Why you should care
Because Prince just got the generation that fell somewhere in-between, and we always salute the ones who make zeitgeists.
Early on, around the time Prince released Dirty Mind and Controversy in 1980 and 1981, I swore allegiance to his Purple Majesty. So did all my friends. He was crazy-talented, a modern Mozart, a one-man band serving up the funk. And, let’s just say it: He was cute. Want proof? Check out a touring photo exhibit of a very young Prince.
With these early albums, Prince established his freaky bona fides: He permed his ‘fro and sported eyeliner, thongs and garter belts while singing enthusiastically about all kinds of kinky sex. Somehow, he made it all look masculine; soon, straight boys around the country were ringing their eyes in kohl, too. (Most skipped the garter belts.) Further adding to his allure, Prince shrouded himself in mystery, rarely doing interviews and making cryptic references to his background: Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay? Way ahead of the curve, he created a multiculti, gender-bending world where black girls sounded like white girls and white girls sounded like black girls, and when it came to partying, everybody was invited: White, black, Puerto Rican / Everybody just a freakin’.
Prince tapped into the angst of a subgeneration, those of us sandwiched between the real boomers and Gen Xers.
So by 1982, when Prince released 1999, his fifth studio album, we were primed for what would become the definitive rock/R&B/funk/New Wave/erotic album of the decade. 1999 catapulted Prince into the mainstream, reaching multiplatinum status in record sales, and establishing him as a pop icon, becoming one of the first black artists to get regular airplay on MTV.
There’s a reason for this: With 1999, Prince tapped into the angst of a subgeneration, those of us sandwiched between the real boomers and Gen Xers. We were integration babies coming of age with Ronald Reagan as president; the early ‘80s were a time of disaffection. By the time we hit college, the economy was in the toilet, disco was dead and Gordon Gekko-esque yuppies ruled. As kids, we watched the real boomers protest, tune in and drop out, but by the time we hit our teens, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to be protesting. We were left with the drugs and not much else, truly rebels without a cause.
With 1999, his first double album, Prince became the voice for all that defiance looking for a target — and he set it to a booty-shaking beat. Back then, the year 2000 sounded like another world — or rather, the end of it. We grew up with the specter of nuclear war hanging over our heads, when it really felt like it could all end at any minute with the push of a button.
Prince hit puberty after the sexual revolution — and like the rest of us, he was still trying to figure out what it all meant.
Prince got that. Our worries were his worries. The title song, brooding and fretful, explored fears about an impending apocalypse. It opened with a robotic voice intoning, Don’t worry; I won’t hurt you / I only want you to have some fun, before bursting into a pounding, New Wave-y dance anthem. His solution to the bad news on the telly? D.M.S.R., or Dance, Music, Sex, Romance, a full on embrace of nihilism. Prince, born in the late ‘50s, hit puberty after the sexual revolution and the advent of “the pill” — and like the rest of us, he was still trying to figure out what it all meant. You hear that confusion in the lyrics to the rollicking Let’s Pretend We’re Married, where the protagonist can’t decide if he wants matrimony — or a really raunchy one-night stand.
1999 was on constant rotation in many a Walkman. We didn’t just dance to it, though dance we did. We parsed his clever lyrics for hidden meanings. Was Little Red Corvette about a car — or some wayward woman? What’s up with the screams at the end of Lady Cab Driver? For all the f*** it, let’s f*** philosophizing, when listening to 1999, you never got the feeling all that sex helped Prince resolve his fears of an impending 21st-century Armageddon. His God, “the creator of man,” is an ever-present force, watching and taking notes.
Today, Prince is a lot less mysterious, seemingly a lot more comfortable playing front and center. He’s still cranking out albums at a prodigious clip. But now he’s ditched the perm for another ‘fro and appeared in the post-Super Bowl episode of New Girl alongside Zooey Deschanel (what was that about?). In Sochi, U.S. Olympic skater Jason Brown, 19, skated to The Purple One’s The Question of U while sporting a blinged-out Prince symbol on his back.
Thirty-two years later, Prince is still inspiring generations of rebels with/without a cause.