Every generation thinks they invented sex. But Prince basically did invent sex, certainly as far as the 80s musical landscape was concerned. No nods, no winks, no metaphors. He became a megastar while singing about all matter of deviancy and dressed accordingly, turning the dirty-sexy look into catwalk chic. He'd get bored of himself before anybody else had the chance to. Back then, when he released classic albums every two weeks, he never stopped pioneering, setting fashion trends every time he appeared, then setting fire to them and creating new ones the next time he stepped out the door. Picking up the gauntlet from Bowie, he became pop's greatest shapeshifter. Let's drink him in.
Photos by Robert Whitman via Vulture.
Photos by Robert Whitman of a 19-year-old Prince striding around Minneapolis recently surfaced and they're a treasure trove. His ’fro is a cushiony symmetrical wonder, his eyes are wide and pure like Bambi, but lurking beneath his turtleneck and bell-bottoms simmered an unshakable confidence. These shots were taken shortly before the release of his debut record For You. Prince wrote, produced, played, and performed everything on this squelchy collection. Musically, the bouncy disco falsettos sound harmless enough, but the lascivious come-ons are front and center in songs like “Soft And Wet”: “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane/ That I wanna lose in you/ Baby can you stand the pain?”
Photos nabbed from the Prince fansite Prince.org.
He quickly ditched the afro in favor of a blown out mane, donning a nipple exposing leotard like it was NBD. He may have looked like one of the kids from Fame, but 1979 did that to people. This is where his songwriting stepped up with stone cold classics “I Feel For You,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad.” His second album was a big pop statement, which is probably why he named it after himself.
In the Spring of 1980 he supported Jheri Curl King Rick James on the latter's Fire It Up tour. Rick had released his debut album the year before, and the tour wasn't big enough for their egos, or their hair. The stories flew: Prince allegedly ripped off Rick's moves; Rick apparently lifted Prince's equipment. The tension exploded at Rick's birthday party when he grabbed Prince by the hair and forced Cognac down his throat. “He spit it out like a little B***H and I laughed and walked away,” wrote Rick in his autobiography. “I loved f**king with him like that.”
Prince's libido was on prominent display from the start, but on his third album, Dirty Mind, he took no prisoners. It wasn't subtle. “You wouldn't have stopped/ But I, I came on your wedding gown,” he sang to someone else's bride on "Head." In the album artwork he wore a studded trench, a bandana, and a pair of high cut briefs, his right hip kicked out, his stance like, “Whut?” Ladies underwear, thigh high socks, and heeled boots became an onstage staple. On the subject of heels, Prince stated, "People say I'm wearing heels because I'm short. I wear heels because the women like 'em." Heels on dudes? Only on you Prince.
For 1981's Controversy, Prince dropped the falsetto, turned up the guitars, and began mixing sonic sleaze with socially conscious lyrics. He was still rocking the panties though, which didn't go down well at the two gigs he played opening for The Rolling Stones in LA. The audience put up with him until he started singing “Jack U Off” (“You'll have an instant heart attack/ If I jack you off”). They responded by booing while hurling bottles and cans. He flew home to Minneapolis, but Mick Jagger called him and told him to toughen up, so Prince returned for the second gig, which was even worse. The Stones crowd heard about the first show and came prepared: this time he was pelted with stinky cabbages and dead chickens.
When your garden variety Prince fan plays Prince dress up, this is the Prince they go for: the trench, the ruffled shirt, the big hair. He pumped up the volume in every respect. The previous year's 1999 gave him top 10 singles, but Purple Rain—a movie and accompanying soundtrack that sounded like an instant greatest hits collection—made him as big as Michael Jackson and Madonna. The sexy songs were in the minority, but “Darling Nikki”, about a prostitute who takes Prince to her castle and pleasures him with her “devices”, was the tipping point for Tipper Gore. When the former second lady of the United States heard her 11-year-old daughter listening to it, she spat out her cornflakes and went to town on the music industry.
“I grew up listening to rock music and loving it, watching television, and being entertained by it,” she wrote in her book, Raising PG Kids In An X-Rated Society. “I still enjoy both. But something has happened since the days of "Twist and Shout" and I Love Lucy.” Like I said: Prince invented sex and thanks to his sonic raunch Parental Advisory labels are slapped on risqué records to this day.
Michael Jackson wanted to duet with Prince on the title track for his Bad album. Prince diplomatically declined. There’s no way he was going to stand there like an idiot while Michael sang “Your butt is mine,” but also he didn't need to duet with Michael Jackson. He had his own opus ready for the world—a spiritual, literary double album that was a far cry from anything on Bad. It might not have been as mainstream as Purple Rain, but everything Prince is about is condensed into Sign “O” The Times. Sartorially, no man has ever put so much emphasis on the midsection, exposed or cinched, Prince’s hand-span waist would’ve rivaled Scarlett O’Hara’s 18 inches. He wouldn't get away with going down the corner store looking like that. But then again, Prince has probably never been down the corner store.
Prince's reaction to the success of Sign “O” The Times was to record his darkest record yet, which was in part an effort to reclaim the affections of his African American fans who were averse to his shinier, poppier output. The Black Album reeks of dirty funk, but Prince pulled it the week before release, deciding it was too negative (it eventually came out in 1994). Instead, he did a U-turn and made Lovesexy, a spiritual rebirth which had him singing songs like “Positivity”, (sample lyric: "Positivity/ YES"). Clearly, nudity is the ultimate fashion statement. Who needs clothes when you can recline in the petals of a giant lily? (Nice placement of the flower stigma, dude. Subtle.) Somehow he manages to look demure and thoughtful while being butt naked.
I could discuss what Prince was doing musically in 1991, but I really just want to bring your attention to what's going on with this yellow, butt-less, laser cut suit. This was a performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 VMAs. I was in the front row of a Prince show around this time and he stuck his rear in my face. Unlike in this picture, his behind was covered, but his tight threads still didn't really leave much to the imagination. I suppose it was for the benefit of the entire arena, but that’s the thing about Prince, it felt like he was doing it just for me.
In 1999 Prince was still at war with his record label, calling himself a slave and being referred to as squiggle. To celebrate finally breaking free from his shackles, he reclaimed his name, like a phoenix from the flames—albeit one with questionable braids and pigtails. And a turtleneck-ed metallic jumpsuit. He also released the Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album, which wasn't up to much, although that lamb seems to be enjoying it.
Got Prince fatigue? NP. This decade can be summed up by this image from his performance at the 2007 Superbowl. The man knows how to work a silhouette.
Prince’s DNA can be traced to countless artists. Everyone who's influenced by Prince is invariably influenced by Sign “O” The Times. André 3000 calls it “one of the greatest albums ever made” and virtually all of modern R&B has been touched by his legacy, from Terence Trent D’Arby to D’Angelo to Dev Hynes to everything in Lenny Kravitz’s wardrobe. Justin Timberlake regularly admits to modeling himself on Prince, announcing to Playboy that Prince is “the greatest musician who ever lived.” But the song "Spaceship Coupe," on 20/20, is JT's most direct homage yet, lyrically, vocally, and sonically—right down to the extended virtuoso guitar solo. Compare it to Controversy's “Do Me Baby” and you'll hear where he's coming from. Beck circa Midnite Vultures also reeks of Prince’s scent, particularly on “Debra,” his song about seducing a girl he met at JCPenny. Following on from that, Prince’s back catalogue + Beck’s “Debra” = every song by Flight of the Concords.
Finding it impossible to choose his favorite Prince tune, N.E.R.D’s Pharrell William’s summed up his appeal to MTV like this: “How do you say that sherbet peach is better than pearl white? That's where Prince has been genius. He's had so many different colors and textures with his career and songwriting that you can't really compare, and that's why you need them all. Some people, you hear one song and you've heard them all. Or, there's two great albums out of five. Prince ain't like that. He'll hit you with moments like bop, bop, bop, bop, bop.” As if you couldn’t tell, Pharrell really does believe in synesthesia.
These days his ’fro may be under control and quiffed up, but there's still no taming his sartorial supremacy. Sunglasses at night? Solid gold eye mask all the way. Prince don't need to see your ugly civilian faces. He’s not wearing panties or flashing his ass any more, but he’s 54 now, so no one needs to see that. Then again, he still looks better than any of us. We love you Prince, you beautiful alien.
Alex Godfrey likes to sing Prince in the shower. He has a killer falsetto. Follow him on Twitter - @MrGodfrey.
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