and commitedly defiant of categories. In 1981, just before I got up the courage to fully explore Prince's bikini-clad persona, the New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer heralded his "genuinely biracial musical approach and outlook," while noting that some rock fans didn't seem ready for it: Opening for The Rolling Stones that year, Prince was pelted with fruit and bottles, "the suggestions of androgyny in his fluid body movements and flamboyantly minimal stage costume" proving too much for the band's white fans, despite Prince's obvious kinship with Mick Jagger himself. As his star rose, Prince continued to frighten the guardians of boundaries. He was number one on the list of artists censured by the moralistic Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, allegedly frightened his record label with the deeply funky and sometimes troubling Black Album in 1987, and was still reveling in libidinal jams like "When She Comes" in 2015.
Prince overcame such prejudices, first and foremost, by crafting a sound that unceasingly moved among sources, interconnecting funk rhythms with glam guitar, Smokey Robinson-esque vocal flexibility with Kraftwerk-kissed robotics, Cab Calloway's stylish humor with Eddie Van Halen's peacock flash. Thirty seconds into a song like "When You Were Mine," "Kiss" or "Erotic City," a listener's affective loyalties begin to fall away. At house parties like the one where I did the twist with Pete and on dance floors where his early hits mingled with those of his occasional lover and collaborator Madonna, punks threw off their leather to play with disco dollies and even the classic rockers in the crowd found themselves reaching for falsetto notes.
Prince fans enjoying his electric performances or sharing his music in a living room (or bedroom) first had to work through his dirty-minded outrageousness — the shocking array of illicit imaginings in his lyrics, the displays of flesh from himself and his bandmates (who could forget the derriere-baring pants he wore at the MTV Awards in 1991?) — only to find themselves confronted with the deeper provocation he posed. That was to move through the sensual into a spiritual, even religious space, one he inherited from Etta James, George Clinton and Al Green, which he brought to the level of profound spectacle. A promised land, on earth, made of intertwining grooves and limbs. Prince devotees committed themselves to starting there, in a kind of naked state. Beyond the explicitly political thread that delicately runs throughout his work, this was the way Prince fought for civil rights — he created musical environments in which propriety, the viral carrier of prejudice, fell under the curlicued sword of wise good humor and elegant lust.
Women always stood — and played instruments — at the center of these heavenly milieus. From beginning to end, Prince welcomed his own anima into everything he created, and took care to surround himself with collaborators who reflected that feminine spirit. His early collaborators Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman remain central to most people's notion of a Prince band, as does the sparklingly talented percussionist Sheila Escovedo. While Prince did sometimes play Svengali in ways that sometimes felt more designed than collaborative, he also championed outstanding female artists: to name a few, Vanity, Rosie Gaines, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Angie Stone, Esperanza Spalding, his recent band 3rd Eye Girl and, just this year, the young jazz-soul singer Kandace Springs.
Some of Prince's most influential songs, including the ecstatic "When Doves Cry" (famously described by the musicologist Nancy J. Holland as an aural depiction of female jouissance), the blues-honoring "Darling Nikki" and the contemplative "Joy in Repetition," clearly aimed to give musical space to women's sexual desire — something many male musicians have sought to stimulate but few have studied with real curiosity and sympathy. Prince often talked about having a female alter ego, or even (to Oprah!) having a spirit of indeterminate sex living within him. He gave this being a voice and even a name, Camille; recording his vocals at a slow speed and then adjusting it to reach a higher pitch, he unleashed her spirit in songs like "Strange Relationship" and on an unreleased 1986 album bearing her name. While such experiments added to his reputation as an eccentric, throughout his recordings he reached for sounds and song forms that transformed the worst impulses of cock rock and pimp-daddy R&B into energies that were equally intense but far more welcoming. That's not to say Prince didn't love raunch — he could lick his guitar like no one else — but he felt that every human should have equal access to it, and that required recasting his machismo as a universal, gender-expansive force.
Never abandoning his gift for androgyny, Prince increasingly identified with the African-American legacies that inspired his work from the first time his father took him, as a child, to a James Brown show. Though he never stopped recording, in the 21st century he cemented his legend as the era's most consistently great live act, and his shows were massive parties grounded in an irresistible funk groove. These gatherings allowed multiple generations of fans — from the ones who delighted when he performed Radiohead's "Creep" at Coachella in 2008 to the old-timers who appreciated that he championed elders like the bassist Larry Graham — to revel in each others' presence. And they were unmistakably, deeply, culturally funky. "I'm workin' up a black sweat," he sang in the 2006 electro jam with that title, wailing in the chorus with an authority his forebears Sly Stone and Little Richard (who have both outlived him now) must admire. That sweat was for us all, but he knew and celebrated its source in both the black church and the Funkadelic mothership.
None of us, even those who point the way to a different future, can truly overcome the divisions that both define and continually limit our lives within society. Prince was a visionary who created a musical imaginarium where we could feel what it might be like to unite instead, in the most intimate and potentially revolutionary ways. "Enough is enough, it's time for love," Prince insisted in "Baltimore," the anti-racist anthem he recorded in 2015. Prince's time was ruled by love, in its full possibilities, sometimes in anger or sadness, most often in joy. He gave us that time, and no mortal ending can take it away.