Prince: Nothing Compared 2 Him
He truly exploded a year later with Dirty Mind, preaching his gospel in “Uptown,” his ode to Minneapolis Sex City as a free-love utopia full of fluid boundaries and open possibilities, no racial or cultural or gender turf wars, white or black or Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’. “It’s all about being free,” he screamed, and he gave that freedom a sound. You could hear him imagine that freedom in a manifesto like “Sexuality,” a non-hit from 1981, a song I only discovered when Billy Idol played it the night he was a guest VJ on MTV. The music had shameless disco beats, Euro-gloss synth-pop, rock guitar, gender-bending squeals; the lyrics were a call to arms for hedonists and life-lovers to fight back against the double-drag prudes. “We live in a world overrun by tourists,” Prince sneered. “They look at life through a pocket camera. What — no flash again?” Talk about a prophet: Prince was commanding you to smash your cellphone and live in the moment years before your cellphone was even invented.
Prince was the artist in the Eighties who kept everybody guessing year to year what he’d try next, scrapping the formula he ruled the radio with last year to try something different, dropping a new art-damaged (yet chart-topping) manifesto each summer the way the Beatles and Bowie and Dylan used to do. He was one of the world’s biggest stars, yet he operated with the weirdness of a small-time cult artist. At a time when pop was cowed by the past, Prince was the guy who refused to concede a thing to nostalgia, determined to go up against all the giants of pop/rock/R&B history and top them all, doing the twist a little bit harder than they did in ’66, a little bit faster than they did in ’67, to shut up everybody who wanted to surrender to the past. He went up against the whole pop tradition and showed it no mercy, but showed it how to grind.
So he moved from Dirty Mind and Controversy to expansive New Wave apocalypse (1999) to guitar-hero rock (Purple Rain) to kiddie psych-fluff (Around the World in a Day) to minimal funk (Parade) to the expansive double-album genre-devouring triumph of Sign O’ the Times. Some of these experiments were flops (have you listened to Side Two of Around the World in a Day lately?) while some of his best songs remained throwaways, like “Good Love,” which would have been one of the three or four best songs on Sign O’ the Times, except he buried it on the soundtrack to the 1988 Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. “Gustav Mahler Number Three is jamming on the box / I’ll have another glass of you, this time on the rocks” — now there’s a Prince lyric. That was the nature of the game he was playing, at a time when everyone else at his level (even Bowie!) seemed to be playing it safe.
He loved to do souped-up perved-out versions of other people’s music; he loved to steal in a way that made Bowie or the Stones or Stevie Wonder look like dabblers. And the remarkable thing was how he inspired other artists to rise to his challenge. The reason 1984 was the greatest pop radio summer ever was that everybody was trying to make their own Prince record, while Prince was already a year ahead of everyone else. So Van Halen hit Number One with “Jump,” knocking off the “Dirty Mind” synth hook, while Prince hit Number One with “Let’s Go Crazy,” where he tried to sound like Van Halen and beat them at their own moves.