The unique visionary – who once attended a tennis match holding a bejeweled sceptre – was a musical prodigy with no respect for conformity in any area of his life
The first time I ever set up an online dating profile it prompted me to tell my potential suitors ‘What I’m Doing With My Life’ – I opted not to mention my dreary admin job or my heartfelt aspirations. Instead, I just wrote: “surreptitiously changing the music to Prince at house parties”.
It was an honest answer, and that is who Prince will always be to me: the person I want to hear at 3am when the dying party needs a sharp recharge of ebullience and borrowed glamour. The man who collected his Oscar not in black tie, like every other male winner, but in a blue sequinned hood and black lace gloves. Who attended Rafael Nadal’s 2014 French Open match holding a bejewelled sceptre, apropros of absolutely fuck all. He and his music brought me nothing but joy (though he of course wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, one of the saddest elegies for lost love ever written).
The sheer opulence of Prince’s style and presence could perhaps have grown tedious had it not been accompanied by a man who was, musically, a prodigy. His debut album, For You, recorded at the age of 19 declares boldly “all songs written and composed by Prince” and then lists all musical personnel involved in production: the only name is Prince, credited as the sole vocalist and for the 26 instruments he alone plays on the album before wryly also crediting him for ‘hand claps’ and ‘finger snaps’. It’s the early flash of an ego – albeit with the goods to back it up – one that maintained its ferocity about the integrity of his music across 39 studio albums and grew furious in the face of illegal downloads and online streaming.
It beleaguered his career in the 90s and provoked his media reputation as an industry oddball. He arrived at the 1995 BRIT Awards with ‘SLAVE’ written on his face – directed at his studio bosses at Warner Brothers and, in 2007, released Planet Earth (his 32nd album) free with the Mail on Sunday. This was long before people like Rihanna just released free albums – it seemed absurd, but he didn’t seem to care. In 2015, in the middle of the Grammys, he combined his views on music with vocal support for Black Lives Matter, in a so-say ‘throwaway’ line – “albums, like books and black lives, still matter.” Throwaway it was not – his eyes betrayed this calculated mischief.
To have invoked his name on my dating profile could be interpreted as a positive omen – I have no doubt that every other piece about Prince will use the word ‘sexy’. Attempting to more than merely echo that appraisal, I feel I must explain how uniquely sexy he was. My favourite Prince song of all time is I Wanna Be Your Lover, from his eponymous second album Prince – it is a disco track sung in an effeminate falsetto, in which he addresses a woman who treats him ‘just like a child’. “I didn’t want to pressure you baby”, he sings (a notable feature of Prince’s love songs are a disavowal of masculine sexual force – in Purple Rain he sings “I only wanted to be some kind of friend/Baby I could never steal you from another” and, more astoundingly, I Would Die 4 U contains the line “I’ll never beat u”).
The reason I love I Wanna Be Your Lover so much, however, is that its sentiments and expressions are queer – in the oldest sense of that word. After the brazenly sexual lyric “I wanna be the only one you come for” (the song was recorded in 1979, after all) he begins the second verse of romantic declaration “I wanna be your brother/I wanna be your mother and your sister, too.” This is not how male love songs are written – telling a woman you want to go down on her then telling her you want to love her like her mother in immediate succession is a little weird and a little sweet in equal measure.
So Prince did sex and he did it in a big way (the sexual lyrics for Darling Nikki, an album track on Purple Rain, set in motion a chain of events that gave us the music industry’s monochrome ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker) but it was a libido stripped of all the usual accoutrements of heterosexual masculinity. This was seen best in his electrifying live performances – in which he effeminately pranced and teased audiences with a liberated lack of machismo. That he was a black artist only made this liberation more transgressive. It feels cliché, as a transgender fan, to say that Prince was also inspirational because of his defiance of gender norms. I’m very aware that his religious faith in later years made his real life views on homosexuality illiberal and disappointing. Yet, one cannot grow up as a teenage boy experimenting with makeup and gender nonconformity and not be conscious of the influences of Bowie and Prince alike.
“His debut album, For You, recorded at the age of 19 declares boldly ‘all songs written and composed by Prince’ and then lists all musical personnel involved in production: the only name is Prince, credited as the sole vocalist and for the 26 instruments he alone plays on the album”
Of the two, our shared love of purple and high neck collars in fact made him the more direct style influence for me. In a brief phase of trying to embrace my facial hair, I only found it bearable by combining it with ruffled blouses and Prince’s winged kohl eyeliner – his was perhaps the only masculinity that never seemed traumatic, blissfully free of dysphoria. After all, he opened I Would Die 4 U with the words “I'm not a woman, I'm not a man, I am something that you'll never understand”. Though widely mocked for it, he attempted to replace his own name with an unpronounceable symbol that represented both male and female. It was silly, yes – but how remarkable for a mega star to engage in such explicit gender symbolism!
To compare him to other artists, as he was all too often compared to Michael Jackson – perhaps, because of race – and to David Bowie – perhaps, because of flamboyant gender expression, is reductive nonsense. Prince and his work alike are incomparable and Purple Rain is an album which people will still listen to a century from now. It’s deeply sad that we often only reflect on an artist’s meaning for us personally when they die but to me, Prince will forever be the opposite of sad. He will always be that 3am party visitor – bedecked in sequins and cheerily heralding the apocalypse in the electro-funky classic 1999. Prince, always the autocratic guardian of his own legacy, perhaps composed the best obituary for himself in a Guardian interview in 2011: “My view of the world, you can debate that forever. But I’m a musician. And I also am music.”