A tribute to Prince by John Robb
Beyond genre like any great artist Prince turned art into pop and lived his life like he floated through it. He was beyond genre and beyond the time that he didn’t believe and like all the great pop stars seemed to float in from another planet to play his extraordinary music like was some sort of flamboyant conduit for an alien life force.
From his 1978 For You debut album he seemed to appear to perfectly out place in the middle of the post punk/disco stand off with no real musical precedents. Quickly establishing himself as an exotic, ethereal insanely talented purveyor of sex music with his stocking and sexed up sci Fi superfunk. He floated past with studied bemusement at the music media’s total failure of where to place him. He existed like some kind of new generation Marc Bolan who was born to endlessly boogie and he had that same kind of exotic gift for dayglo pop genius, quicksilver poetry and an endless rush of music that seemed to be pouring our of him.
A modern day Mozart, his outrageous genius was treated as some kind of ego driven pomposity by the terrified monochromatic humans who tried to grapple with his one man mission to create an intergalactic funkoid ooze in the middle of the stark post punk battlefield. Whilst the rest of the music scene was superbly black and white Prince was of course, purple. Both ends of the spectrum were fine by most of us.
Unlike the brilliant Bolan he never had the tap turned off and was recording and touring at the top of his fame to his death. In the past few years his all consuming passion for music had seen him shapeshift away from boring stuff like recording contracts and labels and conventions touring to owning his own music and releasing what he wanted to and when felt like it or playing secret gigs in near empty rooms because no-one even knew he was in town and then selling out a stadium a week later. All the great artists exist beyond the law.
His music could be anything. In the deep space of true creativity mere mortal constraints of genre count for nothing and trying to place his music is a fools errand. But we can try. When he went all psychedelic it was like with the effortless touch of his near psychic neighbor Sly Stone but without destroying himself doing it or it could be like the Strawberry Fields Beatles that you could dance to. There was so many styles mashed up into art that you can barely unpick them. He could raise a very jaunty hat to Jimi Hendrix in terms of guitar virtuosity and beyond the planet freedom from restriction – that visual and sartorial, high decibel genius for not sounding trapped by anything as dull as convention. Few people dare to step beyond the conventional and that clod hoppered adherence to genre and market place. Prince floated like the Ali Butterfly around those lumpen dullard opponents because he was outrageously gifted and because he could play any style of music he chose to. He could outplay anyone who crossed him and, because he was totally immersed in music- famously never sleeping until those sonic visions in his head were fully released, he could exist spectral like beyond the straitjacket of the day to day.
What Prince also brilliantly realized was that you have to look like what you sound like – none of this casual clothes/casual mind palaver for him or none of that nine to five, clock on clock off Colplay hard graft for him. It’s hard to imagine him spending a mundane minute in his life – even if he had to clean his toilet he would be dressed in some kind of flamboyant finery – every minute his head must have been blooming like the greatest flower garden full of ideas and then he had the skills and musicianship to realise all of them and that was his genius. His endlessly permutating wardrobe, in many ways just like his music was feminine kitsch, space age, regency jams, glam rock star, hippie guru, Booty funk strut and like the New York Dolls had once done he made dressing like a girl look somehow masculine.
If his music was shapeshifting from power ballads like Purple Rain to the quixotic nu funk of When Doves Cry or from the stark and stripped down brilliance of Sign O’ The Times or the emotion steeped Nothing Compares 2 U to or from the perfection of the James Brown funk turned into the S.E.X. Sex of Kiss or the bubblegum – psych pop – genius of Raspberry Beret it was almost the simplest thing about him.
His own personality was always a mass of thrilling contradictions, from the Jehovahs Witness who knocked on doors pushing their bible story to the sexed up, sex machine whose songs dripped the sweat of carnal against the moral code of the modern bible – that fierce faultline that runs through American pop culture from Little Richard to the modern day. That nerve ending that was as if to shoe horn the orgasm and the spellbound and the spiritual into one classic pop hit. So many have tried and so few have succeeded because, and surely it was Prince’s greatest trick, to somehow cram so much music and so much contradictory lifestyles and so much flamboyance and ideas into deceptively simple and yet brilliant pop songs.
This was because like all the greats he took the complex and made it simple. He took high art hosannas and tuned them into pop gems which even the cowardly gnomes of lumpy daytime radio could play without even tapping into their brilliant content.
All in all it was Prince’s true genius to create his own world which we all wanted to live in and a world where pop music is everything.