Prince, the '80s, Androgyny, and Queering Pop Music
By Les Fabian Brathwaite
Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)
Between 1980 and 1988, Prince had one of the greatest, most prolific, and most influential runs in pop music, comparable only to two other geniuses who had preceded him, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His third album Dirty Mind, released in October of 1980, crystallized both the public persona and the musical aesthetic that would define his career: the androgyny, the overt sexuality, the seamless melding of genres, all wrapped up in Prince's undeniable virtuosity.
Over the decade, he churned out masterpiece after masterpiece—1999, Purple Rain, and Sign o' the Times regularly rank high among the greatest albums of all time—while dabbling in side projects for other artists such as Vanity 6, Sheila E., and The Time, making Prince's "Minneapolis sound" as recognizable as Motown or Philly soul.
While pushing the boundaries of music, Prince also redefined what it meant to be and look like a black man in America, challenged ideas of masculinity, and, along with Madonna, led the nation through yet another sexual revolution—all while openly not giving any fucks. But what seems miraculous about this today is that he did it in the 1980s, during the ultra conservative, totally but not necessarily explicitly racist, but explicitly homophobic Reagan era, when AIDS added a deadly fear to sex, and when racial relations were worse than they are now.
That Prince's talent was enormous in scope and irrefutable in nature made his flouting of conventions somehow more palatable to the American public, and probably a welcome counterpoint to Ron and Nancy's mayo white influence over the country. Purple Rain was not only a box office success, but the accompanying soundtrack has sold over 22 million copies worldwide and even scored the Purple One an Academy Award. He was effeminate, therefore non-threatening, even while purring lyrics about a young girl masturbating to a magazine. Though both his parents were black, he transcended race as easily as he transcended genres. And though he was straight, he queered pop culture, making it safe to think, live, and hip-swivel outside of the box.
"What's up little girl? I ain't got time to play" Baby didn't say too much, she said, "Are you gay?" Kinda took me by surprise, I didn't know what to do I just looked her in her eyes and I said, "No, are you?"
I just can't believe all the things people say Controversy Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? Controversy
Prince's breakthrough album, 1999 featured the classics "Little Red Corvette" and the titular song, whose single boasted one of Prince's best B-sides, "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore," covered by, among other artists, Alicia Keys.
Vanity 6 "Nasty Girl" (1982)
I'm looking for a man to love me Like I've never been loved before I'm looking for a man that'll do it anywhere Even on the limousine floor
Vanity 6 was Prince's first foray into girl groups, and his best. The raunchy and funky "Nasty Girl" became a low-key classic of his early-80s output as well as served as the sample for Britney Spears's "I'm a Slave 4 U." It also marked the beginning of his fascination with two-stepping over the gender divide by expressing female sexuality through a female medium, but filtered through his masculine perspective.
Stevie Nicks "Stand Back" 1983
In 2009, noted gay icon and da baddest witch Stevie Nicks recalled how Prince covertly co-wrote her 1983 hit in an interview with MTV:
“I’m driving to my honeymoon night in Santa Barbara from L.A., and ’Little Red Corvette’ comes on. We’re like oh my God, it’s Prince! So I start singing all these words, and I’m like, ’Pull over, we have to get a cassette player! And we have to record this!’ I’m writing in the car — here we are, newlyweds, and we get to our hotel and we’re setting up the tape recorder and I’ve made up my whole new melody to [the song]. So I haven’t really ripped off the song, because I’m admitting that I have done this. So we go into a studio in Los Angeles a couple weeks later and I track down Prince’s phone number — and because I’m Stevie Nicks, I can get it.
“I call him, and I never thought he was going to answer, or that it would be him, or that I would ever find him — and he answers. I said, ’Prince, this is Stevie Nicks, and I wrote a song to your song ’Little Red Corvette,’ and we’re at Sunset Sound right now, and I was wondering — first of all, I wanted to tell you that I’m giving you 50 percent of [the royalties] it if it ever goes anywhere, but are you in town? If you are, how would you feel about coming down and playing on it?’ Never in a million years did I think this man would be like, ’I’ll be right there.’ He was there in 20 minutes and he played [she mimes instrumental parts of the song] on ’Stand Back,’ and he was there an hour and a half, and then he left.”
Purple Rain (1984)
"I Would Die 4 U"
I'm not woman I'm not a man I am something that you'll never understand
Apollonia 6 "Sex Shooter" (1984)
I'm a sex shooter Shootin' love in your direction I'm a sex shooter Come on play with my affections Come on kiss the gun
Prince's second foray into girl groups, Apollonia 6, was a pale imitation of Vanity 6, and "Sex Shooter" a pale imitation of "Nasty Girl," but at least it was a continuing exploration of Prince's gender reversal that would peak with his alter ego, Camille.
Sheila E. "The Glamorous Life" (1984)
Boys with small talk and small minds Really don't impress me in bed She said I need a man's man baby Diamonds and furs Love would only conquer my head
She wants to lead the glamorous life She don't need a man's touch
Prince put aside the raunch, momentarily, for this more introspective tune that spoke to the materialism of the '80s and a woman's right to choose...to wear a long fur coat of mink. Even in the summertime!—a choice I always and proudly support. #feminism
Chaka Khan "I Feel for You" (1984)
I wouldn't lie to you, baby I'm physically attracted to you This feeling that I got for you, baby There's nothing that I wouldn't do
Originally appearing on his 1979 self-titled album, Chaka Khan put her indelible stamp on "I Feel for You," becoming one of the diva's signature hits. As far as covers of Prince songs go, it is perhaps only surpassed by Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U."
Sheena Easton "Sugar Walls" (1985)
Come spend the night Inside my sugar walls
Prince's not-so-subtle homage to the vagina, one of many, was a hit for protégé Sheena Easton, thus picking up where "Nasty Girl" and "Sex Shooter" had left off—namely, with Prince channeling feminine desire through a decidedly male gaze.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Tell me, what's the matter with your world Was it a boy when U wanted a girl? (Boy when U wanted a girl)
The Bangles "Manic Monday" (1986)
Six o'clock already I was just in the middle of a dream I was kissin' Valentino By a crystal blue Italian stream
Originally recorded as a duet between Prince and Apollonia 6 in 1984, Prince scrapped the song only to offer it to the Bangles two years later, becoming their first hit single. In terms of content, "Manic Monday" is more along the lines of "The Glamorous Life" than "Nasty Girl," "Sex Shooter," and "Sugar Walls," focusing not on sex but on the less glamorous side of life.
"Girls & Boys"
She had the cutest ass he'd ever seen He did 2, they were meant 2 be
Sign o' the Times (1987)
"If I Was Your Girlfriend"
If I was your girlfriend Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot When I was your man?
Camille was Prince's female alter ego. He had planned to release a full album under her name, not as a Prince album, in 1986 with his vocals sped up. However, weeks before its release, the project was canceled, though some of the tracks resurfaced on his Sign o' the Times album the following year, including "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Strange Relationship," and "Housequake." Prince also credited Camille as the creator of The Black Album, the follow-up to Sign o' the Times that was famously shelved but eventually released in 1994.
The Lovesexy album was released after Prince recalled The Black Album, and while not as commercially or critically successful as his previous efforts, it is the last of Prince's overtly sexual output of the '80s, as perfectly represented by the infamous cover shot by Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
This was Prince at his androgynous, campy best with a phallic stamen pointing to his clutched breast. He's part Botticelli's Venus, part Michelangelo's David and all kinds of provocative. To wit, some retailers refused to stock the album, or sold it in an all-black wrapper, mimicking the previously lost Black Album. , while some found the cover, as one user review puts it, a bit "off-putting for straight men."
This wouldn't be the first or last time Prince put off straight men, but this did sort of mark the end of an era. Prince would continue to create good and intermittently great music over the next decade and beyond, but he never quite equaled the prodigious output he had from 1980 to 1988, and as he became more religious—both in his public and private life—his provocative sexuality would remain a relic of this incredibly fruitful and, dare I say fruity, time.