You know…like that rad BBC program (Linton Kwesi Johnson, as one might expect, has great taste except for the inclusion of fucking Imagine; Simon Cowell has some remarkably shitty choices considering his Big-Dick-Producer prominence on American Golden Calf; Kristin Scott Thomas adorably includes one of the songs from the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon, the mostly terrible Prince post-Purple Rain vanity project that was her film debut.)
In no particular order. Completed as I feel like it. One album. One song from the album. And plenty of babble.
THE ALBUM: Prince, Sign ‘O’ the Times
THE SONG: “Adore”
1987. Iran-Contra. Jim ‘n’ Tammy Faye. “Tear down this wall.” Baby Jessica. The first intifada. My second birthday. And Prince’s ninth album: “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” The number nine is telling – by his twenty-ninth birthday, the astoundingly prolific Prince had recorded nine albums, one a year since the late 1970s, of which three were good and six were truly excellent (five of those coming in a row). Lesser artists have achieved greater reputations with smaller outputs – Michael Jackson at the height of his powers only managed Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and the lackluster Dangerous before being utterly undone by pedophilia, paranoia and a maladroit scalpel – but none of them can lay claim to capping a nearly decade-long winning streak with one of the most stunning tours de force in pop music.
Prince didn’t change his given name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol glyph until 1993, the first instance of pop culture infamy I became aware of during my childhood, but the growing disdain for conventional graphemes that led to the adoption of the Love Symbol had already been hinted at by Sign ‘O’ the Times’ title, which replaced “of” with a peace symbol (Prince’s disdain for orthography, of course, had already been well-established, to the point where U probably don’t need 2 C an example).
The album begins on a dour note with its title track, a blippy catalogue of the social ills hanging over mid-’80s America, from AIDS to infanticide to exploding space shuttles, which despite its twitchy minimalist synth funk serves mostly as proof that regular updates on the activities of the humans are beamed into The Artist’s lace-draped purple bunker (see also “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” “America” and “Mr. Man” from Prince’s other albums). Prince isn’t touched by these concerns, but the fact that he even realizes they exist is encouraging – when Prince becomes aware enough of a cause to champion it, it has achieved maximum penetration into the social consciousness.
Scattered throughout the album is the detritus of one of Prince’s many aborted projects, a collection of songs recorded under the alias “Camille,” characterized by a pitch-modulated lady-voice and a pronouncedly feminine take on love and sex. Prince may not be the first male artist to write from the perspective of a woman, or whatever exactly Camille was intended to be, but he may well be the most confused.
Take “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” one of Prince’s greatest songs, and an unparalleled glimpse into the delicately-scented, ambiguously gendered carnal maelstrom that is the man’s id, an alternate, lavender-hued universe where there exists neither man nor woman, only excessively-mascaraed orifices making unlikely love to the persistent pop of robo-slap-bass. The song’s spoken coda, understandably excised from the single version, packs more sexual ambiguity into one minute than the entirety of David Bowie’s 1970s output. Lady Stardust, meet Camille:
“Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you wanna undress? We don’t have to make children to make love. And we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm. Your body is what I’m all about. Can I see it? I’ll show you. Why not? You can do it because I’m your friend, I’d do it for you. Of course I’d undress in front of you. And when I’m naked what shall I do? How can I make you see that it’s cool? Can’t you just trust me? If I was your girlfriend you could. Oh yeah, I think so. Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet. Would that get you off? Tell me what will! If I was your girlfriend would you tell me? Would you let me see you naked then? Would you let me give you a bath? Would you let me tickle you so hard you’d laugh and laugh? And would you, would you let me kiss you there – you know, down there where it counts? I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce! And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long, and together we’ll stare into silence. And we’ll try to imagine what it looks like. Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what…what silence looks like.”
One imagines that the woman, or man, or life-size cutout of Prince at the receiving end of this soliloquy probably responded: “Screw the naked ballet. You know what would get me off? If you could just penetrate me, move it in and out a few times, and then not cry after. That’s what I want silence to look like. You not holding me and crying.”
But seriously. What the fuck is going on here? On first perusal, the lyrics seem to be a man asking his reticent female lover if she would be more liberated were he a female friend rather than someone with a rich pelt of chest hair. But then, of course, we careen abruptly into the matter of kissing down there, where it counts, and subsequently drinking every ounce. Unless Prince, to paraphrase OutKast’s Big Boi, really knows what it feels like to have control over the G-spot, it seems unlikely that cunnilingus would culminate in an ounce-quaffing kind of situation. So that of course leaves us with the gender whose orgasms do tend to result in a technically potable concoction (I’m talking about men, for those of you who color outside the lines), but if “If I Was Your Girlfriend” were a song to a man, by a man, why the squeaky female voice, and why the reference to procreation, which, despite the best efforts of your friendly neighborhood lobbying group, is still something scientifically beyond the reach of the Wombless Masses? Either this is a mixed-up love ode to a Puritan squirter, or Prince spent biology class in high school inattentive, dreamily scribbling “Mrs. Prince Rogers Clinton” into the margins of his Lisa Frank notebook.
But being the funky bundle of leather-pantsed contradictions that he is, the Artist follows that inscrutable rulebook to the game of Musical Genders with a song about an emotionally abusive relationship, a song gently refusing an adulterous advance, and then, as if to Febreze away the reek of debauchery clinging to every lascivious word that came before it, a campfire-worthy song ’bout how we all needs to get saved by Jesus (“The Cross”). The tension between the sacred and profane has always been at the crux of great R&B, a tension which undid Little Richard, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, but even those luminaries didn’t brazenly plant their freak flag at Calvary’s summit like Prince does. Jesus himself is doubtless at a loss.
And so, with salvation thus assured, Prince wiggles into his skintight funk freak regalia for the live Revolution jam “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” plumbing the deep well of James Brownian incomprehensibility in the bass-thumping heart of every true soul man with Wizard of Oz chants, frequent exhortations to say things loud and lyrics like, “Every man a ninja, wid my chicken grease! Get wid it!” All he’s missing is a “HEH!” capping every impenetrable proclamation, a habit of James Brown’s brilliantly commented upon by the young Eddie Murphy (no, really, Eddie Murphy was once considered brilliant):
And then there’s “Adore.” On most of his albums, Prince apparently feels the need to balance his bold experimentation and genre-cruising with a reminder that, his competitors’ Pepsi endorsements and rhinoplasties be damned, he remains the preeminent vocalist of pop’s post-Gaye era. Before there were Controversy’s “Do Me Baby,” 1999’s “International Lover” and Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones,” but the definitive testament to the man’s magical vocal cords is “Adore,” a six-and-a-half minute flight of falsetto bearing the distinction of being the most genuinely sweet love song of Prince’s golden age. Prince usually saddles what we humans would call “affection” with turgid sexual come-ons, unstable histrionics or discomfiting religious analogies (or all three), but Adore mostly eschews all that. Oh, sure, it includes lines like, “When we be makin’ love, I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels cryin’ up above, tears of joy pourin’ down on us,” proving once again that the 1980s’ most sex-drenched pop star had more than a couple profound misconceptions about what is genuinely sexy (sex in a puddle of voyeuristic, lachrymose angels’ tears certainly isn’t) – but this is Prince possibly at his most sincere, and he even takes his sense of humor out of the Paisley Park vault for a rare appearance. “You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride,” he croons, then quickly checks himself: “Well, maybe not the ride.” It’s those goofy throwaway moments that remind us that even if Prince isn’t exactly an Earthling, he’s at least from a nearby planet – and he comes in peace, and funk.