Prince, and the Flight of Eros
Another word to describe the music that catapulted a hyper-talented Minneapolis teenager to international stardom in the 1970s and 80s would be less than apt.
Sure, it was for the welcome-to-MTV crossover hits, “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret” that many remember Prince (1958-2016), but what launched his career, leading to seven Grammy awards and hit songs for other stars (Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks, Celine Dion, Chaka Khan and even Tom Jones) was a raunchy, rhythmic foray into popular culture the likes of which America had never seen and could barely sustain. With the 1981 release of Prince’s third album Dirty Mind, which included the songs “Head” and “Do it All Night,” we were only a generation in time from the mid-1950s Ed Sullivan/Elvis Presley hip-shaking controversy but a galaxy away culturally.
It was clear that in R&B and now Funk circles, Prince would have none of the anodyne, “Boogie,” and “Keep on Truckin’,” language of the 70s. He aspired to put the “n” in nasty. “Do Me Baby,” the longest track from his fourth album Controversy, begins with the following lyrics:
Here we are in this big old empty room,
Staring each other down
You want me just as much as I want you,
Let’s stop fooling around
Take me baby, kiss me all over…[i]
The salacious spiral, downward. Prince mastered it. His early songs, “Let’s Work,” Sexy Dancer,” “Soft and Wet,” and more graphic titles still conveyed the barely contained frenzy that only attends the erotic (at times, Prince couldn’t contain it -- his disturbing, line-crossing hit “Lady Cab Driver” is one example). Yet, his musical talent bore lasting uniqueness. The 1980s were the “Golden Age” of the Funk genre, with talent abounding in artists such as O’Bryan, Lilo Thomas, Kashif, Morris Day and Steve Arrington; herein Prince would distinguish himself (10 albums and 4 wide-release films from 1980-1990). His preening effrontery would continue to join the sultry to song and the spasm to dance, long past the decade’s end (he was still scheduled to perform the month of his untimely death). Publicly petulant, sartorially fatuous (ruffled shirts and platform shoes) and ego-driven (the short-lived name change to an unpronounceable symbol says much), from tour to tour the five-foot-two inch Prince would flit across the stage, revealing Eros incarnate.
More would be revealed, including our understanding of the place -- and limits -- for the erotic in culture, specifically in music.
How could, did Prince get away with songs (and during the Reagan era), such as “Feel U Up” and those he wrote for others “Get it Up” (performed by The Time) and “Nasty Girl” (written for Vanity 6) to such success: the international fandom of millions and an estate valued at death in the nine figures? Seemingly, with Prince, the raunchy would roil and trump traditional notions of decency -- but in reality, not to the point of redefining mores or presenting any lasting challenge to moral standards. Prince couldn’t do this -- because Eros couldn’t (and shouldn’t: temperance and prudence are to be exercised for measure and propriety). It is not in the nature of the winged Greek god to triumph. No news here: sexual desire is fleeting in act and person, prone to dissipation, enervation, subject to a god far stronger: time. Though Prince’s audience, the youthful, experience sexual desire at its peak, they are the first to realize its limits -- and purpose -- and also recognize its creative outlets elsewhere, music being the prime example. In his Politics, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), reminds us of the relationship between passion and music in his description of the flute:
Besides the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it
Is too exciting. The proper time for using it is when the performance aims not
At instruction, but at the relief of the passions.[ii]
The description applies to the discography of Minneapolis’s favorite son. His music is Aristotle’s flute in intention, performance and effect. He could hold the audience in sway and allow desire to soar, but for the moment, giving Eros its due and no more.
Tim Weldon teaches Philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois