The Tao of Prince
November 15, 2010 | by Dan Piepenbring
If you’ve felt a frisson in the air lately, it’s probably because Prince has announced a new tour. The sky’s all purple, there are people running everywhere—this is exciting news. As I scrambled to get tickets, I briefly wondered why I was bothering. Sure, in his heyday, Prince had juice enough to light the Erotic City skyline, but today he has only a fraction of that electricity. Graffiti Bridge, 1990's abysmal sequel to Purple Rain, began two decades of high-profile blunders: the notorious name change; tenacious threats of legal action against his fans; last summer’s dismissal of the Internet. With antics like these, Prince should’ve faded long ago from the public consciousness, but his mystique is oddly resilient. Even his failures adhere to some kind of Princely internal logic. What makes him such a strange, potent pop-cultural force?
The answer has something to do, I think, with his elusive persona. The most convincing explanation of Prince is a tautology, something you’d hear from a stoned teenager: Prince is, like, Prince. At the risk of sounding more like a stoned twenty-something, I’ll call him a man of dialectics, a brazen mess of binaries. He’s the living refutation of Lincoln’s “House Divided” address. A house divided against itself can stand, Prince says, and it’s a great place to throw a party. As early as 1981’s “Controversy,” he asked us if he was black or white, straight or gay, God fearing or navel gazing.
By 1984, when Purple Rain came out, Prince was all slashes: black/white, straight/gay, male/female, rock/R&B, voluptuary/ascetic, cocaine/peyote, garish/understated, Hendrix/Little Richard, gothic/ecstatic, authoritarian/anarchist, apocalyptic/Panglossian, hip/square, selfish/selfless. Any thesis about him came bundled with its antithesis. He was so at odds with himself that the odds synthesized into one whole, perplexing person.
That synthesis is borne out by his lyrics, which are as subversive as that bikini-briefs-and-trenchcoat ensemble he wore to open for the Rolling Stones. In his best songs, Prince hews to classical poetic forms only to swerve from them at unpredictable intervals; as with his persona, opposites abound.
Take “Raspberry Beret,” basically a pastoral courtship. Peopled by such rural mainstays as Mr. McGee (the hardnosed boss of a five-and-dime) and Old Man Johnson (a farmer, of course), the song testifies to the bucolic joys of “doing something close to nothing,” shirking workaday life, and having a literal romp in the hay. All’s well and good until this arcadia is interrupted by another form of pastoral, the elegy. It creeps in with the beautiful, obscure line “Overcast days never turned me on, but something ’bout the clouds and her mixed.” Then comes a quiet reference to lost youth: He “wouldn’t change a stroke … with a girl as fine as she was then.” The last line brings a full-on lament, as Prince sings, “Tell me, where have all the raspberry women gone?” We could argue all day about what a raspberry woman is—for my money, it’s got nothing to do with fruit—and this is Prince’s inscrutable charm. Having lured us in with a frothy romance, he ends by mourning something we can’t even fully understand.
Songwriting like this keeps his mystery alive, even now. Yes, these days he’d rather peddle copies of The Watchtower than juggle his dichotomies, but we should’ve seen this coming. His intense religion is the ultimate contradiction; it was only a matter of time until Prince got around to swearing himself off.
I would’ve forked over a hundred-odd bucks to see Prince live. But no dice. This December’s pair of Madison Square Garden shows sold out in thirty minutes, and I was not among the elect. I suspect all the raspberry women got there first.
Dan Piepenbring is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.