MUSIC

A black star blazes in pop’s heavens

Nicholas Jennings December 3 1984
MUSIC

A black star blazes in pop’s heavens

Nicholas Jennings December 3 1984

A black star blazes in pop’s heavens

MUSIC

Nicholas Jennings

Seduction. It begins on a smoky stage, with a musical sermon preaching hedonism. It finishes two hours later in a shower of cascading guitar notes and mauve and crimson lights. Decked out in a ruffled shirt, skin-tight pants and lace gloves, the slim, sexually ambiguous figure of Prince delivers sensuous, provocative anthems about steamy sex and the Apocalypse. Like a mass pagan ritual, a concert by pop’s new messiah turns newcomers into believers. His records are just as potent. This year Prince became the only recording artist to match Michael Jackson’s feat of simultaneously holding down the number 1 spot on five different charts (pop, black, dance, single and album) in Billboard. Now the high priest of funk is taking his Purple Rain Tour across North America, with two sold-out Toronto shows on Dec. 4 and possible dates in Montreal and Vancouver in 1985.

Prince’s appearance belies his stature in the marketplace. Short, skinny, with a smudge of moustache, he overcompensates for his runt-of-the-litter fragility with aggressively made-up eyes and rich, black ringlets. His look has caught on: his Edwardian-style satin and velvet clothes are setting fashion trends and spawning new lines of mass-market ready-to-wear. Even more powerful is the impact of his music, a highly textured blend of melodic pop and gritty funk with shrill synthesizers and heavy drumbeat—what the pop industry now calls the “Minneapolis Sound.” Meanwhile, female singers from Chaka Khan to Cyndi Lauper—and even Jackson’s older sister, Rebbie—have all recorded his songs. And singlehandedly Prince has transformed his home town Minneapolis into a breeding ground of talent, a 1980s Motown, by discovering or producing such groups as The Time and Apollonia and such chart-topping performers as Sheila E. and Vanity (Canadian-born Denise Matthews).

Prince’s ascendancy reverses a trend. Throughout the latter half of the 1970s black and white pop music grew increasingly segregated. Hits topping black charts rarely crossed over to white lists. Black artists seldom challenged white domination of rock videoprograms. Together with Michael Jackson, Prince has rebuilt the bridge between the racial solitudes. Because of that, the two young, gifted musicians are often contrasted, with fan maga-

zines fuelling rumors of a rivalry between the high-voiced, asexual Jackson and the demonic Prince. Whether their personal rivalry is real or not, Prince clearly poses a professional challenge to Jackson’s pop throne: his Purple Rain album has sold eight million copies this

year and will likely outrank both the Jacksons and Bruce Springsteen to become 1984’s best seller. And his first film, of the same name, which has played to more than 13 million peoplemany of them white—ranks among 1984’s 10 top-grossing films.

Fame has driven both black stars into heavily guarded, reclusive private lives. But Prince, 26, has compounded the mystery that surrounds him with con-

tradictory statements about his age, background and beliefs. Despite those efforts, it is now known that he was born Prince Rogers Nelson on June 7, 1958, to a Minneapolis jazz musician and his singer-wife, and grew up the victim of a broken home. He has insisted that he came from a mixed marriage, but in fact both his parents are black. He also insists that he is deeply religious: he holds group prayer meetings with his bands before going on stage and has dedicated his albums to God. But his songs suggest the inspiration of a fertility deity rather than an ecclesiastic one: Dirty Mind (1980) featured songs about oral sex and incest. Meanwhile, his 1981 album, Controversy, blurred both his sexual preference and his racial origin by asking, “Am I black or white?/Am I gay or straight?” But he refuses to answer those or any other questions and turns down all requests for interviews.

Still, this year, with typical contrariness, the recluse has suddenly exposed his most private wounds in his autobiographical film. Purple Rain portrays the rock star hero’s father as a violent, thwarted musician who beats his wife and abuses his son. In real life the Nelson household was so turbulent that Prince lived with relatives and family friends. His only constant was music. By the age of 12 the young boy could play piano, guitar and drums with more assurance than his peers could tie their shoelaces. In 1977, at 19, he signed a contract with the powerful media giant Warner Bros, for a six-figure sum, which, significantly, gave Prince complete o freedom in the studio, making 5 him Warner’s youngest producer ever. Lenny Waronker, who signed Prince and who is now president of Warner Bros. Records Inc., recalled, “It was clear after 45 minutes in the studio that this kid could do all of it—play all the instruments and know exactly what sound he wanted.”

Inevitably, Prince’s meteoric rise has left some negative fallout in its wake. One of his biographers, Michael Shore, admiringly calls him “the last of the real rock ’n’ roll rebels.” But such for-

mer associates as Prince’s childhood friend André Cymone, The Time’s Morris Day and guitarist Dez Dickerson have suggested that their onetime mentor had a dictator-like control over projects and did not always share songwriting credits. Commented Dickerson: “If Prince doesn’t respect you—forget it. You might as well not even open your mouth because he’ll just cut you off.” Said Prince’s latest protégée, Sheila E., in his defence: “His power is knowing what he wants. That scares people.”

That power to antagonize, alarm and ultimately enthrall are hallmarks of his current tour. An X-rated version of his song Baby Fm a Star tops the performance. Stroking the long neck of his guitar suggestively, Prince showers his horrified, then delighted audience with a torrent of streaming water from a concealed hose in the end of the instrument. In that one outrageous antic, the kid from Minneapolis disinherits himself utterly from the safe, familyoriented shows of Jackson.

And the tour demonstrates how he has also remained true to his oncestated goal—“to excite and provoke on every level.” That Prince does so without permanently offending the largest audiences of his career attests to his formidable skills in the art of seduction. Now, as his influence extends beyond the stage, to affect the look and sound of popular music, the royal star of raunch is showing the world how insidious and successful his subversive art can be.