I’m not always proud of my interest in clothing and style. Most people associate style with vanity and elitism - ways to grow your own sense of superiority and root your disdain of others in the fertile ground of expensive garments and pretentious taste. But at its best, style is not about self-obsession, but self-possession. It can’t be bought or taught. And nobody was more self-possessed than Prince.
Whatever Prince did, he owned. He wore high heels and makeup, wide-shouldered jackets with no shirt underneath, ruffled Victorian blouses, skin-tight pants, assless one-pieces, even - on the cover of Lovesexy, where he offers himself as a (fallen?) angel - nothing at all. This confused the public - what kind of point was this guy trying to prove? Who and what is he? Is he a woman or a man? Is he straight or gay? But he was always just Prince. He owned it. He owned himself. Self-possessed.
The first Prince recording I ever bought was his Hits & B-Sides triple-disc collection. I know every one of those songs by heart now, but the first thing that knocked me out were the images in the liner notes. Dig if you will a picture. Prince in black and white, facial hair so finely trimmed it seemed like calligraphy, a lacy french-cuffed (the links spell ‘INSATIABLE’) blouse open to his navel, long eyelashes pressed against his silver-tipped cane. Is he weeping? Is he dreaming?
Typically to be self-possessed connotes a sort of sang-froid - someone who brooks no panic or even exertion. This in itself is a high achievement. But Prince’s self-possession went beyond that. At times he seemed possessed by a demon, only the demon was he himself, exploding into paroxysms of pure expression. I saw him in 2004 on his Musicology tour - well into his forties, with rumored hip problems that were supposed to limit his on-stage movement. And yet, two hours into the concert, there he was, writhing on stage to “The Beautiful Ones,” crawling towards the audience on his hands and knees, right hand outstretched, singing the final lines, “Do u want me? Cause I want u!” You get a taste of the same energy at the end of this performance of “Shhh”, his facial expression wrought into rictus by the music flowing through him. But it’s all him. He owned it all.
Prince was also fixated on economic self-possession. At the height of his dispute with Warner Brothers, he appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek. This was partly a play on musical terms - the “master” tape is the original recording, which Warner Brothers owned, not Prince, and therefore the copies made from it are “slaves” - but also a literal insistence on his own self-possession.
Other musicians, even the great ones, are somehow less than their work. They create, and then the thing stands on its own. Prince’s songs don’t really exist separately from him. Prince’s music is so much his own that the songs themselves seem to me almost incidental. They are just the vessels through which we happen to be experiencing him, like I am writing to you now in English, but if we were both born in a different place, I might just as easily be writing to you in French and the meaning would be the same. It’s not that the songs aren’t good - I love those songs - but if it hadn’t been those songs, it would have been other ones, and they would have been just as true.
That feeling comes partly because he wrote so many hits; even if you take away all 56 tracks on the 3-disc set mentioned earlier, you’ve still got the entire Batman soundtrack (maybe the best original soundtrack ever), the aforementioned “Beautiful Ones” as well as other Purple Rain hits like “Baby I’m A Star”, delightful songs like “Starfish and Coffee” off of Sign of the Times, plus the many great songs he has put out since Hits and B-Sides, like “Shhh,” “P Control,” “Call My Name,” “Black Sweat,” and “Chelsea Rodgers.” It doesn’t even include the haunting “Sometimes It Snows In April,” one of the last songs Prince ever played in concert. But it’s also because his musical presence was so strong in every performance. When he covers a song - anything from “Whole Lotta Love” to Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” to The Foo Fighters’ “The Best Of Me” (at the Superbowl halftime show!! Who does that?!?) to Radiohead’s “Creep” - it becomes a Prince song. Even the songs he gave to others, like “Nothing Compares 2 U”, achieved second life on a higher plane when Prince recorded his own version. And no one covers Prince songs. It’s just too intimidating. The only successful Prince covers I can think of are Alicia Keys’ version of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Prince’s versions are still better.
Prince was often mis-understood as self-obsessed instead of self-possessed. And at times he was - there’s the story about Prince breaking The Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas’ guitar on The Tonight Show, or snubbing Kevin Smith when he came to Paisley Park to do a movie on Prince - but there are two reasons that’s not the main way I think of Prince. The first is his sense of humor, especially his ability to laugh at himself. This comes through in his lyrics sometimes, like the line in “Raspberry Beret” where Prince, 5’4” in 4” in heels and 120 pounds soaking wet in someone else’s sweat, sings, “Built like she was / She had the nerve to ask me / If I planned to do her any harm.” Or when he put a photo of Dave Chappelle, dressed as Prince in the famous Charlie Murphy basketball sketch, on his own single. Prince could be downright goofy.
But mostly I don’t think of Prince as self-obsessed because his music showed so much empathy towards others, especially women. Most male sex symbols portray sex as a physical thing that men do to women. For Prince, it was something for people to do together. Or even something for women to do to men. And it wasn’t exclusively, or even primarily, physical. He opens his song “Sexy M.F.” with the verse:
In a word or two it’s u eye wanna do
No not your body, your mind you fool
The connection he made with his live audiences is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He played to 20,000 seat arenas and made every person there feel like the whole show was for them. He liked to stop in the middle of his song “Cream” after singing, “You’re so fine / You’re filthy cute and baby you know it,” and tell the audience, “I know y’all have been singing that line in the mirror every morning! And if not, why not??”
He often had a blessed few join him to dance on stage for a song or two. But it was never just the hottest or the most scantily clad young women. It was always a big beautiful mix - men, women, young, old, big, small, black, white - they were all to be found at a Prince concert, finding themselves. He wanted everyone to own themselves just as much as he did. And while he was playing, maybe they did. It was a dream more awake than consciousness. It was church. Nothing compared.