I was born in 1984, the year that Prince released Purple Rain, and it wasn’t until I started exploring my own musical tastes as a teenager and listening to different things, that I heard When Doves Cry being sung by a wonderful singer at a band night at Chickenshed (a theatre in North London I performed with from age 7-18), and caught the Prince bug. I played it on repeat on Napster, finding the lyrics online, getting to know it so intimately that even now I remember every word.
However, I wasn’t as much of a Prince music fan as I was of Michael Jackson’s. But I feel as if the music of both had a profound effect on what I was drawn to listening to – at one point I went towards RnB, Hip Hop, Soul, and Jazz Vocals, and still love these genres of music. If I hadn’t come across Prince or Michael Jackson, I doubt I would have found my way into that exploration without these gateway performers. I was lucky that the 90s and early 00s were a great time for black musicians and artists – we had Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill, The Fugees, amongst many more. They weren’t the only thing I listened to, but a large part of my musical education.
And even later on, I gravitated towards Nina Simone and Corinne Bailey Rae, and Motown. Yet still. There are some artists that come along at the right time, to guide your tastes and your ideas of what good music is, and the thing about Prince is that he brings everything together – as if displaying all the things that music can be, the possibilities. It isn’t as if his music won’t still resonate across genres and generations. If an artist that released something in the year you were born is still exciting and relevant many years later, it shows how powerful their energy and longevity is. Music taste is personal, I feel. Not everyone will have liked his music. But his influence is far reaching.
I think when I was a teenager, it displayed a powerful emotional depth and yearning, especially for the angst-ridden. It also has something else – a fluid sexuality, a different vision of what it means to be a man. He wasn’t afraid of emotions. He turned gender on its head, as many artists, such as Bowie, Patti Smith, and KD Lang were doing. It paved the way for a more fluid vision of gender up to the present day (though sometimes I think we have become less gender fluid in some ways). His songs are often about the messiness of love and sexuality, rather than a sanitised version of romantic love – When Doves Cry shows how closely intertwined love, sadness, yearning, and sexuality are. I don’t think there are currently many songs that have that kind of depth and messiness when talking about relationships.
‘I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand
I’ll never beat you
I’ll never lie
And if you’re evil I’ll forgive you by and by…’ – Prince, I Would Die 4U.
There are many things I didn’t realise about Prince until his death. I’m not the kind of fan who wants to know everything about the person or religiously reads anything about them in the media. I didn’t know that he lived in Minnesota or that he had such an extensive back-catalogue of albums. I didn’t know, even, that he recorded, arranged, and produced the soundtrack for Batman (the Keaton version), which was a welcome surprise since it’s one of my favourite films.
I hadn’t even watched Purple Rain, despite having a copy of the DVD, and when I heard about his death, I downloaded it onto iTunes to watch on the iPad (it turns out this was a good decision because the DVD didn’t have subtitles for the songs anyway) – and I watched it on Saturday night. Now I have all the Purple Rain songs stuck in my head.
All I can really write about is the subjective meaning of his music to me – because I don’t know all that much about his effect on the music industry, beyond what I’ve read about how he always retained artistic control over his music (thus his problems with Warner Bros, leading to the name change), and that he was a powerhouse of constant creation. There is a lot to admire about his legacy – how he could play any instrument, that he created his own different looks and sounds.
It seems he was an enigma, retaining the same kind of privacy that Bowie also had. I don’t agree that we’ve gone past the era of great music, that there is nothing new to be had – I’m optimistic like that, and I’m sure Prince would disagree, considering he was passionate about taking on protégés and writing or arranging songs for other artists. I still discover new favourites using Spotify – both older music and current music.
As sad as it is that some wonderful artists have left us too soon, especially those that defined so much for so many of us, I also think how lucky it is that they have left us with so much music, style, and creative inspiration. I hope that their artistry will also inspire a new generation of musicians, leading to more invention and rule breaking. Maybe that is what we want – to have artists that surprise us, that aren’t more of the same.
‘I only wanted one time to see you laughing
I only wanted to see you
Laughing in the purple rain…’ – Prince, Purple Rain.