When he exploded as a musical force in the late 1970s, Prince seemed like a one-person sexual revolution—someone unabashedly reveling in taboo topics, unafraid to be explicitly horny, and brazen enough to be naked, half naked, or spiffed up in frilly shirts and facial finery as he pleasured himself and his millions of panting fans.
While Michael Jackson, to whom he's frequently contrasted, seemed to be publicly repressing his sexual urges, Prince was rolling around in his, making hormonal eruptions his calling card as he trilled "I Wanna Be Your Lover," chirped about the glories of "Head," tauntingly promised to "Jack U Off," and even assumed metaphorical drag for "If I Was Your Girlfriend."
His pint-sized purple majesty was a froofy, frilly, unapologetic weirdo who pushed boundaries to the point where his relentlessness resulted in a panic stricken Tipper Gore launching parental warnings on his music. But that, of course, only made it even more desirable to the kids, who found ways to stand under the cherry moon and soak in the forbidden rays.
Always stirring "Controversy" with his "Dirty Mind," Prince was also able to wax poetic ("When Doves Cry"), go tenderly romantic "(Raspberry Beret"), or even turn political in the ultimate end-of-the-world anthem ("1999"). His admirers followed every flashy orgasm, extending his purple reign over several heated decades of fun and furor.
The fluid electricity of his persona galvanized our puritanical country while celebrating the fabulous freak, the defiant outsider, and the dark dandy.
His music regularly pumped through the dance clubs, where the lyrical naughtiness was utterly welcome and the raunchy tone fit right in with the fantasy environment of people flailing their bodies around with partners they were later going to fuck.
Onstage—where I was lucky enough to catch him multiple times through the years—Prince was an insatiable dynamo, someone who lived to deliver up there and tirelessly sang and pranced for hours, with a wealth of musical genius at his fingertips and a plethora of bad boy theatrics on his tongue.
I wasn't sure if he was straight, gay, bi, or even male or female—such was the fluid electricity of his persona, one that galvanized our puritanical country long before gender became everyday discourse, filling it with the throbbing sounds of passion while celebrating the fabulous freak, the defiant outsider, and the dark dandy.
His willful personality, array of hot girlfriends, and sudden, wacky pronouncements (like "Call me The Artist..."—and they did) made him a rivetingly odd figure, like the tyrannical kid on that famous Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," but one who was gently giggling over his power over the media, and generally using it to shake up banal ways of thought.
To me—and many other gays searching for meaningful role models—he was an LGBT icon, implicitly representing sexual freedom and acceptance, especially since he so emphatically endorsed fruity fashion, Liberace-style home décor, and anything-goes lyrics, accompanied by pulsing rhythms that hammered sex and sexuality into your soul as you danced it off.
Sadly, he eventually got trapped in his purple bubble of privilege and started railing against the gays. In the aughts, Prince became a Jehovah's Witness who told the New Yorker in 2008, "God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever. And he just cleared it all out. He was like, 'Enough.'"
If gays were being flushed away, then surely Prince would be the first one down the bowl!
In 2013, his song "Da Bourgeoisie" featured a repellent lyric in which he reacts to finding out a girlfriend did it with another girl, singing, "I wish I never kissed your .... Ugh," with a spit of disgust. Appaarrently, to the all-encompassing, liberating Prince, this was an unforgivable offense—something deserving utter contempt and pity. And two years ago, Gawker noted how in an appearance on Arsenio Hall's TV show, Prince made a point of expressing gay panic several times, even wincing when talking about all the "dudes" who bumped into him at an Oscars party he attended.
Suddenly, I—one of his most ardent fans for years—was reduced to a "whatever" in my idol's narrow minded biblical vision. How sad. How hypocritical. If gays were being flushed away, then surely Prince would be the first one down the bowl!
How does a symbol of liberation become one of oppression? Sadly, it happens all the time, as witnessed by Barry Humphries (aka drag queen Dame Edna) recently railing against trans women as not real women, just mutilated men. The arc of history too-often results in people who move things forward gradually evolving into the reactionaries holding them back, without any sense of irony that they've become their grandparents.
Tragic as that twisted turn was, it doesn't take away what Prince's music and persona did during the 70s and 80s, which was to explode in the world's face like a big, heaping climax full of protein and sequins. He grabbed society by its collar, pulled it out of politeness, and into a boudoir filled with possibility. Hot.
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