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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Something Wrong with the Machinery: Prince’s Pop Paradox

Back in my high school days, I played drums in a four-piece blues-rock band called the Royals. We were completely unoriginal, decent on good nights, and completely inconsequential even in the context of our local music scene. Our lead singer thought he was Robert Plant, our bassist wanted to be Trent Reznor, our guitarist saw himself as a sort of Kirk Hammett in training, and I wanted to be Carter Beauford. Given our disparate influences, we were rarely able to find songs that we could all be excited about. One such song, though, was Prince’s “Computer Blue”. We arranged it as best we could for guitar, bass, drums, and vocals and even spent a rehearsal trying to get some of the choreography down.

One of our few shows was at a battle of the bands in an elementary school gymnasium in Ashe County, North Carolina (shockingly, the directions to the venue included “bear right at Mulatto Mountain Road”). Tensions had been strained within the band for quite some time and our guitarist and I decided that this show would be our last with the group. Instead of quitting outright, though, we decided we would make every effort to get ourselves kicked out instead. As part of this effort, we decided on stage outfits certain to cause trouble with the lead singer — a girl’s cheerleading outfit for him and a pink mini-skirt with a two-sizes-too-small KISS tank top for me (for the record, playing drums in a skirt is not something I would recommend). We wore normal street clothes over the outfits and changed as the curtain was going up at the beginning of our set. Our singer looked like he’d seen a ghost as I counted off the first song.

Unbeknownst to us, all of the other bands set to perform at the event played some subgenre of metal (none of which I could discern). The surprisingly large crowd that showed up was, accordingly, largely comprised of metal-heads and goths. Most of the crowd seemed to stare blankly at us through most of the set. Then, we launched into our last song: “Computer Blue,” complete with Wendy and Lisa’s spoken-word vocals. The first few notes prompted an uproar from the small portion of the audience that was familiar with the song. After finishing with his relatively short part, our lead singer left the stage. At this point, several people were dancing and seemed to actually be enjoying themselves. We went on to win the battle, and it certainly wasn’t off the strength of our original material (and we didn’t make any money, so if Prince happens to read this and sue, he’ll only be getting a share of the bragging rights).

Of course, many other bands have covered Prince as well, and the artists that have chosen to play his music reflect his wide and multi-faceted audience. Prince songs have been covered by pop stars like Tina Turner and Sinead O’Connor (whose rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” effectively launched her into the pop stratosphere). The short-lived band Hindu Love Gods (essentially R.E.M. with Warren Zevon singing instead of Michael Stipe) had their only hit with a cover of “Raspberry Beret.” Prince’s songs have also been covered in a more tongue-in-cheek manner by artists like Phish and Ween. Of course, his songs have also been played by people with no taste or talent whatsoever, as Limp Bizkit proved with their version of “1999” on an MTV New Year’s Eve special.

What is it about Prince that appeals to so many diverse groups of people? It goes without saying that he is a talented musician and entertaining personality. His popularity may be aided by the fact that he represents the blended nature of pop culture. He is biracial, perhaps black enough to produce convincingly soulful and funky music and white enough to seem marketable to mass audiences. He makes a game of breaking gender barriers, appearing highly effeminate and (during the guitar solo of “Computer Blue,” for example) overtly masculine and dominant in his sexuality. The symbol he used to replace his name even incorporates aspects of both the traditional male and female symbols. Prince does more than sell millions of records and appeal to traditional pop audiences and therein lies the problem: he is at once a critically-acclaimed megastar and a campy figure with semi-ironic appeal. Such “camp” status usually only applies to pop figures whose careers have long since peaked or who were never quite stars to begin with.

Neither of these is the case for Prince, though. He is still quite popular (2004’s Musicology went double-platinum) and prolific (he has released four studio albums in the last five years). One might argue that some groups see him as a campy figure while others see him as a legitimate pop artist. This may well be the case for a figure like Michael Jackson, but Jackson’s career peaked long ago and much of his camp appeal (which has more to do with his public persona than any work he’s actually produced) has developed since the end of his career. Prince, however, is not only seen in these two different lights at the same time but often by the same groups of people.

Perhaps his ability to embody these two opposing pop culture archetypes has less to do with him and more to do with the mediums he has worked in. It’s hard to argue with the quality of Prince’s music: while it may not suit one’s personal tastes, Prince’s music is solid pop that has been wildly popular with audiences over a long period of time (unlike flash-in-the-pan and/or highly derivative pop acts like the boy bands of the late ’90s). On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that his films have much cinematic merit beyond the music: the acting is atrocious, the plots are illogical (when present at all), and the style is often intrusive and trumps the substance. Hammy acting, nonsensical storylines, and heavy-handed style, however, are hallmarks of many “cult classic” films. Perhaps, then, Prince’s seemingly conflicting iconic roles come from the medium through which they were developed: his music has established him as a major pop artist, and his movies have established him as a camp figure, complemented by his flare for theatrics and his eccentric off-stage/off-screen persona (this may be the same sort of effect we see with pop figures like David Bowie, but is distinctly different from that of, say, David Hasselhoff, whose music lacks that degree of artistic merit).

My band agreed to “take a break” after that show and, following an attempted rehearsal a month later, went for a long time without talking. We received a great deal of favorable feedback following our performance (not counting the one redneck that called us “fags”). One audience member even said (several times, without a hint of irony) that we had “balls” for dressing as we did and playing a Prince song to such a crowd. Recently, I’ve started playing in a new band with my old guitarist. After our first show, we were asked if we still played “Computer Blue.” We don’t, but given the song’s legacy among our very small group of fans, it’s only a matter of time. I’m not quite sure exactly what it is that makes Prince so appealing or why our version of “Computer Blue” has been so (relatively) successful. At the end of the day, no matter the reason, the Purple One reigns supreme — and it’s “game: blouses” indeed.