I saw Prince play once. I was bored rigid but couldn’t mention this to the girls I’d gone with: as far as they were concerned, watching the purple sex dwarf (he was 5ft 2in) masturbating with and fellating his guitar and generally getting off on his sublime pixieness was like experiencing the second coming. Me, I could have done with a few more tunes.
I like ‘When Doves Cry’ a lot: the keyboard hook, the demonic guitar, the naggingly catchy tune, the otherworldly vocals that make him sound like some kind of lascivious reptile from Venus. Whenever I hear it, though, I’m reminded of my fundamental problem with Prince: he was a really great pop star who wouldn’t do pop. Instead, profligately talented multi-instrumentalist that he was (he played guitar better than any other guitarist, they said, and drummed better than any drummer), he was more interested in showing off and pushing boundaries than in writing catchy singles.
This is why chin-stroking critics worshipped him: in contrast to Michael Jackson, Prince was the weirdo recluse pop genius it was safe to like because he continually challenged you — or, as I’d prefer to think of it, took the piss (all those tiresome name changes) and tested your patience (pretentious orthography, as in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’). But then, admittedly, I never got to go to one of his legendary secret aftershow gigs which were, apparently, like, totally amazing and went on for hours and no doubt made you feel part of the muso elect.
When I vouchsafed some of this on social media the day he died, I found the crossest reactions came from a) girls and b) kids who had embraced Prince as an early adopter of all that gender-fluidity idiocy currently so fashionable on campus. That makes sense. Unlike, say, Led Zeppelin, Prince always struck me as a girls’ idea of what rock music ought to sound like — not so much about the riffs and bombastic epic quality that boys like as about the utterly filthy 50 Shades of Grey interior stuff where each track feels like an act of debauched sexual communion. Listen to ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ and you’ll get the idea. It’s not a song written for boys; it’s written so that Prince can shag their women while their menfolk look helplessly on.
And, yes, of course Prince was very androgynous and bisexual and — ugh! — gender fluid. (At the time, I found this quite creepy and sinister and pervy: well it was, wasn’t it — Prince was a lech who just oozed sex, which was fine if you fancied him but less so otherwise. But you’re not allowed to say that any more.)
Then again, so was David Bowie, who was far more influential and whose talents went a lot further. Perhaps it was just bad luck, but Prince’s heyday — at the end of the Eighties — coincided with that musical dead zone just before acid house arrived and dance music saved the world. Prince’s stuff sounds to me like a wrong alley — an interesting period piece where funk and rock and R&B and soul collide, but to no great purpose. I don’t think you can hear his influence anywhere today, which may be to his advantage: it means Prince will never date.