Recalling the heyday of Prince and Madonna on the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain.
Twenty-four-hour music television, the brainchild of a TV-spawned pop star, the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, began broadcasting in August 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” MTV was everywhere within eighteen months. If new pop and postpunk had gleefully and rapidly rewritten rules, taking music forward in a constant revolution of purpose and invention, their aftermath was an era of momentum for its own sake. Things got ever shinier, greed and need replaced innovation: conservatism was a force and a problem both outside and within eighties pop.
Two new names appeared in this froth of newness. Both stood out from the crowd, both clearly demanded attention, worship, devotion: Prince and Madonna. These were names that couldn’t have existed at the dawn of modern pop, names that baited royalty and religion.
Both based their sound on electronically processed dance music, allowing them the opportunity to change style from record to record in a way that seemed innovative, one step ahead of the pack, like Dylan or Bowie before them. Both had egos the size of mansions. Both had a new hunger for success, for money. Both used MTV to become stars, and both used movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Purple Rain) to make the jump from stardom to superstardom. Sex! Religion! Gigolo! Whore! Purple! Cone bra! No one could accuse Prince or Madonna of underplaying their hands. And, eventually, both challenged Michael Jackson’s place at the very top of the pop empire; by the eighties’ end Madonna had (arguably) toppled him in the popularity stakes, and Prince had (certainly) creatively eased past Jackson with the most streamlined, silver-finned R&B of the decade. These were their similarities. In other respects they were quite different.
Prince had first appeared with the itchy falsetto disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (no. 11, ’79) and was presented—not least by himself—as a teenage prodigy. He grew up in the largely white city of Minneapolis: “The radio was dead, the discos was dead, the ladies was kind of dead. If I wanted to make some noise, if I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together. Which was what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown.”
He wanted to be everybody’s lover and—unlike most disco acts—was quite at home with lyrics about oral sex, incest, and Dorothy Parker. This set him apart. By 1983 he was channeling Sly Stone and the Beach Boys on “Little Red Corvette,” and a year later Newsweek was calling him “the Prince of Hollywood” as Purple Rain—starring Prince as the Kid—grossed $80 million.
Prince was hyperactive, more productive than any major star since the Beatles; some of his most commercial songs—“Manic Monday,” “Nothing Compares 2 U”—were tossed off as demos for others less prodigiously gifted to take to number one. There was always more in the locker.
Madonna, on the other hand, was the most grasping pop star in history. She was all Blonde Ambition, a triumph of the will. If her roots were always showing (suburban, Italian American, Catholic), it was still almost impossible to feel her soul. Rosaries were for show, crucifixes were worn like candy necklaces; if she ever went to confession it didn’t come across in her lyrics. She was a highly sexual, strong woman commodifying her own sexuality. She was a billboard. She was a material girl and proud of it.
And if you listen to The Immaculate Collection it succeeds on almost every level. Like Lesley Gore before her—with Quincy Jones, Jack Nitzsche, Thom Bell—Madonna used the best young producers (John “Jellybean” Benitez, Stephen Bray, William Orbit, Stuart Price) to get to the top and stay at the top. Each step was perfectly conceived, each single a stop on the way to her ultimate destination—iconhood. “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” in 1983, were instant club classics, floor-fillers for the masses, with a delicate ache to take “just one day out of line”; 1984’s “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” (the video for which had her playing Marilyn Monroe for the first time) were pubescent pop, there to antagonize and irritate, and to set up her persona; “Into the Groove” (her first number one, in ’85) was the invitation for everyone to partake, with its cool, crooked finger—“I’m waiting!” And the world succumbed. A few career-hardening singles later, Madonna could take eighteen months out and return with an event single, “Like a Prayer,” which (because it had to be) was her best yet. At this point, in 1989, she owned pop, and it was hers to lose.
The role-playing had been there from the start. “There was a real transformation,” said former schoolfriend Kim Drayton. “In the sophomore year she was a cheerleader with smiles on her face and long hair; very attractive; then by her senior year she had short hair. She was in the thespian society, and she didn’t shave her legs any more, you know, like all of us did, and she didn’t shave her armpits. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, what happened to her?’” Dancing became her escape route. The eldest girl in a family of eight children, her mother had died when she was just five. Her dad had been a defense engineer for General Dynamics; he worked long hours, and Madonna didn’t get on with her stepmother, who made her help out changing diapers. “When all my friends were out playing, I felt like I had all these adult responsibilities … I saw myself as the quintessential Cinderella,” she said. So she danced in the backyard to Motown 45s with her black schoolfriends, and she went to gay clubs in Detroit where she didn’t feel men looked at her like a hard-ass. By the time she arrived in New York and hung out at the Danceteria in 1982, she had the moves, if not yet the look or the voice.
Three years on she recorded “Into the Groove” and, for me, it was her peak. The most sublime example of pop on pop since “Do You Believe in Magic,” it was all about saturating your mind and freeing your body, a three-minute, unrelenting chime of joy: “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.” She came from nothing, a real-life Cinderella, and she made some of the greatest records of the eighties, became a true legend. It’s “Papa Don’t Preach” with an exceptionally happy ending.
So why do I struggle to love Madonna? On one level it was her lack of specialness—take away the drive and she’s fine, she’s good. She’s as good as Kim Wilde. Her voice had a squeaky cuteness, a predatory squeaky cuteness that contradicts itself. On another, less personal level, she was a cultural sponge. Once Madonna co-opted a fashion, a look, then it belonged to her. Try imagining anyone who has emerged in her wake pulling off the Monroe look—even someone as big as Christina Aguilera, Kylie Minogue, or Lady Gaga: immediately you think, it’s a bit Madonna. In this respect, she’s been an awful role model for women and has done a lot of harm without giving much back. Like Margaret Thatcher, who, as prime minister, never allowed another woman MP into the cabinet, Madonna acted as if she was the only woman allowed in pop.
Prince was always more playful, at once generous and controlling, a benevolent dictator—the Tito of pop. He started a label called Paisley Park, writing and producing for the likes of the Time, Sheila E., and Apollonia, the busty costar of Purple Rain; then he spent $10 million building a white modernist Paisley Park studio complex. His jammy fingermarks were all over the label’s output, at every level. For the cover photo of the Time’s Ice Cream Castle he instructed Paul Peterson to wear an orange suit. He also wanted Mark Cardenas to wear blackface, which was an affectation too far. According to Peterson, “He said, ‘If you wear blackface people will notice you.’ Well, he would have been right there.”
Unlike Madonna, Prince was all contradictions: black funk and white rock, the sound of the future pilfering from the past’s cabinet of curiosities, and—like Little Richard before him—unending lust and adherence to the Bible. This was fully realized on 1984’s international breakthrough album, the soundtrack to Purple Rain. It was put in capsule form on “Darling Nikki,” a violent grind of a track that referenced female masturbation but, if played backward (Prince had done his Beatles homework), the fade included the spoken lines “Hello. How are you? I’m fine, because I know the Lord is coming soon.”
It must have caused a few people who had bought the album for “Take Me with U” to go bright red. Purple Rain was like a condensed CV, each track pointing in a different possible future direction, splendidly and unquestionably announcing the arrival of a legend. The first single taken from it, “When Doves Cry,” was also his first U.S. number one and, just for larks, it didn’t include a bassline. (It was the first hit single to lack a bassline since Andrew Gold’s “Never Let Her Slip Away” in 1978.) “Take Me with U” was eighties Mersey-beat—as if Prince was seeing Purple Rain as an update of A Hard Day’s Night—dressed up with some gorgeous lovelorn strings and a dynamic, slightly disturbing, Brian Wilson–like intro and coda. “Let’s Go Crazy” (another number one) was synth glam, a vari-speed “Rock and Roll Part 2” in double time, its lyrics indecipherable beyond a camp religious intro, panting sounds, and a clarion call of “Let’s go crazy! Let’s get nuts!” The title track resurrected the emotional mudbath of John Lennon’s “Mother” and the dead-handed thud of the Band; a parody of white rock’s self-pity, it may not be a coincidence that this is the song that brings Prince’s character, the Kid, deliverance in the movie.
Purple Rain spent a dozen weeks at the top of the U.S. album chart. Prince’s place at the table was confirmed when the British press gave him the kind of nickname which they reserve for only the biggest pop stars, the ones who can rise no higher: Macca Wacky Thumbsaloft, Dame David Bowie, Wacko Jacko, Madge, and Ponce. You didn’t need the ire of the Sun or the National Enquirer when Smash Hits was there to remind superstars that no one, but no one, is untouchable.
With the Kid and his busted-up success story, Prince showed a sleight of hand not seen since David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Purple Rain was the pop event of the year, and it was a skin he could easily shed. The sequel, 1985’s Around the World in a Day, was built on a bed of the romantic woozy strings from “Take Me with U”; from its psychedelically ornate cover on, it was the Lovin’ Spoonful put through a Paisley Park filter; the title track and “Raspberry Beret” were sunny-afternoon hijinks, sweet utopian pop.
No wig-outs or workouts, just marshmallows. It wasn’t given a major push, as if Warner Brothers didn’t think it could hold the same crossover appeal as Purple Rain. Critically and commercially, in the conservative environment of the mideighties, it felt like Prince was being upbraided for not giving us Purple Rain 2, for going too far.
Prince shrugged, moved on. “It is true I record very fast,” he told MTV. “It goes even quicker now the girls help me … the girls meaning Wendy and Lisa.” Guitarist Wendy Melvoin could barely contain her pride in Rolling Stone: “I’m sorry, no one can come close to what the three of us have together when we’re playing in the studio. Nobody!” She was right. By the time of Parade in 1986, and its companion movie Under the Cherry Moon, Prince was untouchable. He could indulge his fantasies of upper-class English girls on screen (Francesca Annis and a young Kristin Scott Thomas were the love interests in Under the Cherry Moon) and still come over as impish rather than creepy. He’d try to be the romantic suitor, try to keep his fly zipped up, but always had that glint in his eye within a matter of seconds. “Girls and Boys” was great, but “Kiss” (no. 1, ’86) was greater, a super-parched dancer containing killer eighties map refs: “You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude.” Within a year Prince released a double album, Sign ‘O’ the Times, which contained no filler at all—he had found Paisley Park hired hands who could keep up with him, egg him on to greater heights of screwball abandon. “Starfish and Coffee”? And a side order of ham. “Wear something peach or black,” he asked fans before his 1987 shows. With a new addition, the writhing dancer Cathy “Cat” Glover, he made the Sign ‘O’ the Times tour the most spectacular of the eighties, pushing her up against a giant silver heart during “If I Was Your Girlfriend” that then tipped up, dumping the two lovebirds backstage. He didn’t miss a single beat. And, again, again, he moved on.
Madonna also kept plugging away at a parallel film career, though she didn’t have a predilection for English gents with country houses to blame for the box office failure of Who’s That Girl and Shanghai Surprise. Given their similar tastes, it’s no coincidence that Madonna’s best album, 1989’s Like a Prayer, bore a heavy Prince footprint. It was a tightrope-walking blend of the spiritual and carnal; Prince aside, no one had pulled this stuff off since Elvis. There was even a duet between the two pretenders to Jacko’s throne (the crisp “Love Song”), which must have made the King of Pop frown just a little.
Even so, both Prince and Madonna hit a crisis as the eighties turned into the nineties. Neither had embraced either hip hop’s golden age or the house and techno revolution (which revolved much slower in its homeland). Both were seen entirely as eighties icons—they didn’t have Michael Jackson’s prehistory to loosen their ties to that specific decade. Both decided to ratchet up their output.
In Prince’s case, this meant reminding everyone of why they loved him in the first place. He remained stubbornly himself, sticking to the landscapes he knew best, sure of his own greatness. First he recorded, then pulled, an album—The Black Album. It was bootlegged heavily but was still spoken about more than it was heard. Then he made a third movie, Graffiti Bridge, in 1990. It was an almost exact replica of Purple Rain, with Prince as the moody singer, sitting on his motorbike, pouting like a lady. All at once, things fell apart. The Black Album filtered through and turned out to be quite tedious, all dry-hump funk. Graffiti Bridge was a greater error as it was such an overground failure. There were no good songs, Prince looked old, his hair was horrid. Everything about it seemed lazy. For somebody so forward-looking, it was a catastrophic error of judgment.
Madonna, similarly, lost her sense of timing. In the space of what seemed like weeks, she released a career retrospective (The Immaculate Collection), a new album (Erotica), and a book of photographs called Sex. No matter what the new album contained, photos of the world’s biggest pop star in the nude were always going to trump it.
You could argue a case for Sex being a political move in the culture wars of 1990. The same year saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s nudes facing an obscenity trial; was this Madge showing solidarity with the cultural left? It could also be seen as the work of someone who was now being treated as a new strain of feminist by universities, one who was seizing the means of porn production. Or you could argue that she had nowhere else to go—Madonna was as ubiquitous as the Beatles had been; splitting up wasn’t an option, but dressing down was.
Looking back, the Sex book feels like one of the most radical moves made by anyone in this fifty-year story. But in 1990 it was regarded generally by those open to it as bad art, as bad porn, and by those against it as a publicity stunt. Either way, releasing the Erotica album so soon afterward was Madge overload and none of the singles from it reached number one. This is a shame, as it was her best album—“Justify My Love” preceded it and was Madonna at her most sensuous, all spooked Mellotron chords, whispering rather than screaming. The title track was almost as good, a 98 bpm Balearic rhythm topped with a simple but dark three-note piano motif: “If I take you from behind, push myself into your mind…” Well, it worked for me. Other singles from the album (“Rain,” “Deeper and Deeper,” “Bad Girl”) were good solid disco pop, based around minor chords, and were notably more mature and less attention-grabbing than anything she’d done before. None of this mattered. She’d taken her clothes off and that was the entire Madonna story. The album flopped.
How did these icons dig their way out of a hole? Prince got a bigger shovel. He toughened up his sound and added a few more cuss words for “Sexy MF” and “My Name Is Prince,” both of which were useful additions to his catalog, but it still felt like he was playing catch up. In the eighties his music had been the story; in the nineties his battles with the music industry—writing “slave” on his cheek, changing his name to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince—became the story, and it was a turn off. By 1994, when he had his last Top 10 hit with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” he felt like a relic.
Madonna realized that no matter what she did after Sex, it would be an anticlimax. Besides, everyone save her hardcore fans had their knives sharpened. So she pretty much disappeared, a queen in exile as grunge and riot grrrl took the heat off her. She started her Maverick record label and signed Alanis Morissette, whose Jagged Little Pill album sold thirty-three million copies and moved the discourse of female empowerment on by proxy. By the time she returned with Bedtime Stories in ’95 she could play godmother to the riot-grrrl scene, and Courtney Love was glad to back her up. With fresh impetus, she cut Ray of Light and Music, both sonically supermodern; once again she was raising the bar for club-orientated pop. She wore the crown.
Bob Stanley has worked as a music journalist, DJ, and record-label owner, and is the cofounder of the band Saint Etienne. He lives in London.
Excerpted from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley. Copyright © 2014, 2013 by Bob Stanley. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.