Purple Reign: A Few Words From A Non-Fan About Prince’s Mercurial Music, Image, and Legacy

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The first time I ever saw Prince it was on a January 26, 1980 broadcast of American Bandstand. In fact, it might have been the first time I’d even heard of this artist. Since this occurred long ago, I can’t recall why I was watching ABS in the first place. I didn’t really care for the show or most of the music. Yet, whatever the reason, my fortuitous channel surfing enabled me to see something that would become a television event.

More specifically, on that particular Saturday morning I saw this strange little man with a thin moustache and a “woman’s hairdo” prance around to a tune called “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” When Dick Clark introduced Prince, he sat amongst his youthful guests, holding up a copy of For You (1978), which was released the same year as The Ramones’ Road to Ruin and The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. It was a time, as well, when Bruce Springsteen was “the future of Rock and Roll” and Disco was being pushed out by Punk and New Wave. I can’t recall, however, what came out in ’78 that was of significance in the genres of Soul and Funk, since at this time in my life, I refused to listen to “that kind of music.”  To see what I saw, follow the link below:

http://theroottv.theroot.com/video/Prince-on-American-Bandstand-19?wpisrc=burger

So, how did I react to Prince? Quite frankly, I was little weirded out. Back then I was a fifteen year old kid who didn’t like much of anything that wasn’t metal or punk, let alone something like this. As a product of my unenlightened age, historical epoch, society, and household, I was bothered by the flagrant gender-bending that occurred before my eyes. What was also a factor was going to a high school, probably like many high schools, in which cliques were divided along race and musical taste. As an American Indian and Mexican kid, my peers expected me to listen to Donna Summer, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Yet, because I favored Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath, I was considered to be one of the “Surfers,” a “white boy,” in spite of my very non-Caucasian identity. (As a side note, I obviously grew up in Southern California.) In any case, music defined your social status, which in the immature dynamics of teenage society meant that the kids who liked Funk and Soul didn’t like me, even bullying me for my musical tastes. In light of which, there was no way in Hell I was going to let myself like Prince!

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What I didn’t stop to think about amidst my teenage confusion was the rebellion that Prince asserted against the oppressively binary sexual roles in which my generation was raised to believe were our only options. I also didn’t stop about how Prince’s androgynous stage persona had historical precedent, such as David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase, The New York Dolls under the influence of David Johansen, not to mention Little Richard. Even though I knew a great deal about music history, even at fifteen, I willfully ignored my own knowledge and simply decided that I didn’t like what I saw or heard. However, as the aforementioned high school experience became a thing of the past, and my horizons began to expand with college, a little money in my pocket, along with lots of reading and trips to the record store, my recognition of Prince’s talent began to expand as well. Although still limited by certain biases, namely my preference for guitar-driven music (as opposed to a beat you can dance to), I did find myself admitting that I liked the riffs I was hearing during the 80s as Prince released 1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984). In fact, as the video for “When Doves Cry” entered constant rotation on MTV, I remember wishing that Prince would do more music like this! But then the mediocrity of Around the World in a Day (1985) appeared and, “Raspberry Beret” notwithstanding, I began losing interest. Indeed, the only time Prince caught my attention in the intervening years was when he battled the exploitation of Warner Bros, changed his name to that symbol, and deliberately avoided the new media, namely iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and the like. As for his music, despite regularly releasing a plethora of new music, Prince for me was forever sexily coming out of that bathtub in his iconic video.

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So, as Prince became more of an historical figure than a symbol of my teenage discontent, did my attitude toward Prince change as I also got older and supposedly wiser? Somewhat. Although I’m able to listen to a lot of music today that I genuinely couldn’t stand throughout high school and college, it doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten how I felt when I first heard particular artists and their music. At this point I should confess that in spite of my sincere shock at Prince’s sudden death this past week, my shock was mostly at the level of realizing that a major cultural icon had died. I liked some of his songs, some of them very much, namely “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Raspberry Beret.” Nonetheless, he was never really a part of the soundtrack of my life. Yet, what I couldn’t deny and did grow to admire was that he was probably the best R&B/Rock guitarist since Hendrix, who possessed a brilliant capacity for reinventing himself at each stage of his musical career. In other words, I knew that he would be an Icon for the Ages, even if he wasn’t exactly iconic for me. I did, of course, really dig his half-time performance at Super Bowl XLI. In fact, like many, I was blown away. It’s just hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since that happened.

 

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