Brimming with paradoxes and contradictions, Prince epitomizes the postmodern pop icon — it is his own awareness of his very construction that makes him such a compelling subject. — Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock, Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon
Music instigates social, political and cultural change. It is the one true universal language with a sonic boom that resounds across the space and time barriers separating race, place and class. It’s rare an artist can cross boundaries in a similar manner, but Prince was one of the best at single-handedly inciting social change while celebrating sexuality, promoting women in a male-dominated music industry, defying convention, decimating cultural norms and championing controversy.
He shocked and captivated when he sang about female masturbation and puzzled us when he pivoted, intoned like a preacher and talked about God. He strutted around as a cocksure misogynist in Purple Rain before embracing a sort of vulnerability to love through the transcendent heroic journey of his character “The Kid.” And through all his posturing, preaching and preening, Prince taught us valuable life lessons.
Lesson 1: Defy Gender Roles (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”)
Prince was staunchly masculine despite his diminutive frame. He boldly defied gender roles and embraced feminine displays, perhaps a nod to the glam rockers that preceded him, rimming his eyes in coal-black eyeliner, wearing neon green ass-baring pants and fringed tees, draping his torso in layered necklaces, brazenly posing naked against floral backdrops, coyly peeking out from purple feather-tipped fedoras, parading about in the clothing of a Victorian dandy while pursing his lusciously full lips. It was full-throttle gender-bending sex married with sound. Prince’s masculine-meets-feminine look was shocking and inspiring. And damn if you didn’t want to be his girlfriend — or boyfriend.
In “I Would Die 4 U,” Prince sings,
I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you will never understand
Prince embraced his masculinity and wore his femininity as an accessory. But more than that, he melded degrees ascribed to both genders in the same contexts. He was aggressive and receptive, bold and understated, sentimental and decisive.
Beyond defying gender roles, Prince did a helluvalot to promote women in a male-dominated industry, working with Chaka Khan, Madonna, Patti LaBelle, Apollonia and Sheila E. Perhaps most famously, he enlisted Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin for his band The Revolution and the two were prominently featured in the film and album Purple Rain.
Lesson 2: Defy EVERYTHING (“Let’s Go Crazy”)
Prince certainly didn’t try to force a square peg into a circular hole — he created entirely new shapes. From his funky dirty grind to his synth-fueled New Wave, he was largely responsible for spearheading the “Minneapolis sound.” He celebrated letting go, and made going crazy a celebration. And he was called crazy when he became “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” painted “slave” on his high, beautiful cheekbones, and changed his name to a symbol. But we all know he was anything but.
*Lesson 3: Be Sexy (“Sexy M.F.”) *
A puritanical, Reagan-era populace painted Prince as a porno peddler in the mid ‘80s. “Darling Nikki” necessitated a parental advisory warning on Purple Rain’s album packaging and has been credited as spurring Tipper Gore to seek legislative action to protect the youth of America:
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
She said how’d you like to waste some time
And I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind
That Prince discussed females masturbating in the ‘80s was beyond shocking — to this day, the topic is taboo with the media. But Darling Nikki owned her sexuality and blatantly pushed male sexuality out of the forefront. Whether this was empowering, scandalous, or simply an honest portrayal of male and female desire really doesn’t matter, because, as Prince said, “A strong spirit transcends rules.”
Where Prince spurred social change by placing sexuality front and center, with “Sexy M.F.,” Prince flipped the script and made sex a physical and intellectual pursuit.
In a word or two, it’s you I want to do
No not your body, your mind you fool
Come here baby, yeah
You sexy motherfucker
It was a wholly original way to embrace and articulate his sexuality. In the end, Prince normalized sexual stigma while creating an artistic discourse that was no longer so controversial or shocking.
Lesson 4: Be Vulnerable, Let Love In (“Purple Rain”)
Undoubtedly his signature song, Prince’s seminal performance during the downpour and sheets of rain at the Super Bowl XLI 2007 Halftime Show bolstered his message as thousands bathed in his purple rain (reign?). The lesson: tackle times of crisis with unmitigated focus and dedication. Don’t protect yourself. No umbrellas needed.
Purple Rain, the song and movie, were about heartbreak and vulnerability. The movie opens with a Prince’s young character, “The Kid,” as a banty cocksure rooster, strutting about Minneapolis in tight leather pants, zooming off on his motorcycle mid-date, leaving an unwitting beauty soaking and naked in a lake. Yet as the movie progresses, some sort of rain-soaked baptism and denouement occurs in his character’s psyche during the cinematic performance of “Purple Rain.” Love penetrates below the cocksure exterior and a true union takes place — male and female, aggression and vulnerability, love and sexuality.
Lesson 5: Be Enigmatic (“A Love Bizarre”)
Prince was an enigma and a perpetually moving target. Once his fans had grown accustomed to his purple phase, he reinvented his style and sound so thoroughly that he was unrecognizable, save for his facial hair and sultry countenance. But one thing never left his side — love — and while he vehemently pursued it via overt sexual overtures, he always wore his heart on the sleeve of his billowing lace-collared peasant shirt.
*Lesson 6: Pain Can Beget Beauty (“When Doves Cry”) *
Prince may have been driven by abandonment issues, either familial or sexual; spurned on to fill the absence that loss leaves.
How can you just leave me standing?
Alone in a world that’s so cold? (So cold)
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied (She’s never satisfied)
Why do we scream at each other
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry
He admitted to a troubled relationship with his father and stepfather and toldRadar he was compelled to learn piano after his father left. “My father left his piano at the house when he left,” he explained, “and I wasn’t allowed to play it when he was there, because I wasn’t as good as him. So when he left, I was determined to get as good as him.”
Lesson 7: Multitask (“Batdance”)
Prince was a true renaissance man. His genius wasn’t limited to prolific songwriting, singing and music production: he was an avid dancer, actor, producer and film soundtrack composer. His “Batdance” and soundtrack for 1989’s Batman belied his multidisciplinary talents and injected his booty-slap funky rock into different contexts where it was needed, like Hollywood.
Lesson 8: Be Controversial (“Controversy”)
Prince’s “Controversy” summed up decades of drama he’d endured. He mused,
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?…
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same, do you want to play?
But play is exactly what Prince did. His message compels us to truly live for ourselves, despite the designs and judgment of others. Live, in the face of death. You don’t have to die to be free.