Prince Wrote About Women in a Way That Most Contemporary Male Artists Still Can't
Women usually exist in men’s songs as passive objects, which is to not exist at all. With Prince, they were addressed with awe and empathy.
When I heard that Prince had passed away, it was the first time the death of a celebrity hit me in a real and immediate way. There was disbelief, followed by dread and nausea, then tears that wrung out of my body so forcefully it gave me stomach cramps. I got a text from my mum asking if I was okay, which is a much faster response than she has given for deaths within our own family. My dad, whose phone is almost never charged, sent me his favourite song, “Sometimes it Snows in April”, and pointed out how nice it is that you can hear the stool Prince is sat on squeaking as he plays. I cursed myself for having never seen him live, felt thankful for even existing within the same tiny blip on the universal timeline as him, and began to grieve the loss of a man so beyond description that language suddenly felt like a dumb and unequipped instrument with which to honour him. Then I started thinking about sex.
Prince is so synonymous with sex that his entire discography may as well be a part of the school curriculum to save your PSHE teacher from awkwardly fumbling over a question about fisting. His universal sexiness transgressed binary regimes. And, as we spend the rest of our lives pouring one out for him – at the club in our best butt-cuddling outfit, or crying over a plate of spaghetti while listening to Dirty Mind – it will be to the not-so-gentle caress of Prince’s vocals telling you how wet he’s going to make you with absolutely no regard for your gender or sexual preference.
He broke all the rules about what black American men should be both in terms of sexuality – “He was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and high heeled boots,” as Frank Ocean put it – and political power, whether he was changing his name to a symbol, telling Warner Bros where to stick it, or writing “SLAVE” across his cheek. These actions lay at the heart of Prince’s artistry. They’re integral to his stature, his influence, and his memory – but everyone will have their own specific personal connection to him too.
For me, a queer white girl living in the UK, the most crucial element of Prince was the way he championed women in every regard. From his way of writing about women, hiring them as musicians (particularly in male-dominated fields like percussion) at a time when most would not, or appearing bollock naked on the cover of Lovesexy posed among flowers with one hand covering his nipples like Botticelli's Venus – Prince took every opportunity to embrace the fact that women are both powerful and beautiful, and that those qualities are not mutually exclusive.
The more I listened to his albums growing up, the more I became cognisant to their meaning, the more I noticed how much he loved women – not just in the Shakespearean sense of the word, but in how he viewed and wrote about them. Women usually exist in men’s songs as passive objects, which is to not exist at all. With Prince, they were addressed with both awe and empathy. He wrote about women as real, powerful, complicated, sensitive, and sexual beings that he could learn from, and who enriched his life. These sentiments weren’t hidden away in the B-sides or sandwiched between hit singles either, they were front and centre on his hits.
“Alphabet Street”, the first single from Lovesexy, is unabashedly about oral sex. There have been entire academic papers written on the images of female desire in “When Doves Cry”. In “Do Me, Baby”, Prince assumes the role of a traditional damsel and begs for the object of his desire to “Lay me down”. On “Scandalous” he sings in his serrated falsetto, “Tonight I’m gonna be your fantasy”, purposefully objectifying himself, and taking pleasure in women’s pleasure. Finally, “Darling Nikki” – the sonic sore thumb of Purple Rain and a track so sexy it is literally the reason why parental advisory stickers exist – is aggressively about female sexual appetite. In fact, that track is one of the most flagrant examples of the sexual spectrum that Prince ever traversed.
It tells the story of a sex fiend who the author meets in a hotel lobby “masturbating with a magazine” (it’s unclear whether it’s Nikki or Prince who’s actually masturbating here). They go back to her castle of nefarious activity – which is so well stocked, shall we say, that anyone who enters is to sign a waiver before getting loose – and afterward, Prince says his “body will never be the same". Yeah, it’s a sort of humblebrag about how much crazy sex he was probably having in the 80s, but it’s also a love letter to the power of female sexuality, freedom of sexual expression, and, frankly, the pleasures of getting it rough. Rather than the typically portrayed passive quality of “sexiness” that exists only at the behest of the male gaze, it’s about female sexuality as a weapon.
It’s not just kinky kicks that Prince gets from women, though. In “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”, he storms out of a fight with his girlfriend and finds somewhere on the promenade to sulk alone. After ordering a fruit cocktail, the waitress picks him up and asks him if he wants to take a bath with her. They spend the evening together, but instead of having sex, he just sits in the tub with his pants on and they listen to Joni Mitchell on the radio. His girlfriend calls him, and he goes home. They stop fighting, because he knows what to do now. Hanging out with Dorothy taught him how to be a friend to his girlfriend, and that a nonsexual relationship can be as fulfilling as a sexual one. “No other male songwriter of his or any other generation wrote songs about women like this,” Rob Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone.
His championing of women wasn’t confined to the content of his songs either, but was instilled in his entire approach to art. Although he was sometimes positioned as a sort of Svengali character – powering the career of girl group Vanity 6 and perpetually surrounded by women on stage and off – he knew talent when he saw it. He was flanked by musical partners Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin in The Revolution, by bass player Rhonda Smith who toured with him for a decade, drummer and percussionist Sheila E, keyboard player Gayle Chapman, saxophonist Candy Dulfer, and more. As Tracy King writes for The New Statesman, “Prince surrounded himself and collaborated with the most beautiful women he could, yes, but also with the most talented. Power, platform and privilege gave him access to beauty, but he elevated only those whose musical skills he respected."
Of course, his track record is not immaculate. Nobody’s ever is – we are all human. I’ve always read “Little Red Corvette” as a man left comically helpless in his attempts to “tame” a woman more sexually experienced than he is, but whole the sentiment of “Baby you're much too fast” could equally be read as slut shaming. 1996's “Dinner with Delores” implores a woman to “Introduce the carpet to something other than your knees”. And 1979's “Bambi” attempts to convince a bisexual woman to abandon her female lover because “It’s better with a man”, ending the song with: “Bambi, I know what you need / Bambi, maybe you need to bleed”. Then there's that classic scene in Purple Rain where Morris Day and Jerome literally throw a woman in a bin, which hasn't aged so gracefully. So yes, you could dine out on Prince's misdemeanours if you're so inclined, but at the end of the day it would be slim pickings in comparison to the ways in which he pushed the envelope in a gender-bending explosion of sweat and sequins – both visually in an assless onesie, and subtly in his intuitive lyrics.
In “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign O’ the Times, Prince’s female alter ego Camille sings from the male perspective to a woman. The track questions whether the male character would have a more intimate relationship with his lover if he were her female friend rather than her actual boyfriend (“If I was your girlfriend / Would you remember to tell me all the things you forgot / When I was your man”). It’s been suggested that the song was about Prince’s jealousy over his girlfriend’s close bond with her sister, but within it there are blatant pleas for a level of closeness and honesty that he sees as absent from his heterosexual relationships. “Would you let me wash your hair / Could I make you breakfast sometime / Or then, could we just hang out, I mean / Could we go to a movie and cry together / Cuz to me baby that would be so fine”, he sings, which to me feels far from bitter – it’s longing and sad. Washing hair, cooking, and crying are platonic acts of love and support that he recognises as important. In pining for them himself, he ended up with a declaration of appreciation for the strength of female friendship, whether he intended it or not. It's a perfect example of how he set himself aside from other artists, by being able to explore viewpoints way beyond his own.
Gender was clearly a non-issue for him. He presented alternatives to hypermasculinity, embodying men who enjoy being submissive to women, who are are open to sexual lessons and advances from women, and who are vulnerable without negative connotation. On the flipside, he portrayed women as having the same sexual urges and desires as a man. A track called “Vibrator” he wrote for Vanity 6 even hammers home the point that men don’t actually need to exist at all when it comes to female pleasure – “Vibrator, his patience can’t be beat / Vibrator, I guess you could say that you’re obsolete”. What’s more, Prince communicated all of this without motive. It's not a stretch to say he wrote songs in this way because he believed that people are people, with similar desires and wants and needs. And isn't that exactly how it should be?
He inadvertently taught me a multitude of lessons – including not giving a shit about what anybody else thinks of you, and the art of masturbation. But one of the most important was that there is no right way to be a man, no right way to be a woman. He taught me that there is empowerment to be found in owning your sexual identity and not shying away from it, even if it involves a waiver. He taught me that women matter, as friends, as partners, and as people. And, to a queer white girl with a different set of problems and privileges, Prince was and continues to be a beacon of fluidity and rebellion, standing defiant in a studded jacket and a G-string, amid a world hell bent on trying to categorise women’s experiences and silence their voices. No matter how grim or gross the world might be, I can escape into one of Prince’s many, many worlds, and feel equal.
Follow Emma on Twitter.