Few musicians have been as acutely conscious of their images as Prince, or as dedicated to presenting themselves with such teasing complexity.
Prince transformed his visual identity with each album he released. The pompadoured rock god of Purple rain was followed by the beatific flower child of Around the world in a day and the louche sensualist of Parade. Each record carefully maintained its own distinctive palette, most obviously with Purple rain, but also with the peach-and-black color scheme of Sign o’ the times and the black, white, and red of Lovesexy.
The cover of one of his earliest albums, Dirty mind (1980), depicted a sexually charged, ambiguously gendered Prince, complete with a thong and thigh-high boots. He continued to blur boundaries between male and female, straight and gay, chaste and libidinous, through much of his career.
This according to “How Prince invented himself. Over and over.” by Ekow Eshun (The New York times 3 November 2017).
Today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday! Below, performing in 1984.
Prince’s push-pull interactions with Miles Davis in his 1987 Sign o’ the times tour were emblematic of two interrelated tensions in his career.
One is the question of how wind and brass instruments fit into Prince’s music. His decision to give horns a central place in his 1980s and 1990s bands showed the same curious ambivalence as his relationship to Davis.
The second tension that Prince’s onstage interaction with Davis demonstrated is the issue of patriarchy. Prince spent the 1980s playing the part of the androgynous sexual imp, the 1990s found him engaging the exaggerated machismo of hip hop, and by the 2000s he was sporting natty suits, openly exploring jazz, and avoiding any discussion of queer identity.
These two spheres, the biographical and the musical—Prince’s fraught relationships with masculinity and with the musical styles of his father’s generation—all came together in the bell of Miles Davis’s trumpet. Prince used horns to act out two conflicts at the same time: They enacted the tension between the musical past and the present, and they served symbolically to resolve a conflict between two different versions of traditional masculinity—one violent and hypersexual, the other restrained and mature. Prince was ultimately using his horn section as a tool to leverage his own position in the black musical patriarchy.
This according to “Prince, Miles, and Maceo: Horns, masculinity, and the anxiety of influence” by Griffin Mead Woodworth (Black music research journal XXXIII/2 [fall 2013] pp. 117–150. This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, Prince and Miles in 1987.
Prince’s moves to elicit female desire in the song When doves cry can be traced according to three codes found in the lyrics: the “normal” code of male sexuality common in rock music, an unusually explicit “Oedipal” code, and an “uncanny” code.
The uncanny code constitutes a counter-code to the usual male-oriented sexuality of rock music and represents an attempt to elicit a non-stereotypical female sexuality—female desire outside of the male sexual economy.
This according to “Purple passion: Images of female desire in When doves cry” by Nancy J. Holland (Cultural critique X [fall 1988] pp. 89–98).
When doves cry is 30 years old this year, as is the film that showcased it, Purple rain. Click here for the official music video; the lyrics are here.