WHAT PRINCE TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT FASHION, SEX AND IDENTITY
Originally published on Higsnobiety.com
The first time I remember becoming aware of Prince wasn’t even through his music.
I was nine years old, and my parents left my younger sister and I with a babysitter for the evening. As usual, she brought a bunch of records to play on our crappy record player, and one record cover intrigued me as much as it triggered nervous giggles.
Standing out amid the other anonymous album artwork was a butt-naked androgynous creature staring seductively into the middle distance, perched atop a bouquet of purple and white lilies. My pre-pubescent mind was all kinds of confused , but I couldn’t stop looking and immediately knew I needed to learn more.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the record in question was Prince’s 1988 album, Lovesexy.
Obviously Prince had already released a handful of classic albums by that point, but up until then a little kid from suburban Holland like me had precious little exposure to the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka…
It’s impossible to put Prince’s influence on modern day music into words, and honestly, I am not even going to try. There will be many articles in the coming days, written by far more qualified writers, that will get into that. Looking back now on the day of his passing, it’s clear Prince Rogers Nelson’s career and legacy reaches far beyond just music alone, and that’s what I, personally, would like to celebrate.
The flamboyant, almost pansexual image Prince created for himself didn’t come out of nowhere, as outrageous as it still seems today. In 1980s America, the racial divide in terms of what people were listening to had been steadily declining since the early ’60s, but there were still major issues every black musician had to face. Creating a strong creative visual impact was a way for bands and performers to empower themselves and stand out, while still bringing people in.
From Little Richard to Screaming Jay Hawkins to Jimi Hendrix to the post-Otis-Redding-Bar-Kays to Funkadelic to Sly Stone and countless more, young musicians were making a statement that went beyond their music. Their image was a way to claim both their identity and a deserved place in the musical landscape, and establish their presence as a creative force in society at large.
No one, however, was able to propel this fearless, focused, unlimited creativity, combined with such ambivalence for typical gender stereotypes, into the mainstream as much as Prince did.
While a great many of Prince’s songs were overtly heterosexual in their lyrical theme and content, his approach to sexuality and masculinity went far beyond the traditional image associated with such subject matter.
Most apparent was perhaps his androgynous style of dress. You might recall the line from Dave Chappelle’s infamous Prince sketch, where Charlie Murphy recounts: “I don’t know where he got that shirt, but it definitely wasn’t the men’s department.” In truth, it probably wasn’t from any department, which is what made Prince’s appearance so beguiling and unique. He was lightyears ahead of the current interest in unisex apparel, and seemed to wear clothes that were specifically for him, rather than an entire gender.
While such androgynous fashion tastes had been a mode of expression for white rockers like David Bowie for several years by the time Prince was blowing up, outside maybe Little Richard it was far from common for a young black entertainer to dress in such a way. Prince bucked that trend and blazed a trail way beyond music, pushing down boundaries of identity for himself that others were then able to bypass in pursuit of their own path.
Can you imagine an artist like Andre 3000, Pharrell or Young Thug without Prince, for example?
Prince’s role in breaking down taboos around sexuality wasn’t only down to his appearance, though; his music was a powerful tool for combatting established prejudice. On his Dirty Mind album alone, he touches on so-called “gay” perception (“Uptown”), confronts the misguided ’80s belief that black men shouldn’t perform cunnilingus (“Head”) and even ventured into the extremely sensitive area of child molestation and incest (“Sister”). By any measure, that’s a long way from Teddy Pendergrass.
What makes Prince so important in this context is how far his influence went. He is arguably one of the three biggest pop music icons of the eighties (alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna), if not all time. His records went platinum multiple times over. Millions flocked to see his marathon concerts. He made a box office hit movie. He played the Super Bowl half time show – the absolute pinnacle of straight mainstream American culture. His sheer level of public exposure was incredible, especially for someone with such a disregard for the prudences of popular society.
It’s impossible not to imagine thousands of misfit kids all over the world who, at one point in their lives, might’ve looked at that tiny, mysterious, ambisexual being and thought “I don’t need to conform to a stereotype. I can be weird and creative AND successful.” That is perhaps Prince’s greatest gift to the world.
Prince was an incredible talent, whose vision crossed the lines that so many others felt the need to tiptoe around. He was one of the most singular musicians that ever graced this Earth, but also (and maybe because of that) an outsider. He showed people what an independent spirit with a relentless drive can achieve when remaining true to itself.
For me, personally, I’ll never forget putting on one last record in a Berlin dive bar to clear everyone out. It was an inherently cheesy choice, and I knew that, but the moment the first chord of “Purple Rain” kicked in every single person in the place seemed to start making out with the person next to them – regardless of their gender or sexual preference. That kind of open, embracement of love is exactly how I want to remember Prince.
Rest in peace, purple one.