The Prince “Controversy”
Guest Post by David W. Mitchell
I am not a music critic by any means, but I would feel negligent if I didn’t write something about the brilliant musician, composer, producer, performer, artist, and legend we lost last week: The artist formerly, currently, and forever known as Prince.
The 1980’s are typically looked back upon as a silly era of big hair, androgyny, parachute pants, break dancing, and one-hit wonders. Although I cannot speak for everyone, to some of us who were teenagers at the time, it was an era of ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, and barrier-breaching, in both technology, entertainment, and specifically music.
The creation of MTV brought our music to life in a way not imagined before, (although it can still be argued that the Buggles were right and “Video Killed the Radio Star”), and Sony’s Walkman meant you could take your tunes anywhere. You were no longer restricted to the record player in your room, or a transistor radio with poor reception and waiting 2 hours for your favorite song to come on. Your book bag weighed an extra 20 lbs because of the vast music library of cassettes and extra batteries you had on you. In 1983, the relatively inexpensive Yamaha digital synthesizer became popular and changed the sound of music for an entire generation.
The combination of these 3 elements changed not only how we listened to music, but how we viewed it. The popular bands of the 70’s: Led Zepplin, The Who, AC/DC, relied heavily on electric guitar in the post-disco era, or on the flip side, Elton John, Billy Joel and numerous other had a piano-centered sound, but now the door was opened to go beyond that and explore an audio and visual aspect in a way that had never been done before.
There were 3 artists who not only mastered that aspect, but dominated it: Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. Jimmy Fallon stated perfectly in SNL’s opening monologue the night of their tribute to Prince that these were our icons; they were our generation’s Elvis, our Beatles, -or in modern terms – our Lady Gaga –and we couldn’t wait to see what they’d dream up next.
While “Thriller” was burning up the charts, Michael Jackson was producing dance oriented videos that began as what you would imagine an 80’s-modern Musical theatre number would be. (“Beat it” clearly has a “West Side Story” influence.) MJ’s videos soon transformed into more of a mini-movie with the famed single and title track “Thriller”, being a 20 minute musical horror movie.
Madonna, on the other hand, not only helped pioneer bringing women to the forefront of a male-dominated industry, but brought female sexuality to the forefront of the national dialogue. Appearing on talk shows to defend her song “Like a Virgin”. Apparently, “Touched for the very first time” was too explicit for innocent ears. Ironically, after the sexual revolution of the 60’s, and the free love/ swingers scene of the 70s, the idea that women had sexual desires and urges was still considered shameful. (The battle against “slut-shaming”, which ironically, is an offensive term within itself, still continues to this very day.)
Additionally, the spread of HIV/ AIDS, a relatively new disease with no cure or real treatment at the time, spurred church groups, parent groups, government agencies to try to put the sexual genie back into the bottle, so to speak.
Finally, there was Prince. His diminutive size and tiny frame, accentuated by high heeled boots, pirate ruffles, lace, purple morning coat, and an impish grin across his face. Screaming guitar licks reminiscent of Jimmy Hendrix, his voice ranging from baritone to high falsetto with a little James brown mixed in. His showmanship, when performing live, had no bounds as he’d dance and do splits across the stage, while engaging in erotic antics before his fans. At that time, Prince was unadulterated sexuality personified.
His lyrics always seemed to exemplify the struggle of sexuality (“Erotic City”) versus spirituality (“The Cross”); whether it be his own conflict, or all humanity’s, is something only he knew. I remember everyone in school jamming to the sensual “Little Red Corvette” and the somewhat apocalyptic “1999”. When the movie “Purple Rain” was released along with the soundtrack, we knew a star was born. The music performances in the movie merged the film with the MTV-esque videos and Live club performances
Yes, the acting in the movie was atrocious, horrific. The story was muddled, but nobody cared. Perhaps it’s eccentricities were reflective of the way Prince was himself. The supposedly semi-autobiographical story got fans wondering how much of this was the real story. It’s well known that Prince played almost every instrument on all of his albums himself, and only used the band for live gigs. Was his father abusive? Was he himself abusive? Full of self-doubt? He rarely gave interviews, and didn’t say much if he did. All of it added to the mystery of Prince.
Purple Rain’s track “Darling Nikki” whose lyrics (tame by today’s standards) included the word “masturbating” spurred Tipper Gore and parent groups to pressure the music industry for a ratings system to protect children from vulgar lyrics.
No future album of his would top the popularity of “Purple Rain”, perhaps because of his battle Warner Brothers over the distribution rights of his music and conflict with his birth name. The sole reason he changed his name to the “Love Symbol” and was known as “The Artist” or “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” –he held his own until his contract expired… a shining example for artists to protect their music. Music Labels were notorious for abusing their artists, even Elton John had to file a lawsuit at one time.
After reclaiming his name and regaining control of his music, the ever-reclusive artist limited his albums to digital only downloads from his own website. At this time, I… and I’m sure others, lost track of him. The age of hip-hop dominated the radio waves and Prince was no longer in the playlist, save multiple live appearances and award shows.
Additionally, the death of his 1 week old son and conversion to being a Jehovah’s Witness, altered his edgy content. He became more reclusive and more eccentric. There’s an interesting anecdote about Kevin Smith’s experience with him on YouTube that’s 30 minutes, but worth a listen.
In one Tonight Show interview, he stressed that all the instruments and full band would be live on the Musicology tour and to bring your family because “We’re going to bring real music back… if you have any little musicians, bring them so they can see what it’s all about.. so we don’t have a bunch of computer programmers in the future instead of…” (gestures to the stage where he just finished playing)”
Sales of Prince’s records have gone through the roof since his death. Upon listening to some songs I haven’t heard in years, my ear focuses even more on the psychedelic guitar solos, the jazz piano, the Gospel-like harmonies…and really makes me appreciate what we’ve lost.
Fear not though, early reports are already saying he had enough finished songs (along with 50 fully produced videos) in his vault to release a hundred new albums. So stay tuned, the Purple One isn’t finished yet
We are just finding out now about the philanthropic aspects of the man, since his religion did not allow him to talk about it, and I’m sure there’s more to come. Perhaps he can best be summed up by his own song lyrics, which demonstrates that all we know now, is really no more than we knew at the beginning.
I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
I can’t understand human curiosity
Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be?
David W. Mitchell is the director of All An Act Theatre in Erie, PA. He has been involved in community theatre for the past 37 years as a writer, actor, director, producer, and set designer. You can reach him on Twitter and Facebook.