Music Review: The Sexual Politics of Prince
By Larry Jaffee
Prince’s unexpected passing on April 21, 2016, shook popular culture and resulted in the long-overdue recognition of his unique musical genius. Yet Prince enigmatically contradicted himself with sexist chauvinism throughout much of his extremely prolific career that included thousands of recorded songs, many never heard—not very becoming behavior for someone who considered himself to be a feminist.
True, Prince often empowered female collaborators to help create his music. His last band at the time of his death, 3rdEyeGirl, was comprised of three women: American drummer Hannah Welton, Canadian guitarist Donna Grantis, and Danish bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen. The 2014 album Plectumelectrum is credited to Prince and 3rdEyeGirl, which also appeared on tracks of his last album, Hit ‘N’ Run, Phase Two. His longtime recording engineer was a woman, Susan Rogers, in a field dominated by men. He wrote hit songs for various female artists, including Sinead O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”), The Bangles (“Manic Monday”), and Sheena Easton (“You’ve Got the Look” and “Sugar Walls”). Regular collaborators included percussionist Sheila E. (for whom he wrote and produced her solo breakthrough, “The Glamorous Life”), and Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, guitarist and keyboardist, respectively, in The Revolution, Prince’s band during the 1984 Purple Rain movie and breakthrough album.
In Purple Rain’s fictional narrative based on Prince’s life, his character “The Kid” finds redemption by adapting Wendy and Lisa’s demo, which turns into the movie’s Grammy-winning title track, and arguably his biggest hit. Yet the movie is full of misogynistic moments, such as when Prince’s love interest Apollonia is tossed into the trash by Jerome, the valet of The Kid’s rival, Morris Day. It’s a cringe-worthy scene reminiscent of the Wall Street sexism depicted in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street. Responding to criticism at the time, Prince told a reporter that he wasn’t responsible for the movie’s script. But it’s unlikely that he complained much either. When Morris Day’s character briefly takes over Apollonia’s career in Purple Rain, there is no doubt that he’s acting as a surrogate for Prince—despite being his rival—with her band’s near pornographic song “Sex Shooter.”
August Darnell, whose musical alter ego was “Kid Creole,” commented recently, “In those days, all of Prince’s songs were about sex. His entire catalogue was about how to get laid.” Prince gave Kid Creole and the Coconuts the song “The Sex of It,” which he was convinced would make them a success in the United States; instead, it flopped and led to the band getting dropped from Sony. Prince’s “Darling Nikki” from Purple Rain—about a woman masturbating—prompted Tipper Gore (the wife of then-Senator Al Gore) to start the Parents Music Resource Center, a group that succeeded in getting record companies to label albums containing explicit content.
But Prince could also hold more conservative views. There is a scene in Purple Rain that suggests that Wendy and Lisa are more than bandmates. Melvoin told biographer Matt Thorne that Prince did not accept her lesbian relationship with Coleman, even though he was seeing Wendy’s twin sister, Susannah. “Because we’re gay, The Lord thinks we’re evil, and we’re damning The Revolution to hell.” She was talking nearly two decades before Prince apparently came to feel guilty about his lifestyle and became a devout Jehovah’s Witness. In the last decade before his death, Prince led a chaste, probably even celibate, life.
Like the often androgynous performer David Bowie, Prince played with gender-bending images, a practice that interestingly made him all the more appealing to many women. With his propensity for high-heeled shoes, midriff-baring tops, teased hair, and come-hither facial expressions adorned with eye liner, Prince’s flamboyant attire almost always looked to be from the women’s department. But appearances could be deceiving, and despite the lyrics to his song “Sister”—“She’s the reason for my bisexuality”—from his 1980 third album Dirty Mind, the apparently strictly heterosexual Prince never appeared to endorse any kind of male-to-male intimacy.
After two somewhat successful R&B albums for Warner Brothers in the late 1970s, Prince began to push the envelope with his look and public persona with Dirty Mind. On the album cover, he was dressed in a black bikini brief; he toured and opened for the Rolling Stones in this get-up, including thigh-high stockings.
Evoking a macho persona on his first hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover” while simultaneously looking effeminate, the diminutive Prince could appear to be female. His fans mistook backup singer Cat Glover on the cover single sleeve of “Sign o’ the Times” from the eponymous 1987 double album to be Prince in drag. The resemblance was uncanny. By the time of his death, the 5-foot-3-inch tall Prince weighed just 112 pounds.
Many women, meanwhile, appreciated his attempt to see what life was like through their eyes. This was best exemplified by the song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign o’ the Times, usually touted by critics as Prince’s masterpiece. “If I was your girlfriend/ Would U let me dress U / I mean, help U pick out your clothes / Before we go out,” he sings.
From 1981 through the late 1990s, much of Prince’s music featured salacious lyrical content, and he didn’t think twice about objectifying parts of women’s bodies in songs such as “Wonderful Ass,” “Sugar Walls,” and “Scarlet Pussy.” Prince’s Svengali-like work ethic produced Vanity 6, a female trio adorned in lingerie on their 1982 record cover who sang trashy singles like “Nasty Girl.” A well-known womanizer, twice-married Prince often embarked on affairs with collaborators of the moment, including actress Kim Basinger, co-star of the movie Batman, which Prince scored. He was married to his first wife, Mayte Garcia, for three years; the death of their newborn son appeared to play a role in the couple’s 1999 divorce. In 2001, he married his second wife, Manuela Testolini, who initiated divorce proceedings just five years later.
In 1987, Prince adopted a female hermaphrodite persona named “Camille,” whom he occasionally revisited. The concept album Camille was abandoned, although its songs appeared on other albums. Speeding up his own voice with technology to sound female, Camille even received a vocal credit on the Sign o’ the Times album. As biographer Thorne writes, “Had Camille come into full existence to promote the record, he/she would have likely existed as a concept without a body, sans flesh.”
For seven years, starting in 1994, Prince insisted on being called an unpronounceable symbol due to a contract dispute with Warner Brothers. Fans of “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” as he also came to be called, considered the now iconic symbol to be fittingly a fusion of man, woman, and instrument.
There is no doubt that Prince loved women, and that for most of his life he focused on enjoying sexual pleasures. After all, who else would have written a song called “And God Created Woman”?