“When…working or thinking…your bloodstream beats differently.”
— Prince, Rolling Stone, 1985
Prince Rogers Nelson was never one to let anyone wrap him up in a pussycat bow. Pop-star. Rock-god. Funk-master. Preacher. Satyr. Dandy. Workhorse. Gender-bender. Monk. Magician. Philanthropist. Joker. Svengali. Recluse. Showman extraordinaire. He was a man of luminous, full-throated joy, and deep, shattering longing. Of indestructible groove laced with an abyssal ache that he was certain (and he was right) could be made to take flight through the transcendent, propulsive power of music. He played guitar like he was making love and talking in tongues. He sang like an angel and a man possessed. He was reverence and sin. Confusion and commitment. Artifice and naked emotional exposure. He hated being stared at but wanted everyone to look at him. And when we looked, we were as awed as he wanted and needed us to be, and we offered up the love that he asked for and that he made, and for a long time it was enough, it was everything, and at the same time it was not and could never be enough.
Since he’s been gone I’ve tried marshaling my disbelief and sadness, first by dancing (I think he’d approve), then by moping (less so), and finally, by turning towards my craft (yesss…just there). I’ve read and re-read his life and work, and I’ve read reams written about his life and work, both pre and post that day in April when — I can’t shake the feeling — the world somehow wobbled on its axis and slipped momentarily out of its alignment. (Astro-philosophical hyperbole is my academic speciality, and anyway people, the man made a rainbow). There are three things I’ve noticed. One, it is other women’s words — often confined to the margins — that have come closest to getting a handle on what made this man so magnificent. Two, the ranks of the mostly male rock-critic establishment are insistent on working the words ‘genius’ and ‘enigma’ into almost insignificance. And three, while the dynamic tensions in his art and life could never be brought to a neat harmonic resolution, they can however be held together by the elemental flow that underpinned his sexual and spiritual concerns, his attitude to women and his own desires, and his sublime ability to give himself over so completely to his art. Prince, it is often said, was made of music. Like his longing, and his lust, and his love of God, it all just flooded out of him.
But first, the genius thing. Prince was, without doubt, preternaturally gifted. But, as he was at pains to point out, he didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. He worked like a dog, day in, night out, from his childhood to the end of his life. Nobody’s fingers fly over frets like that without inordinate patience and practice, and it does the aspirations of coming generations no good to suggest anything otherwise. And yet of course, the level and range of his mastery was still, in itself, skull-splitting. It is a painful irony that, due to his copyright stance, only his death would allow many to fully appreciate the prodigious diversity and mind-bending virtuosity of his life.
In the last weeks we have dissected (Daniel Ralston) and compiled (Perrie Samotin) — every riff and trill, every scream, shred and sonic bend. Exhibit after exhibit in a legacy catalogue of near-superhuman skill. It elicits a kind of awe, only amplified by the thrilling braggadocio — this unlikely, awkward, fine-boned boy’s absolute certainty that he was the shit, his early performances powered by an unwavering intent to ride his chops all the way from a broken childhood in an unremarkable Midwestern city to the very center of the rock-god pantheon. But there is also something in all this virtue-cataloguing that misses the mark. Skill can thrill, but it is one stop short of genius. Had Prince not surrendered himself as an instrument of sex, soul, and spirit, he would not have moved us.
And then there is Prince the enigma, or rather, Prince the incarnation of the old axiom about “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. There’s something to this, at least insofar as preternatural ability is confounding, and cannot, frustratingly, be any better explained by those that possess it than by those that witness it. (All one can say is, work it). And there is also, of course, the fact that he was legendarily guarded when asked about anything but music, didn’t allow interviewers to record him, and responded in ways that tended towards the cryptic and the elliptical. That he refused to talk about the past, was occasionally inclined towards deliberate misdirection, and spent much of his life enclosed inside a windowless studio complex in Minneapolis: a gesture of concealment — now horribly mimicked in the manner of his death — which only further incited people’s desires to know who he was and how he did what he did.
But the rock-critic consensus that this guy was unfathomable was also, I think, an index of their bafflement that a man of such musical mastery — who could funk like James Brown and play soaring, swaggering cock-rock — insisted on doing so while embodying such a sinuous, feminine fluidity, and was so enormously seductive as a result. What is notable about how people responded to Prince is that when you look to his fans there is little talk of enigmas or mysteries or riddles. Rather, their accounts are about how deeply their lives were touched by his expression and honesty. Of how connected to him they felt. Of the harbor he gave them in the world. Of what they feel he taught them about the value of creativity, and freedom, and fearlessness, and love.
Above and beyond the sheer virtuosity, when I try to understand what made this man so meaningful, I find I want to talk about water — about the affective power of rock ‘n’ roll convention replayed through the body of someone so fluid and so open to that fluidity. Much has been made of Prince’s distain for distinctions, whether of genre, gender, or race. And while we could put this down to savvy marketing — a Sly and the Family Stone crossover strategy marinated in the ambience of Byronesque post-punk — it was more than mere cynicism or contrivance. Water — the feminine element of slow erosion, of blurring and blending, and of torrential transformation — was everywhere in his work, from the longing for cleansing baptismal rain, through the legendary injunction that Apollonia purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, to the near obsession with the intimate amniosis of bathing and being bathed Yes, he knew how to rock a pair of four-inch heels or belt out an anthem while swathed in lace or diamonds and pearls, but Prince’s willingness to submerge himself suggests, I think, that his embrace of the feminine was far more than just a show.
Rather than indexing the aesthetic (and largely oppressive) performance we call femininity, water is an index of the feminine, understood as an ontological category. It is the repository of the devalued poles in our age-old system of metaphysical duality: the dark reservoir of emotion, intuition, and corporeal sensuality set under — and excluded — from the light of a disembodied masculine reason. It is the sign of the flexible, permeable, multitudinous and mutable as opposed to the rigid, impenetrable, singular and static. Water is welcoming. It allows the outside to enter into it, and, when it doesn’t dissolve you entirely, it soothes and softens edges, enabling (allegedly) obdurate oppositions to be suspended inside itself. Water moves and is moving. It is the sign of unstoppable momentum and the inescapable affective power inherent in the flow of our experience. Our cultural ideal may be of an impervious, inviolate, masculine invulnerability, but water will wash over you whether you like it or not. If you are alive, you cannot but be influenced, and sometimes indeed, overwhelmed. Your choice is only whether you try to fight it or work out how to float.
Prince knew not only how to float, but, more often than not, would strip off his shirt and stand outside in the storm. From his birth to his death he lived in a landscape both literally and figuratively dotted with bodies of water, and in addition to the sublime, aching swell of its most famous iteration, over thirty other of his songs make reference to rain. Rain served Prince as an occasional signifier of doom and gloom, but most often as an expression of emotional, spiritual, and above all, sexual transfiguration. It’s there in his first single, “Soft and Wet” — a panting, funky, filthy paean to the feel of female desire — while in “My Love Is Forever”, also from his debut album, the elemental influence of his lover is like “wind and…rain /…a river that takes away my pain.” In the originally unreleased 1985 track “Splash”, rain indexes sexual ecstasy, as it does also in “When 2 R In Love” from 1988’s Lovesexy, a rendering of sexual union almost entirely in the vernacular of aquatic confluence and merger. “Drop, drop, drop, drop, water, water, water” he gushes as he imagines the pounding in his stomach and the accelerating speed of his and his lover’s hips.
In “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” (1999) he falls into love “like rain (like rain)”, while the formal and sexual climax of “Raspberry Beret” (1985) takes place in a barn as rain drums down on the roof, a gesture he would replay in front of thousands at Madison Square Gardens some twenty years later. In the middle of the acoustic interlude of the 2004 Musicology Tour, as he is about to launch into a rendition of the seductive soul ballad “Adore”, he orders the house lights down low, shushes the whole arena, and tells them to snap their fingers together real fast. “Listen,” he purrs with delight, “it sounds like it’s raining outside.” The audience goes nuts.
And then there are those endless baths. In the chorus of “When 2 R In Love”, he petitions his partner with “Come bathe with me / Let’s drown each other in each others emotions… Bathe with me / Let me touch your body ’til your river’s an ocean.” At the beginning of the video for “When Doves Cry”, the first single from the album that made him a legend — the first image many of us will remember him by — double doors swing open to reveal him supine and naked in the tub, surrounded by billows of steam and a floor strewn with flowers. Three years later, in the masterpiece “Sign O’ the Times”, he learns to still romantic discord by taking a well-timed bubble bath, returning to his lover after an interlude spent bathing (with his pants on) in the company of a quick-witted waitress called Dorothy Parker. On the album’s second disc we find him pleading — in the persona of Camille — for the chance to wash his ex-lover’s hair and “make her breakfast sometime,” a series of vignettes that also summons Lisa’s seductive question in the opening lines of “Computer Blue”, “Wendy… Is the water warm enough?” Listening now, some 30 years on, the unashamed longing of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” strikes as certainly as it did when I was a girl of 14. It is the most remarkable, and remarkably moving, outpouring of male desire for the intimacy and eroticism of care ever committed to vinyl.
Expressions of Desire in Prince’s Art
As Touré has documented in one of the most extensive textual reading of his oeuvre, I Would Die 4 U, the collapse of his parent’s marriage when he was seven resulted in what Prince experienced as functional abandonment by his mother, and in his early teens he was kicked out of his father’s house (reputedly after being discovered with a girl). There is much that can be conjectured about the effects of this injury on his career — his early development of artistic-immersion-as-survival-strategy issuing in colossal drive and perfectionism, as well as protracted public battles to free himself from contractual domination and acquire total control over his output and representations. There is also much that could, but should probably not, be conjectured about the effects of this injury on his life as a man, the course of his relationships, and the personal and physical costs of his inability to stop pushing himself relentlessly ever-forward. It is frankly heartbreaking to think that what saved Prince and made Prince what he was, might also, finally, have killed him. But what interests me intellectually about the loss of his mother is the effect it might well, but apparently did not have on his attitude to women and the expressions of desire in his art.
As women writing in the wake of his death have widely observed, (The conversation) there has not been, before or since, a musician of such status who was so interested, attuned and open to women’s desires, (Amanda Marotte) and who not only found them unthreatening but evidently erotic. (Suzanne Moore) The debt many of our teenage selves owe to him for this is incalculable, although, as several reflections have indicated ( Carolyn Edgar ), it turned out we would discover, crushingly, that not even His Purple Majesty had been capable of single-handedly rewriting patriarchal sexual scripts (a situation not helped, and indeed indexed by his vexed relation to, hip-hop). His 20-something self — and let’s be frank, he never really lost it — was a near perfect package of virility and vulnerability, of barefaced lust, and joyful sensuous celebration, delivered (almost unequivocally (Nichole Perkins)) without a hint of woman hating. (And guys, the fact that this was, and is still, so notable is both a tragedy and an outrage).
There are the oceans of longing, and the fabulous parade of flirty, dirty, kinky, and downright filthy Princes. But the music betrays little resentment or rage towards women, and few attempts to efface the vulnerability of his own desires by transmuting them into domination. He seems entirely unbothered about defending his ego against torrential influxes of want, or maintaining a posture of erect, phallic control when presented with an opportunity to just give it all up instead. (There is an entire essay that could be written on Prince’s propensity to lay himself down on the stage, or across the nearest piano). His economy of pleasure and creative-libidinal potential is beyond all that boy-on-top bullshit. He’s can strip off his shirt, expose his damp, trembling torso, and implore ‘Do Me, Baby.’ He can fantasize about pulling your hair or beg to be held. He gives and he receives. He doesn’t care who picks who up or who starts the grind, only that he, and darling Nikki, and the girl in the raspberry beret all finally get off. It comes from a place of effortless self-assurance, which, in a culture in which sexual equality is incessantly and violently trashed by the insecurities of masculine mastery, was then, and is ever-more-so now, staggeringly seductive.
There is a fascinating moment in the course of the 2014 panel discussion staged in New York to mark the publication of Touré’s text on Prince. (view complete panel) In a lineup of five there is only one woman (it’s not as if Prince was noted for loving and being loved by women, or placing them front and center stage (Tracy King), or that there might be something about his embrace of the feminine that women are generally better placed to get?). Touré is recounting his puzzling discovery that this dude they’ve spent a lifetime revering as a sex-god seems totally down with women picking him up. It’s clear that the men can only think this within a frame of domination and submission, a one-way sexual dyad of activity over-against passivity — and so it seems to follow that if Prince isn’t pulling, these encounters must be about his domination and emasculation, notwithstanding any observations he might make about the perfection of his strokes. Into this conversation in which the libidinal lodestar of a Purple-Rain-era Prince is seriously posited by Questlove as a victim, the journalist Danyel Smith makes an acute intervention about the simultaneous vulnerability and strength of the beseeching, screeching finale of the ‘The Beautiful Ones,’ and, while the men enjoy her account, it goes nowhere intellectually. They’re sitting around dissecting this man’s much-vaunted sexuality, and when the one woman in the room points directly at perhaps his most pyrotechnic display of untrammelled, solar-plexus-shredding sexiness, they laugh and veer away from it.
It’s not entirely surprising. As suggested by Smith’s recounting of how uncomfortable it was to sit next to a new date as Prince assertively stripped himself right down to the emotional marrow, this is not what masculinity is supposed to look like. Something in the water does not compute. The intensity of the self-exposure and the surety with which it is executed are astounding. He is not trying to wheedle or connive, to bluster, bribe, blackmail or bully his way to fulfillment. Everything is staked on the seductive power of a singular naked display of want, there, in all its vulnerable simplicity, open to its humiliations and danger and the possibility that he might, with the next incoming crest, be overwhelmed and washed clean away. Never has a man been brought by desire, first to his knees, and then, arching and screaming, down onto his back, and done so with such certain, devastating dignity. Apollonia’s mouth falls open. His lack of fear is as irresistible as we know he knew it would be. He struts off stage like the myth he is, at that very moment, making of himself, and minutes later Apollonia is on the back of his bike, and in his bed.
When Prince is described as enigmatic, I wonder if people are also gesturing at this mesmerizing mixture of exposed, tremulous aching, and swashbuckling self-assurance. Sure he was, by quotidian standards, a bit of a weirdo, but for artists and rock-stars of any stripe, that’s pretty much a basic entry requirement. And yes, like Dylan, that other guitar-picking Minnesotan, he was decidedly not fond of being asked to explain himself, which, when you remember that his day (or rather night) job consisted of more-or-less completely opening his veins, over and over again, doesn’t seem so surprising. There’s nothing weird in someone so basically genuine being ill-at-ease with stranger’s demands for intimate access, or the fact that, having given so much to his work, he wanted to keep what remained of himself for himself and the people he loved. There’s also nothing peculiar about someone so obviously immersed in their own artistic process not welcoming being pulled out of that process to provide accounts of how they do it that they do not actually possess. And lastly, it’s not that strange that a man so at home with his watery instincts didn’t relish fielding questions impelled by other men’s discomfort with it.
But what is, if not strange, then at least intriguing, is the fact that when this reputedly geeky teenage boy decided to market himself as the incarnation of pure sex, he chose to do so in a manner so contrary to what our culture teaches about masculine potency. Not only did Prince not repudiate, but he openly and repeatedly cleaved himself to the fluidity, receptivity, and merging aligned with the feminine, and understood better than anyone that this was a gesture not of weakness, but of immense sexual power and artistic and emotional strength. Even when doing something as flagrantly macho and potentially creepy as jerking off the neck of his guitar on stage, he somehow managed to pull it off with a desperate, sensuous vulnerability that made it both hot as all hell and disarmingly sweet. And while some male observers might show a marked tendency to try and efface these more unsettling aspects of Prince’s masculinity by spinning the successes this slight, five-foot-nothing man had with women, this maneuver relies on sidestepping the question of why that might have been.
The pimp persona was there for sure (jostling for space with the showgirl, the rock-stud, the Romantic poet, and a stellar impersonation of the love child of an alien and an Egyptian cat goddess), but Prince’s allure was part and parcel of his own feminine ease, a product of the frank engagement of his own desires and an empathic and sensual identification with the desires of women. He was that most rare of things — an equal parts masculine and feminine heterosexual man, and when, in the nineties, he decided to announce to the world that the love-symbol glyph he had devised to unify both male and female symbols was actually his name, he really wasn’t messing with us (well, maybe he was a little, but his life was testament to the fact that being a trickster and a truth-teller are not mutually exclusive). Beyond what his artistry might allow us to surmise about a basic disposition towards acute sensitivity, what inspired and sustained Prince’s elemental plunge — one many men find so terrifying — is perhaps an enigma.
Above the desk where I write, in a battered gold frame — the kind you find in a second hand store — I have a picture I culled a few weeks ago from the obituary in Rolling Stone. It is 1988 and Prince is 30 years old — still young, but approaching the close of what will come to be known as his ‘imperial period.’ He is playing the cloud (and were the photo color, you would see that it is either blue or peach), and he is, by his standards, dressed simply, his face almost un-made-up, his hair falling in long unsculpted waves down his back. The arc of energy emanating from the guitar at his waist, curving up through his torso to the top of his head, is visually and somatically palpable. His neck is thrown all the way back, his eyes are closed and his lips are open, and you can see the music bend through his body and escape out of his mouth — a sigh, a moan, a wordless prayer. It is an image — an icon in fact — of ecstasy. In that now forever-frozen moment, there is, there will always only be, that one oscillating note, and he is at once playing it, and allowing it to play itself through him. It speaks of so much I consider sacred about a meaningful human life. Learn your instrument to the very best of your ability, and then get out of the way and surrender yourself to the rhythm and the surge.
Prince would have understood the power of this process as a gift from God. Aristotle called it the being-at-work-of-the-soul-in-accordance-with-virtue, or, to give it it’s other name, happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly would call it “flow”. It doesn’t matter what you call it, or how you explain it, only that you find whatever is your own way of doing it. That Prince Rogers Nelson learnt how to do this so young, and so completely, is undoubtedly how he escaped a potentially devastating childhood to become one of the greatest musical forces of his, and maybe any other, age. It is why he spent much of his life shut up in Paisley Park when he could have been swanking and glitzing around the capitals of the Western world. It was why he was, by many people’s reckoning, the greatest live performer popular music has ever produced, and why when he finished playing an arena he would go to a club and jam until the sun came up. And it is also, I think, the reason for his fearlessness, for his openness to his own desire and the desire of others, and for his readiness to submerge himself in streams of emotional, spiritual, libidinal and creative expression the outcomes of which can never be fully mastered. Yes, he was a legendary control freak. But if the way he ran his band or the battle with Warner Brothers can be taken as synecdoche of his entire artistic practice, it was always in the service of securing the conditions under which he could freely abandon himself to creative process.
In the end, as someone of Prince’s obvious intelligence was likely well aware, all the forms of flow flow into and out of each other. He knew that musical performance was sexual, he knew that sexual performance was musical, and he knew that both were also spiritual. He knew that the difference between this world and a better world is in making it possible for people to find their excellences, in creating and sustaining the conditions to nourish them as they learn, in encouraging others to find what he had found. (Kory Grove) He knew that submerging oneself in the stream is the origin and outcome of fearlessness, and that fearlessness is the origin and outcome of love. And he knew, as we all know, that this thing called life can be brutal, lonely, painful and absurd. That we long for meaning and connection and we do not always find it. That we want, and flail, and fail, and sometimes lose the things we want, and the best and only thing to do is love and laugh and keep right on playing up to and over the very edge of our ability.
Above and beyond the music and the epic virtuosity, all this is why, I think, many of us are so saddened that he’s gone, and that — as the world succumbs ever further to fear — this fearless, open-souled man died alone in such an unthinkable way. He was a font of musical genius the likes of which we might rarely see again, but the courage and conviction with which he lived his life — and from which his genius flowed — were, quite simply, majestic. His exquisite comfort with generative, productive fluidity, with the energy we call libido, or inspiration, or expression, his willingness to give himself over to the waters of his artistry or his want for a woman, none of this can or should ever be reduced to a mere artifact of style. His life-long embrace of the aesthetics of femininity was not culturally insignificant, but what mattered about Prince was that on the night of the 2007 Super Bowl, as he prepared for the biggest gig of his life, his response to others’ fears about the downpour was ‘Can you make it rain harder?’ (Christine Hauser) And then, in front of millions, he picked up his guitar, threw back his head, and let the water flow over and out of him.