Thursday, April 21, 2016

Remembering Prince, "Fabulous Freak, Defiant Outsider, Dark Dandy" – 1958-2016

I can't say I was a "fan" of Prince, the trail-blazing music legend who was found dead this morning in his Paisley Park estate and studio in Chanhassen, just outside of Minneapolis. I certain recognize and appreciate his contribution to music, but I just wasn't personally ever into this unique contribution to the degree that I bought any of his albums.

That being said, I was definitely aware of how Prince was a constant presence on the music scene in the years when I was in high school and college in Australia. I can even say I had a favorite Prince song, 1985's "Raspberry Beret." And of course, once I relocated in 1994 to Minneapolis, Prince's birthplace and home base, I became much more aware of his music and his contribution to what's known as the Minneapolis sound.

Yet even though Prince's music didn't always, er, grab me, his look – especially his early look – certainly did.

It was a look that exuded sexual awareness, availability, and confidence. As a closeted and somewhat fearful gay boy, I took note of how Prince appeared totally comfortable wearing next-to-nothing, and how he didn't seem to have the need to pose in stereotypical macho ways. There was an openness and a vulnerability in his masculinity that I found, and still find, incredibly attractive (and which, in my own way today, I seek to emulate).

Only later did I realize how groundbreaking such a combined display of sexiness and vulnerability was for a man to embody – and, in particular, for a black man within the hyper-macho black culture of that era.

I guess another way of speaking about all of this is to say that Prince wasn't afraid to break certain taboos around gender and sexuality, primarily by mixing and matching certain qualities and attitudes – to engage in genderfuckery, as one commentator calls it. Prince could, for example, excel at looking demure and vulnerable (qualities our society generally assigns to women) while at the same time convey a sexy self-confidence bordering on the, well, cocksure.

I also appreciated (and, truth-be-told, was turned-on by) the fact that physically, like so many men in the 1970s and early '80s, Prince had a very natural masculine beauty. By this I mean he clearly wasn't an over-pumped-up gym bunny. Yet he was still incredibly sexy, as I'm sure you'll see by the images I've chosen to accompany this post.

Following are comments I've come across today in various tributes to Prince that explore his taboo- and rule-breaking charism in relation to gender and sexuality.

He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots, epic. He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.

When I showed my teenager pictures of Prince, she said: “He looks disgusting.” Well, precisely. Did I actually fancy this rather strange little satyr of a man in his funny heels? He confused me, so I was never actually sure what I felt, except what I knew the music made me feel. To see him live was to a see a performer who seemed capable of having sex with every individual member of the audience. . . . Much has been well said about his sexual ambiguity, which opened up new ways for so many other artists to be. But Prince was doing something perverse on every level, pushing every conventional signifier of race or sex past its limit. This queerness was the beginning, not the end point of desire. What was subversive was that it really didn’t matter how you got off – as long as you did.

His ability to embody the feminine, to utilise it, to play with it – I find androgynous absolutely the wrong word for him – made him unbelievably seductive. Here was a man singing about female desire in a way women understood. His absolute cockiness was always present alongside his willingness to be objectified: a killer combo.

– Suzanne Moore
Excerpted from "Prince Didn't Write About Sex.
He Was Sex
The Guardian
April 22, 2016

Prince repelled and fascinated me because he represented every side of all the contradictions I felt. I felt nervous even looking at him, and yet I couldn’t look away. What would it mean if I opened myself up to the letting go of all those rules he seemed to have dispensed with? That purple clothing, those high heels and ruffled shirts: was he proudly feminine, or so secure in his masculinity he didn’t mind others questioning it? That small frame and that tight, small butt that seemed to leave him “shaking that ass, shaking that ass” for men and women alike? Who was he trying to turn on with "Sexy MF" or "Cream" – and what if someone thought I wasn’t getting turned on by his big-haired dancers, but by the artist himself?

Prince was a paradox in that he expanded the concept of what it meant to be a man while also deconstructing the entire idea of gender. Like Michael Jackson, Prince seemed to perform a kind of black masculinity that was neither neutered nor completely in line with the hypermasculinity so common in the rap coming out of nearby Los Angeles at the same time. It was as fluid and luscious as his long eyelashes, and as delicious looking as those lips of his – and it seemed to welcome everyone. His gaze was as slippery, self-assured and questioning as his music itself. And when those eyes of his (paired with the light scruff around his mouth) caught yours from an album cover, almost daring you to look away with their confidence, they also seemed to know you’d be powerless not to.

– Steven W. Thrasher
Excerpted from "Prince Broke All the Rules
About What Black American Men Should Be
The Guardian
April 21, 2016

[Prince] inlaid his albums with brazen pansexuality and gender norm coquetry – provocations made all the more potent by his staggering talents as a singer, hook-writer, and guitar shredder. Years before the leaders of the gay and lesbian community began to embrace a more nuanced, less binary notion of queerness – and decades before transgender and genderqueer politics became mainstream topics of interest – Prince presented a living case study in the glorious freedom a world without stringent labels might offer.

“I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I’m something that you’ll never understand,” Prince sang on 1984’s “I Would Die 4 U.” He was right – few could claim to fully grasp Prince’s easy embodiment of both maleness and femaleness. His schooled evasion of conventional classifiers made him endlessly fascinating.

. . . For fans, Prince’s expansive presentation of gender and sexuality offered promise of a more honest, open existence. “I became unafraid to display the many stereotypically feminine qualities that were within me,” StainedGlassBimbo, a self-described heterosexual man, wrote on a Prince fan forum. “[He showed me that] you don’t have to be a masculine in order to be a man.” Another message board commenter marveled at Prince’s macho braggadocio wrapped in the trappings of the fairer sex: “Here was a man wearing lace and jewels – and he's singing of having sex with women in ways I didn't even know existed!”

. . . In 2006, gay musician Rufus Wainwright wrote in the Guardian that Prince’s genderfuckery is still unmatched in modern pop music. “It feels weird talking about Prince as a gay icon now, but you have to applaud a black man in the American record industry who could be so playful with androgyny,” Wainwright wrote.

– Christina Cauterucci
Excerpted from "How Prince Led the Way
to Our Gender Fluid Present
April 21, 2016

I wasn't sure if he was straight, gay, bi, or even male or female – such was the fluid electricity of his persona, one that galvanized our puritanical country long before gender became everyday discourse, filling it with the throbbing sounds of passion while celebrating the fabulous freak, the defiant outsider, and the dark dandy.

. . . To me – and many other gays searching for meaningful role models – he was an LGBT icon, implicitly representing sexual freedom and acceptance, especially since he so emphatically endorsed fruity fashion, Liberace-style home décor, and anything-goes lyrics, accompanied by pulsing rhythms that hammered sex and sexuality into your soul as you danced it off.

– Michael Musto
Excerpted from "Why Prince Was an LGBTQ Hero
– And a Nightmare
April 22, 2016

Prince helped redefine notions about black masculinity by challenging ideas about gender and sexuality not only in his appearance, but through his music. He actively questioned the idea that presenting as feminine or androgynous somehow dictates one's sexual orientation. Prince was soft. He was all frills and satin, lycra and lace. He was all those things, and he loved women. A lot. His highly sexual, complex relationship to women (Apollonia, Vanity, and so on) challenged the idea that being "soft" meant being gay. It was the perfect demonstration of how gender expression and sexuality are not the same thing. It was a reminder that black masculinity, constantly policed and undermined, could be redefined.

The narrative around Prince, gleaned from his persona and his music, was that he toyed with duality – masculine and feminine, black and white. But the beauty of Prince’s pushing of societal boundaries was that he exposed our own preoccupations with placing people, especially black people, in boxes. His racial ambiguity didn’t detract from his blackness, and his feminine aesthetic did not make him any less of a man. . . . The fact that, even after all the brave and bold expressions of masculinity he introduced to the world, he still seemed to struggle with other forms of gender and sexual expression later in his life says a lot about the ways those boxes creep back up on us.

– Zeba Blay
Excerpted from "Prince’s Revolutionary and
Complicated Relationship With Black Masculinity
HuffPost Black Voices
April 22, 2016

In politics, as in so many things, Prince [tried] to transcend the binary. This led him [after becoming a devout Jehovah’s Witness in 2001] to a stance on queer people that, at best, can be described as confusing. Perhaps he saw that the conversation on the issue had become too rote, too obvious, with much of the transgressive edge behind calls for liberation drained away by the simple march of progress. It was progress he helped cause, regardless of how he later felt about it.

– Spencer Kornhaber
Excerpted from "Prince: Gay Icon,
Whether He Wanted to Be or Not
The Atlantic
April 22, 2016

I had the good fortune of seeing Prince close to a dozen times. It was as spiritual an experience as I’d ever had; community and connection I’d never been a part of. I can distinctly remember that first time I saw Prince at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater, looking around the arena and thinking: “These are my people!”

It turns out I felt at perfectly at home with the freaks. This was family.

And among so many other gifts, this was the very solitary magic of Prince. He brought completely disparate groups of humanity together and made them feel they fit. He transcended musical genres and broke through color lines and challenged gender roles, and he boldly declared the dance floor big enough for all of us and open all night. And in that joyful and free place, we all danced.

When you were at a Prince show, you were the right color, the right shape, the right religion, the right you. And in that space you felt free in your own skin, and deeply connected to those around you in ways that defy explanation.

– John Pavlovitz
Excerpted from "How Prince Gave All the Freaks a Dance Floor"
April 21, 2016

Prince was protean; there were – there are – millions of Princes, one for each fan. For me, his preternatural virtuosity was imposing but not inhibiting; his larkish faith in the moment – in perfect absences, inspired accidents, arresting convergences, towering harmonies – showed even those of us of modest proficiency that every idea ought to be chased at a gallop, that a good idea is one that feels good tonight, and if it doesn’t feel good in the morning, that’s OK; another one is on its way. He taught me, long before I read such things in books, that sexuality was fluid, that partners should equally give and receive pleasure, that real liberation depends on all of us and is possible. He reminded us that a single artist could use vanguardism as mass culture's minor seventh, that technical prowess was about dirtily programmed drum machines as much as it was about dazzling guitar fills. I’m proud to have lived near him.

– John Pavlovitz
Excerpted from "How Minneapolis Made Prince"
April 22, 2016

[With the deaths of David Bowie and Prince] we’ve lost two men who had an expansive, almost luxuriant vision of what it meant to be a man and lived out that vision through decades when it was much less safe to do so. . . . But if conventional notions of gender were only one of the things that didn’t constrain Bowie and Prince, their transcendence of this particular category is still a particularly significant part of their legacies. In the clothes they wore, the lean bodies they lived in, the way they positioned themselves in their music and art, their relationships to LGBT communities and in so many other ways, Prince and Bowie were living arguments that there is no one way, and no correct way for a man to dress, to move, to decide what he values, to choose who he loves or where he stands in relation to that person.

– Alyssa Rosenberg
Excerpted from "Mourning Prince and David Bowie,
Who Showed There’s No One Right Way to Be a Man
The Washington Post
April 21, 2016

How milquetoast, New York Times. [Prince] didn't "defy" shit. He fucked what the NYT so daintily described as "conventional notions of race and gender" hard, and dared you to say anything about it.

A black man, practically naked on his first album cover in 1978 – there was nothing more menacing than that then. Race, gender, sexuality, he fucked his way through all of those taboos, and it was both scary and thrilling. And he got by with it because he had the talent to back it up. And that's just a little bit of why we already miss him so hard.

Jim Burroway
via Facebook
(in response to the New York Times story,
"Prince Defied Conventional Notions of Race and Gender"
April 21, 2016

If you can’t fully embrace the humanity of the Princes walking around your community – the ones being bullied, disrespected, dehumanized, assaulted, and killed on a daily basis – I’m going to have a difficult time believing the sincerity of your outpouring of love and respect for the Purple One today. Prince had the inner fortitude, and perhaps external supports, to be his damn self and reach his potential….despite you. And though his ascension into super stardom -and the money, fame, and celebrity deification that come with – may have afforded him some protection from perspectives like yours, the truth remains many of you would have hated him if you actually knew him.

. . . If you’re unapologetically queerphobic, transphobic, homophobic, or against anyone having the audacity to live outside of your norms as it pertains to sexual and/or gender expression…you are not a Prince fan. Maybe you’re a fan of what you have told yourself Prince is, but certainly not a fan of the man who (through his words, music, messages, and performance) left no doubt about who he truly was and what he stood for.

Natasha Thomas-Jackson
Excerpted from "The Impossibility of Loving Prince
While Hating Queerness
The (Be)-Girl Manifesta
April 21, 2016

Prince was and always will be a default frame of reference for boys, particularly black boys, who feel left of center, eccentric – and fluid. Like the symbol that briefly became his moniker, much of what made Prince magical can't be pigeonholed, and we won't attempt to. Instead, we honor his ambiguity, mystery and genius, which told so many that the spectrum in which they themselves lived, created and loved in had value.

Continue clutching them titties, sir. We hope the paradise you're in now is music-filled, purple (obviously) and big enough for your beauty.

April 21, 2016

"A strong spirit transcends rules."

– Prince

Related Off-site Links:
Prince, Singer and Superstar, Dies Aged 57 at Paisley ParkBBC News (April 21, 2016).
Prince May Have Died Days After an Opiate Overdose of Percocet, a Prescription Painkiller – Edwin Rios (Mother Jones, April 22, 2016).
"He's With Our Son Now": Prince’s Ex-Wife Mayte Garcia Says She's "Deeply Saddened and Devastated" – Carly Ledbetter (The Huffington Post, April 21, 2016).
Prince: A Shy, Nonconformist, Unknowable Talent – Alexis Petridis (The Guardian, April 22, 2016).
How Prince Gave All the Freaks a Dance Floor – John Pavlovitz (, April 22, 2016).
Prince Gave Black Kids Permission to Be Weirdos – Michelle Garcia (Vox, April 21, 2016).
Prince Was an Activist Who Fought for Justice Every Chance He Got – Madhuri Sathish (Bustle, April 21, 2016).
How Prince Became an Enduring Political Symbol – Lilly Workneh (HuffPost Black Voices, April 22, 2016).
How Minneapolis Made Prince – Dylan Hicks (Slate, April 22, 2016).
"He Was Ours": Mourning the Loss of Prince, Music Genius and Eternal Seeker – David Walsh (MinnPost, April 21, 2016).
The Prince I Knew – Tavis Smiley (USA Today, April 23, 2016).
When Prince Met Kate Bush – Daisy Jones (Noisey, April 22, 2016).
Prince Rogers Nelson – Alicia Garza (, April 23, 2016).
The World Lights Up Purple for Prince – Lydia O’Connor (HuffPost Entertainment, April 21, 2016).
Prince: Every Album Rated – and Ranked – Simon Price (The Guardian, April 22, 2016).
25 Years On: Lovesexy by Prince Revisited – David Bennun (The Quietus, July 10, 2013).
This is Already the Saddest Year in Music History – Carly Ledbetter (HuffPost Black Voices, April 21, 2016).
Why We Grieve Artists We've Never Met, in One Tweet – Caroline Framke (Vox, April 21, 2016).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
David Bowie: Queer Messiah
Rockin' with Maxwell
A Fresh Take on Masculinity

1 comment:

Mary Lynn Murphy said...

Terrific article, Michael. Great quotes. His guitar skills were heart-wrenching. As I watch some of his videos I am stunned by his performance, passion, and presence. He embodies extreme sex appeal – for anyone of any age, I would say. Your photos are eye popping! A huge loss for the music world and for free gender expression.