The artist born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis in 1958 has been fascinating the world for more than thirty years. His most acclaimed works number most of those in his eighties purple-patch, including, ’1999′, ‘Around The World In A Day’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Lovesexy’ and ‘Purple Rain’, but beyond this it’s his position within a broader cultural context that most intrigues these days.
As much as Jaques Brel, David Bowie, Scott Walker, Morrissey, Thom Yorke or Captain Beefheart, Prince defines the term ‘outsider artist’. His role and persona is unique, unrelenting, searching, idiosyncratic, and bold. In the same way that true Blur fans blanched at the who-is-better battles of the mid-nineties with Oasis, so did true Prince afficionados gag at any kind of perceived ‘competition’ with Michael Jackson. Jackson was a good dancer who could sing; Prince was and is a one-man musical machine, driving every outlandish idea to its final conclusion, however cracked it seemed. Most of the time, they became enormo-hits. Jackson, in his embeddedness within the entertainment industry which would eventually kill him, oustripped Prince in sales, naturally.
His appearance has surely helped and hindered in equal measure. Though Afro-American, his mixed-race looks, and diminutive stature, have excluded him from both ‘markets’, enabling him to singularly embrace both in a way achieved neither by Jimi Hendrix nor Public Enemy. The black audience routinely criticise him for being either too ‘white’ or too ‘rock’, and the white crowd are intimidated by his flamboyance and (in earler times) uninhibited stage-sexuality.
This carefully-crafted image of satyr-like sex-midget, quietly and amusedly having his way with whichever fame-hungry nubile crossed his path, was pretty much reserved for stage and screen – his Paisley Park home life more being about cats, natural fruit juice and all day and night recording sessions, ideas bouncing around his fevered brain until perfectly sculpted into his panoramic, often psychedelic-soul vision. His later dabblings with every organised religion under the sun, eventually settling on the Jehova’s Witnesses, bear out his questing, searching nature.
From his afro-funk acoustic-tinged beginnings, Prince morphed into troubled, confused soul-rock rebel for ‘Purple Rain’, stripping for androgyny with ‘Parade’, and maximising for socio-political statement on ‘Sign O’ The Times’. All great records. However, after psychedlic freakout ‘Lovesexy’, common lore says his creative yen took a cataclysmic nosedive. I suggest one track has been forgotten (‘Diamonds & Pearls’ cut ‘Gett Off’ notwithstanding), and that’s ‘Batdance’.
The ‘Batman’ album was a tie in with the first film of the modern franchise, and featured Prince’s ‘Partyman’ – replete with Jack Nicholson’s The Joker defacing priceless works of art in a Gotham City museum. ‘Batdance’ itself only cropped up at the end of the closing credits; both of these tracks individuality pointing to the incongruity of including a musician like Prince’s inclusion in such a big-budget, mass-appeal blockbuster. ‘Batdance’ is a funk spasm-racket in three parts, it’s James Brown inflected middle part being one of the most inspired funk breakdowns ever recorded. It’s strange to remember this now, because in the context of the film, it somehow didn’t seem to work.
One precise-though-freewheeling, melody-but-beat obsessed multi-musician is hard to place into a huge Hollywood film, impossible to compare to more publicity-hungry mainstream stars, and hard to tie to regulated, repressive recording contracts (his court case with Warner Brothers leading to his distribution-wilderness and change of name, to nothing). Prince occupies a special space-place in the collective consciousness – a compact, obsessive vision of precision, beholden to no one, no group, no credo. He stands alone in the hallway, suited, booted, walking-stick resting louchely, one eyebrow raised at the busy goings-on in the dressing room.