It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was that drew me to Prince. Sure, I loved his music, I respected his talent, I was in awe of his stage performances and his singular vision, his ability to stay true to exactly what he believed in, no matter how it aligned with popular opinion. Over the past few days, so much has been written about the artist formerly known as ‘the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’, a collective outpouring of respect and grief that proves ‘superstars’ can only attain greatness when they resonate on a global and a personal level. As an artist, Prince’s innovative musicianship earned him a place in music history and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And although I’m not a musician, I felt a connection to the artist that went far beyond lyrics.
I first became aware of Prince when I was seven or eight years old (I was a little too young to appreciate the 80s while they were actually happening). It wasn’t the music that drew me in. It was Prince himself. I was confused: was this strutting, high-heel wearing, eye-liner loving creature a man or a woman? A mix of the two? Even though I was too young to understand the tension around gay and straight, I recognised that boys did this and girls did that – gender was something you were given and you didn’t challenge the parameters it defined. But this prancing peacock didn’t seem to respect them – or even acknowledge that they existed. I grew up in a normal suburban town on the outskirts of London. Prince was my first introduction to the idea that not everyone played it safe.
Later, I realised that people dismissed Prince as (at best) ‘eccentric’ and (at worst) ‘a freak’, because those were easy labels to apply to what we don’t understand. A label that helps us forget our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness, that justify convention and etiquette. Yes, Prince was sometimes flamboyant for vanity’s sake, but it was never a surface act. His identity, and questions what identity, behaviour and perception meant, were embedded deep into the lyrics he penned (“Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”, from 1981’s Controversy, and “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand”, from 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, are the two most obvious and widely cited examples, although there are many more). The Love Symbol that he adopted in 1993 fused the shorthand for man and woman and was, according to designer Mitch Monson, slightly off-balance to highlight the imperfectness of humanity.
Yet gender fluidity was just the beginning. The thigh-high boots, the bikini bottoms and the bum-less trousers Prince embraced re-wrote a new definition for masculinity, building on a narrative of ambiguity that the late, great David Bowie and a wave of new Romantics (including Boy George) had started, and proving that there was more than one way to be a man. Yet they also allowed Prince to objectify, fetishize and commodify his body in a way usually reserved for female musicians and actresses. In a culture that demands women be pretty and concerned about their looks, Prince flipped the coin and celebrated his own beauty unashamedly – and proved that you could look and behave however you wanted. His sex-positivity still seems visionary in a culture prone to slut-shaming women.
Of course, like his music, Prince was always in control of how he presented himself (surely the angelic nude pose he adopted for the Lovesexy album cover could only have come from him?). He didn’t sexulise for column inches, rather because wanted everyone – straight, gay, black, white – to want him. And even if you didn’t, the fact that you had made the choice not to was victory enough – his was a sexuality that even if not approved, was impossible to ignore.
Looking back, in an era defined by increasingly liberal views on gender and sexuality, Prince was to be ahead of his time. But he had to live through his time – and the negative reactions that came with it. In the early 1980s, musician Rick James claimed: “He’s a mentally disturbed young man… He’s out-to-lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest.” And when Prince supported the Rolling Stones in 1981, he was pelted with cabbages. Even Jagger’s evangelists didn’t know how to take this prancing performer that meshed rock and R&B. Yet – through arrogance or sheer determination – Prince didn’t bow to the haters. Instead he responded with Controversy, which included the unsubtle Jack U Off and Do Me Baby, alongside the title track.
In his later years, Prince would tone down his performances and, after he became a Jehoavh’s Witness in 2001, seemed to shrug off some of his former liberalism. In a now infamous New Yorker profile he responded to questions about gay marriage and abortion by tapping his Bible and replying “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.’” Perhaps his views did change with age or religion. But the sexual fluidity and genderless freedoms he preached at the height of his influence – and the permissions he granted – remain tightly interwoven into the public perception of ‘Prince’. They gave many young people – including musician Frank Ocean, who penned an emotional tribute to the late star the day after his death – the courage to construct public identities that reflected their true self, rather than the one convention demanded.
And as for me? The questions Prince awakened in my seven year-old self are still ones I think about today. They shaped the way I think about and look at the world, the way I treat other people and instilled values that are intrinsic to the person I have become. Prince wasn’t always an easy artist to worship but worship him I did. The lessons he taught me- and many others – will transcend death.