How Prince’s Music Helps Fill the Hole in Our Hearts

Nearly a year after Prince suddenly and shockingly died at his Paisley Park studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota, the world is still coping with his loss. Last April 21, the Internet teemed with videos and images of middle-aged men crying at work, government buildings and city bridges being draped in royal purple lights, and too many memes paying homage to Prince’s incarnations: the lisping bon vivant from his ill-fated Under the Cherry Moon movie, the young tyro staring into the sunset during the “When Doves Cry” video, or the cackling elder sage who occasionally turned up on Oprah, at award shows and basketball games to remind the world of his Royal Badness.

If there was one thing that Prince’s tragic demise reminded us of, it was that he was a universal artist

The word genius is often overused, but Prince has long seemed deserving of the term. He could play any instrument he wished to; he was a fantastic dancer, a superior fashion stylist, and an evocative singer. Long before 2Pac and Lil Wayne made it fashionable for musicians to make 1,000 songs, Prince did it. Whether you were an ardent fan who tracked down every illegal bootleg of his thousands of studio demos and concerts, promo-only singles, and exclusive projects released by his NPG (New Power Generation) label or you simply tracked down the dozens of B-sides released on his singles back in the ‘80s (and later collected as part of the 1993 greatest-hits comp The Hits/The B-Sides), you were aware of how prolific he was. Not everything he made was a stroke of brilliance and there is a reason why his post-’80s output doesn’t receive as much attention as the canonical, record-breaking music he created during the Purple Decade. But even when the spotlight shifted to others, even those whom were clearly disciples — his friend Madonna, perhaps his closest contemporary in terms of taboo-smashing transgression, clearly took a page or two from him — Prince remained restlessly creative and productive.

But if there was one thing that Prince’s tragic demise reminded us of, it was that he was a universal artist. Everyone, no matter their color, gender, sexual orientation, or political bent, has struggled with physical longing, and wondered about their place in the cosmos. Back in the 1980s, street dudes used to bump “Erotic City” from their low riders. It didn’t matter if the man who made that funk anthem was a flamboyant kid from the Midwest who once sang on “Controversy,” “Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?” Women viewed Prince as a man who freely embraced the masculine and feminine aspects of his personality, and wasn’t threatened or frightened by the latter. Then there were the gay men and women who, after his death, would memorialize how his polymorphous image helped them come to terms with their own identity.

Prince wrote about lovemaking as more than just a grimy, sweat-soaked sport or a heavenly and romantic ideal (though he could do that, too). For him, sex was a matter of life or death.

Prince-nosymbol 1Prince repositioned our sexual personae as an element of our physical beings. It could be animalistic, or even religious. But it was necessary. When he sings on “Anna Stesia,” in an anguished voice, “Have you ever wanted 2 play with someone so much U’d take any one boy or girl?,” his confession sounds frightening, as if fleshly desire is about to overtake him. There are plenty of artists that sing about sex, of course. But Prince wrote about lovemaking as more than just a grimy, sweat-soaked sport or a heavenly and romantic ideal (though he could do that, too). For him, sex was a matter of life or death.

Part of Prince’s achievement was musical. On 1980’s Dirty Mind, he stripped down funk to its bare essentials — bass, drums, chicken-scratch guitar, and a keyboard line. The results were so raw and kinetic that some critics termed it “funk-punk.” Lyrically, he pushes buttons, writing compassionately about a ménage a trois that goes sour on “When You Were Mine,” making a stone-cold funk jam about oral sex on “Head,” or, most notoriously, imagining that an older sibling taught him about making love on “Sister.”

But the naughty ditties that inform the undeniably fantastic Dirty Mind can’t compare to the bouts of desire that took center stage on his 1982 album 1999, his double-album masterwork about sex, technology, religion and the nuclear apocalypse. The title track was written at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s cold-war battles with the U.S.S.R., and marks the introduction of the color purple as God’s grace. “The sky was all purple, and people running everywhere,” Prince sings. “Trying to run from our destruction/You know I didn’t even care.” Unlike 1981’s Controversy and “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” where he worried about the two superpowers “blowing up our world” over a jittery New Wave rhythm, Prince uses “1999” to achieve something akin to a state of grace. No matter whether God decides to save the world or immolate it through a nuclear cataclysm, it’s up to Prince to live life to its fullest, to “dance his life away.” It’s a religious epiphany, aided by the gospel-style chorus that closes out the track, that rings especially true now.

There seemed to be plenty of time to revisit Prince, dip into the netherworld of fan sites that circulate his less-heralded work, and bring it into the light. Perhaps he would even open his legendary vault that reportedly housed thousands of unreleased songs. Then he was suddenly gone, leaving a hole in our hearts. 

Prince-Nosymbol 3There would be many more. 1984’s Purple Rain, of course, is the big one that sold more than 10 million copies, made Prince a global superstar, spawned a hit movie that became the top-grossing film musical of all time, and yielded “When Doves Cry,” the first Billboard chart-topper that didn’t have a bass line. (At the height of Prince mania, a high school friend who was sick of the fuss deadpanned to me, “When pigeons die.”) Then there were all the detours. 1985’s Around the World in a Day divided critics and audiences who expected another Purple Rain colossus, and received an eccentric collection of ‘60s-inflected pop inspired by L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene, James Brown-styled rhythm & blues, and Jehovah’s Witness imagery instead. 1986’s Parade dipped into French pop, a trendy move at the time given the mid-’80s jazz-pop fad, and led to the impossibly weird movie Under the Cherry Moon, which found Prince directing himself as an American expatriate bedding idle princesses on the French Riviera. By 1987’s double-album Sign O’ the Times, we had come to appreciate Prince’s stylistic adventurousness, even if we didn’t always understand the results. Many of his albums, whether it’s 1988’s Lovesexy, an attempt at a new funk-pop gospel that didn’t catch on with audiences, or his under-heard NPG releases, deserve to be reassessed.

There seemed to be plenty of time to revisit Prince, dip into the netherworld of fan sites that circulate his less-heralded work, and bring it into the light. Perhaps he would even open his legendary vault that reportedly housed thousands of unreleased songs. Then, on April 21, he was suddenly gone, leaving a hole in our hearts. One friend imagined that he is now riding a winged unicorn in the heavens, just like one of the images from his 1978 album Prince. It’s a comforting thought.