I remember when and where I first came in contact with Prince.
It wasn’t catching him at an electrifying concert, or seeing him perform on TV or even coming across his cardboard likeness for some record store promotion. It wasn’t even through one of his albums.
It was when I spotted the glittery purple letters that spelled his name written across the folder of a middle school classmate in homeroom. In those days, we emblazoned the names of the bands we listened to on our Trapper Keepers and homemade textbook covers to show our allegiance to them. It was also a shorthand way of giving one another a view into our tastes and personalities. But this was 1982 and I was still one of the uninitiated. Prince who? I thought.
Very shortly after spotting his name on a random schoolgirl’s folder I came across the man himself on MTV. It was the video for the title track off his album “1999” and he was jumping and spinning and wiggling all over the stage with a furious energy. I found it almost impossible to sit totally still while watching him perform one of the catchiest tunes I’d heard in my relatively short existence. I was hooked.
Though I remember thinking how cool it was that nearly every member of the band took a turn at singing a line or two, there was no question who was at the center of things, in all his frilly-shirted, purple-jacketed, stiletto-heeled glory. Prince had an electricity that reached right through the TV screen and grabbed you.
Much of that was due to his undiluted sexuality. Every movement this dude made onstage was underscored by sexuality, bold and unabashed. A cock of the head, a flick of the lashes, a swivel, a shake. Caressing his guitar’s fret board or stroking his piano’s keys. This is where he had it all over the other African-American artist whose career had recently rocketed into superstardom: Michael Jackson.
Both charismatic artists seemed tailor-made for MTV, and were for a time the only two black artists whose videos enjoyed regular airplay on the network—no small feat in the early days of the channel. But whereas the boyish-faced Michael still had an aura of innocence to him, there was something dangerous about Prince.
The brilliantly choreographed dance numbers in Jackson’s videos—though extremely entertaining—lacked the raw emotion of any single Prince performance. The Purple One had a more devilishly alluring, almost forbidden quality. And as Jackson’s music was often accessible and mainstream. Prince’s output was diverse, unpredictable and edgy—something Jackson’s songs rarely were. You could make the argument that if Jackson was the Beatles of the early to mid-’80s then Prince was the Rolling Stones.
By the time he revved up “Little Red Corvette” as a follow-up single, Prince tossed out all reserve by the roadside as he cranked up the sensuality factor tenfold. The fast car-fast woman-sex metaphor was nothing new in pop songs, but in Prince’s hands it was molded into something almost obscene. And it wasn’t just the lyrics but his slow-fast-slow vocals that he moaned and howled to drive the point home. Fans of Prince knew him as an uninhibited talent from his first four albums, which included “Controversy” and “Dirty Mind,” but he was just beginning to break into the big time with “1999.” He had set all of America in his sights and with the release of his 1984 masterwork “Purple Rain,” loaded with his brand of sexually wild, synth- and guitar-driven funk/pop, his conquest was complete.
That. Thing. Was. Huge. The album’s songs were all over TV and the radio, and the companion movie was just as big. I remember kids at school and even church talking about the record and film, as if they were the most pertinent things in our lives—and we were a bunch of suburban white kids. I’d catch snippets of the songs “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” crooned in the school halls by my tone-deaf classmates, but sung with fervor all the same. It’s as though they too really felt Prince’s music and words.
The movie was somewhat autobiographical so Prince’s character, The Kid, felt real because in many ways he was. I was intrigued by the famous poster for the film featuring Prince in a smoky alleyway wearing his purple jacket and straddling a motorcycle that was—what else?—purple, while the sexy Apollonia looked at him yearningly from the background. This cat oozes cool, I recall thinking.
And though my fellow classmates and I viewed Michael Jackson, by and large, as a black artist who had crossed over into international stardom, Prince was to many of us was an artist, period. He had said in an interview that as a kid he listened to all kinds of music and when he grew up he wanted to play all kinds of music, and not be judged by the color of his skin but the quality of his output. Though some of his music could certainly be funky and soulful, he wasn’t simply a black performer playing black music or a black artist trying to play to white audiences. You couldn’t pin down his sound—it was completely his own. The way we collectively viewed artists was changing and the influential Prince was at the forefront of this revolution.
He held my interest for a few more singles in the ensuing years, but by the time I was an upperclassman in high school he’d lost some of his pull in the ever-shifting music scene. Also, it didn’t help that when he tried his hand at another feature film, “Under the Cherry Moon,” it not only flopped but is now roundly considered one of the stupidest films of the ‘80s (and that’s saying something!). It felt like the party had moved on and his reign of the pop music scene seemed to be at an end.
Not to say his songwriting touch wasn’t felt in the years to come, as is evidenced in such hits as The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” both penned by the High Priest of Pop himself. And when the great Welshman Tom Jones and synthpop group Art of Noise covered Prince’s sparse but funky hit “Kiss” in 1988, they scored a number one hit with it.
He wielded his royal might a few times through some high-profile live performances in the years to come, too, most notably during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He blew the roof off the joint by taking over the all-star band performance of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with a scintillating guitar solo that stands, for my money, as one of the most electrifying moments in music history. Another such moment took place a few years later on Feb. 4, 2007.
Prince was called upon to headline one of the biggest gigs on the planet—the Super Bowl halftime show—and brother, did he ever deliver. How many of us felt the goose bumps bubble up as we watched him pour all his feeling and emotions into his moaning guitar and sing “Purple Rain” while the drops from a seemingly heaven-sent downpour splashed all around him, providing the perfect backdrop. In many interviews and even in his songs throughout the years, Prince made no bones about the fact that he was a huge fan of God. And on that night, at least, it was apparent the feeling was mutual.
Not long after that performance I was at a night club when what should I hear come through the speakers but the psychedelic strains of “Raspberry Beret.” My heart smiled. Here we were, almost 30 years after his heyday when we were writing his name on our folders, and I could only grin as I watched a new generation of face-pierced goth kids, steel toe-booted punks and clubgoers in general, white and black, shaking their hips exuberantly all over the dance floor to Prince’s music.
He appealed to everybody and to his credit, the man never played it safe as he was always shaking up his style, his sound and his look. From the Revolution to the New Power Generation, from Prince Rogers Nelson to a weird symbol that no one on God’s earth could pronounce if his life depended on it and back to Prince again. And whether he was performing in a stadium full of people or his songs came on in small, smoky clubs with barely 20 souls, he still had the power to move us—and make us move. And that’s something that will never change.