By Jack Barnes
In 1855, the great American original Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself,” a poem that would end up capturing the young nation’s diverse character. It featured the immortal line: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
126 years later, another of our nation’s creative originals, Prince, who died today at age of 57, took up that great American mantra of contradictions, put a groove to it, and turned it into a series of questions: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?…Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” Prince got metaphysical as hell in “Controversy,” in a way that Uncle Walt would have approved: “Some people want to die so they can be free.” When history books of Classic American Art are written, The Bard of Democracy and His Purpleness will not be far away from each other in a chapter labeled “Geniuses.”
Genius. It’s a highly overused phrase in music criticism, and yet one tailored for a beautiful, diminutive, classy man from Minneapolis, who, when he wasn’t single-handedly helping reinvent the sound of global pop music, was a master craftsman, an unparalleled performer and a Barnum-esque creator of huge cultural moments. One who would at times magnetically walk to the spotlight, at others hide far from it, but who – push comes to shove – released almost an album a year the length of his staggering career, 37 non-compilation albums in all since 1978.
Prince was a confident man right from the start. When he signed with Warner Bros as an 18 year-old, he not only wrestled full creative control from them (For You, his debut, found him playing all the instruments and producing), but also became part of its rock, rather than R&B roster, which at the time was a standard case for major label pigeon-holing.
In retrospect, the prescience of this move served both parties, not only confirming the artist’s musical ambition (like many of his associates in the Minneapolis scene, Prince saw his music as a boundless conglomeration of rock, funk, soul and any adjacent experimentation he dreamed up), but the topical impact of his lyrics as well.
Beginning with his very first single, entitled “Soft and Wet,” Prince chose to push culturally risqué buttons. His first real hit, 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” made the language of his come-on easy to understand; but by 1980’s Dirty Mind, a punk-funk/new wave masterpiece whose black and white cover showed our hero in a G-string and a trench coat, and which featured not only the lascivious slant of the title track, but also a paean to loving one’s own “Sister,” Prince was letting his creative libido out for a walk, to the shock of many cultural gatekeepers, and to an increasingly rabid and diverse audience. He’d made the radar: even if you hadn’t heard his music, you had definitely heard about him. Read More….
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