Jamie Foxx once did a bit in a stand-up act about meeting Prince. The punch-line of his body language essentially revolved around Foxx demurring in Prince’s presence, unable to look the singer in the eyes for fear of questioning his sexuality.
It’s a stale joke. The actual language is pretty homophobic too (there are other comic pieces about meeting Prince which also base their humor on fragile masculinity, but we’ll leave Dave Chappelle and Charlie Murphy alone for now). The bit still works though because everyone in the audience is already familiar with the regal if not godly eroticism which permeates any project Prince has touched. He carried an air of omnipotence and desire simultaneously, no less compounded by the intensities he reached in his music, which flaunts an extraordinary range and talent.
Not to be outdone even by his own capacities as a producer, songwriter and musician, he also performed electrically. If you can scrounge up a bootleg of his 1985 Grammy rendition of “Baby I’m a Star,” I would highly recommend you watch the entire video. It attests to Prince’s charisma. It begins at a simmer and quickly spirals into magic celebration. The Revolution, his backing band, coordinate fluidly while Prince pulls the crowd onstage. By the end, he’s walking shirtless through the audience with a dismissive air, and honestly, I think he has the right. There’s no way anyone that night could have played as good a show as he just had.
Despite these vivid expressions of life and joy, Prince’s work also came across as profoundly honest. Even with his early hits, he understood the gravity of the times. “1999,” while admittedly a let’s-forget-everything-to-party song, speaks to the freedom in letting go of fear. The men in charge beget the apocalypse, but there’s still a moment to engage in the rapture of living. Often times this is the purpose found throughout Prince’s work — to feel with passion a diversity of emotions, to remember that love, sex and celebration persist in even the darkest of times. Rather than fighting our shame of these things, Prince’s music encourages us to rejoice in them.
My own personal relationship with Prince’s music began with a play-through of his record Dirty Mind. Although it has been surpassed by other candidates for my favorite Prince album, Dirty Mind nonetheless established the entertainer in my mind as a mystic and indefatigable funk fiend. He presented himself as such, with punk songs about incest and hypnotic rhythms covering scenes of deflowering.
This hyperbolic but thrilling personality was a vital part of his magnetism. It’s the same obscenity we can thank for Parental Advisory warnings, with Prince’s jam “Darling Nikki”, a short but energetic tune about one peculiar sexual encounter, scaring Tipper Gore so much that she founded the Parents Music Resource Center. It never seemed like Prince’s songs were specifically intended to shock. Opposed to some music which receives a similar type of attention for obscenity, the sexuality of Prince’s music becomes something inherently less violent but all the more truthful and beautiful.
With baffled reactions like Tipper Gore’s, we also see that the music embraces its political value, and Prince was never one to shy away from mixing music and politics. During his 1993 conflict with Warner Brothers, Prince would often be seen in public with the word “slave” on his cheek. Just last year, he called out record contracts as slavery, urging newcomers to stay away from deals with labels. Regardless of how artists are treated by the music industry (dismally), these actions speak to Prince’s willingness to push boundaries on all fronts, not just musical ones.
It’s difficult to imagine American pop culture without the man’s influence. The temples of the self our society inflates and praises, conflating our celebrities with deities and making a point of this fact, find their roots in the multicolor dreamshow written, produced and directed by a son of Minneapolis musicians. Some of the wavy grooves of the late 2000s, anywhere from MGMT to Miguel, can locate their foundations in the hybrid funks Prince explored. And looking past the cult of personality, the random appearances, the stand-up comedy routines, we also see a person who dedicated themselves to their art for the sake of other people. Prince didn’t just want people to feel happy. He wanted everyone to throw their hands up, get on stage and let go. Music has lost a star today. It was the mastermind behind one of the most electrifying aesthetics to ever come alive and paint a perfect picture for the rest of us.
Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Appearances runs alternate Fridays this semester.