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. 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.