I was 11-years-old in the summer of 1989, and Tim Burton’s new Batman movie was, like, the greatest thing ever. A slightly subversive slice of grotesque pop art, it was exactly the sort of fantastic entertainment that fueled my little creative soul. I bought Danny Elfman’s orchestral soundtrack, and listened to it repeatedly while replaying scenes from the movie in my head.
I also bought Prince’s pop soundtrack, and that took me to entirely different places.
Prince was my unexpected chaperone away from the music of my parents’ generation towards something forbidden, something dangerous: something pleasurable, weird, and shockingly modern. Before Prince, the dial on my silver metal boombox was locked on the oldies station — I was largely oblivious to modern music. Before Batman, my cassette soundtracks of choice were for movies like Stand by Me and Good Morning, Vietnam, loaded with golden oldies from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
This is not to say that Prince was not a musical amalgam of classic-era rock and soul — a twist-up of Hendrix, Stevie, James, Sly, and Marvin — but he offered glimpses of certain iconic touchstones couched within a new musical vocabulary. “You’ve got to try my new funk,” he sings on Parade, one of several underrated Prince albums, “You’ve got to try a new position.”
By 1989, his major radio hits were fully embedded in the consciousness of the world, regardless of which world you happened to live in at the time. Even now, after I went backwards into his catalog — a catalog that, admittedly, most of us are still making our way through, windingly — “Batman Prince” remains my Prince.
Parade‘s follow-up, Graffiti Bridge (1990), is equally evocative. We can talk about “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry” until we’re blue in the face, though my nostalgic and emotional stars will always align on songs like “Joy in Repetition” and “Thieves in the Temple”. My Prince is already a star, his status as an icon fully established; he has already wowed with his musical talent, earwormed with his melodic sense, charted with his mega-hits, and outraged with his taboo-breaking. He is the most elusive pop star, and the least knowable pop star.
Batman, though released as a soundtrack, is really Prince’s 11th studio album. At first glance, it’s merely a collection of glorified demos made by an idiosyncratic genius resting on his laurels. You could very easily argue that this album is absolutely not an ideal entry point to Prince’s discography. That’s an argument you’d definitely win with little trouble.
Yet despite its raw, almost reductive sound, Batman reinforces classic Prince tropes from track to track. “The Future” tackles socio-political conflict, even at the expense of cinema itself (“Systematic overthrow of the underclass / Hollywood conjures images of the past”); while “Electric Chair” rears that self-described dirty mind (“If a man is considered guilty 4 what goes on in his mind / Then gimme the electric chair 4 all my future crimes”). “Partyman” is, to use the Prince-ian vernacular, a veritable housequaker; and “Batdance” is batshit musique concrète unlike anything he (or anyone else) had done before, therefore continuing to push the creative envelope.
Let’s not forget that it’s all funky as hell, too. “Electric Chair”?! Get out, man — that’s a Top Ten Prince jam. He would later release an entire record of riff-heavy guitar music, Chaos and Disorder (1996), and remind those who only knew the big pop hits that Prince was a filthy musician. This seems to be a common trajectory for how one discovers and gets to know Prince: first comes the promise of the forbidden, followed by the reward of the pop hook, followed by the appreciation of his peerless talent.
As a kid, you know that Prince is singing about sex in a way that’s so direct, it’s almost like you’ve never heard it sung that way before (my mind goes immediately to “It”, from Sign o’ the Times, or better known, perhaps, would be “Darling Nikki” from Purple Rain). Androgynous, mysterious, and seductively charismatic, Prince takes the complicated sexual awakening of a teenager and makes it even more complicated. As he sings in “I Would Die 4 U”, “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand”.
Prince doesn’t endure simply by the grace of his occasional shocking line, however; his abilities as a songwriter and performer, which are surely being written and talked about in-depth elsewhere, are both prolific and devastating. I listened to Prince for years before I really appreciated his guitar playing, which sounds like a totally crazy thing to say.
In the mid-‘90s, a musician friend of mine recounted his experience seeing Prince and the New Power Generation, and reported with full confidence that he would never see another guitarist as good. Huh? The guy who climbs slowly from the bathtub and then crawls all over the floor on all fours in that music video for that song with no guitar in it? He’s a badass guitar player?
Yes, the greatest guitarist of his generation was so confident in his skills, not to mention so good at so many other things, that he would gladly release a single that had little-to-no discernable guitar in it. Would Jimi Hendrix ever dream of such a thing? Would Eric Clapton ever be so bold? That clip of him soloing on the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at George Harrison’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, which has been making the social media rounds once again, is essentially the Cliff’s Notes version of How to Be a Guitar God. Prince is the guitar god, we know that now, but back in the late ‘80s, he did not fit that description so easily.
It’s hard to say what, exactly, would be the appropriate way to describe Prince. Iconoclast, sure. A musician’s musician, indubitably. Sex symbol for all, yes. One of the greatest pop songwriters of the 20th century, arguably. In a conservative time driven by the politics of Reagan and a cultural climate that promoted sanitized sameness, Prince didn’t just validate the freak flag, he popularized the freak flag and took it straight to Number One.
Still, it’s hard to offer up an easy encapsulation. Prince was the last private rock star. A holdover from the pre-digital, pre-Information Age, Prince remained uncommonly secretive and mysterious. From his personal life to the legendary vault of unreleased music, we weren’t allowed total access to every aspect of his celebrity. We have heard but a fraction of the music he created over the last 38 years.
There’s a serious lack of mystery in music in 2016: we hear songs (and even albums) before they’re officially released, we hear work that we were never meant to hear in the first place; we peep at artists in the studio, on the road, and even at home, thanks to social media. That lack of mystery breeds a lack of suspense and electricity.
Prince represented an old school, long-dead way of artistic life. He was a samurai, or maybe a Batman, doing it the way he did it while the modernization of consumer access and gluttony grew up around him. His old-school style was also demonstrated in how he would often write songs for others. He wouldn’t think twice about giving away hits like “Manic Monday” or “Nothing Compares 2 U” – just like his willingness to omit guitar from a song, he had confidence. He had others. One of these giveaways, “The Sex of It”, found its way on to Private Waters in the Great Divide (1990), an album by the great Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Kid Creole & the Coconuts were one of my mother’s favorite contemporary bands in the ‘80s; she had every album or cassette. Isn’t it funny that the artist that I looked to for escape from the music my parents listened to was, in fact, providing songs for the music my parents listened to? To listen to Prince in 1989, as an 11-year-old, once felt like such a clandestine attempt to break away. Perhaps that feeling is a whole lot more universal than I once thought.