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Prince does not dress like your average rock star. Not for him the futuristic, stretchy costumes of the Commodores, or the raggedy jeans of the Bruce Springsteen types. He wears bright eye makeup, and his hair seems a cross between Little Richard and neorockabilly styles. He dresses in his own rococo street-kid fashion. Last year, when Prince won an award from a Minneapolis weekly newspaper for Minnesota Musician of the year, he showed up in his most formal clothes – black trench coat and white go-go boots (his acceptance speech: "When do they give the award for the best ass?").
And he's been known to perform in nothing but boots and a pair of bikini underpants. It's quite an act – that lean, almost nude body singing no-holds-barred lyrics. "How come you don't call me?" he wails in gospel falsetto in one song. "Don't you wanna play with my tootsie roll?" And he entreats his audiences into the singalong to "Head" – "I'll give you head, love you till you're dead."
It's sexy, sure – girls screech whenever he tosses black lace bikini underwear into the audience – but it's also very funny. Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye and Richard "Dimples" Fields are all out of the same school of seduction, but Prince seems to have been off studying with Mae West, learning high camp and low-rent vamping. He's developed a great sense of humor, even if he takes his sex-is-liberation politics very seriously. And from the giddy "Gotta Stop Messin' About" to "Let's Work," nobody has so well expressed the exhilarating freedom of adolescent sexual energy since Michael Jackson yelped "I Want You Back."
"Prince has brought a boldness out of black entertainers again," says Alexander (O'Neill – there's a penchant for first names only in this crowd), a Minneapolis singer who fronted an early version of the Time. "Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard – they always dressed bizarre. Now Prince is doing it in a new era. He's making a lot of entertainers wake up to things. You're making a statement in life. It's all about being your own self. Like Prince says, 'It's all about being free.'"
Why so much sex? someone asked him once. "My songs are more about love than they are about sex," he answered. "I don't consider myself a great poet, or interpreter à la Moses. I just know I'm here to say what's on my mind, and I'm in a position where I can do that. It would be foolish for me to make up stories about going to Paris, knocking off the queen and things of that nature."
Prince was just seventeen when he co-wrote, with studio owner Chris Moon, the single from his first LP, a song called "Soft and Wet." Already, they had considered the commercial potential of an innocent sexuality. "That was the original concept," says Moon, "and it's stayed true to that. I had a conversation with him on the phone about a year ago, and I said, 'I see you're still staying with the "Soft and Wet" theme. But you're making it a little more blatant. What is this I hear about "Head"?' And he goes, 'Yeah, well, I decided to make it a little more straightforward so that everyone would get it.'"
Everyone does seem to be getting it these days, including Prince's dad. "When I first played the Dirty Mind album for him," Prince has said of his father, "he said, 'You're swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?' And I said, 'Because I swear.'"
Prince, apparently, is not a character played out in the music. "His persona is Prince, onstage and offstage," says his friend and personal manager, Steve Fargnoli. "He's just as outspoken and outrageous offstage, in his business dealings." But he is shy, Fargnoli adds, and he says what he has to say about his politics and music on his records, not in conversation. And soon, he'll be saying it all in a movie: Prince has written the film treatment and most of the score for a musical that he'll also act in. "He is demanding of himself and of everyone who works around him," says Fargnoli. "You always have to be on your toes. He doesn't play by the rules."
The rules he plays by, instead, are his rules. He comes on strong. Is he – with his androgynous look, his royal name and his sex-mad lyrics – scarier to white audiences than Mr. T? Album-oriented radio is certainly skittish about playing Prince, saying that funk doesn't cut it with their heavy-metal-loving listeners. On the other hand, his videos are popular with MTV viewers. Prince's audience actually seems to be as integrated as that of the old soul stars (Prince's management company estimates his concert audiences to be forty percent white). People who like, say, James Brown have found Prince, and they like the way he uses elements of rock & roll while keeping an R&B backbone in the music.
And although armchair sociologists might suggest that a really outrageous performer has a better chance of succeeding in conservative times like these and may cite Little Richard's reign in the Fifties as an example, neither Little Richard nor Prince would have made a dent in the music market without talent. Prince, whose refusal to speak to the press has made him less visible than other musicians, probably is popular in spite of, not because of, his image. After all, he has a following of people caught up in the visceral charge of his music, not an audience of voyeurs.
He can count among his fans John Cougar, who was so impressed on hearing Prince's "Little Red Corvette" that he started touting Prince to his own concert audiences. Before 20,000 fans in Tulsa, he ran backstage to get his cassette deck, then played a tape of Prince's hit single into his microphone. For the LP Cougar is producing for Mitch Ryder, the first 45 is likely to be Ryder's recording of Prince's "When You Were Mine." And Cougar has – unsuccessfully, so far – been trying to get a message to Prince: would he sing on Cougar's new album?
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