One of Prince’s most famous songs, “1999,” was about dancing in the face of nuclear apocalypse. It wasn’t only weapons that worried Prince. He fretted about income inequality, about the environment, about social justice, about the hubristic deployment of new technologies. While he would return to these issues again and again over the course of his career, any consideration of his political conscience and the way he integrated it into mature art should start with Sign O’ the Times.
I remember hearing the title song in my dorm room in college, back in the first months of 1987. “New music from Prince,” the DJ said. “Sounds like he’s been down in the basement with Apollonia, listening to those old records.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. Did he mean the basement from Purple Rain? Did he mean that Prince was listening to his own old records, or old records from other artists?
When the song started, it obliterated all those questions. A synthesizer line appeared first, spare and menacing. At the ten-second mark, a drumbeat struck, and Prince came in behind it: “Oh, yeah!” But there was no jubilation in this “Oh, yeah!” or in the synth-bass that followed, which sounded like a tensed muscle, and the lyrics were grim from the jump. “In France, a skinny man died with a big disease with a little name.” As the song went on, it traced the consequences of the skinny man’s behavior—“By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same”—and then traveled from France back to America, where the lens widened to take in gang violence, drugs, even the hubris of space travel (the Challenger disaster was only a few months old when the song was recorded). Prince had been here before (in “Mountains,” there’s a line that gets lost in the surging funk: “Africa divided, hijack in the air / It’s enough to make you want to lose your mind”), but never with such sustained purpose. And what was the purpose? It seemed as though it was dual: both to allow Prince to process the terrible afflictions of the world and to make the rest of us take comfort in the fact that they could inspire great art. Julian Barnes has sketched out the process in an essay on Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa:
We have to understand it, of course, this catastrophe; to understand it, we have to imagine it, so we need the imaginative arts. But we also need to justify it and forgive it, this catastrophe, however minimally. Why did it happen, this mad act of Nature, this crazed human moment? Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what catastrophe is for.
In ensuing years, Prince went back to the well, though he used different vessels to carry water. Lovesexy had “Dance On,” which opened with rattlesnake percussion and skittered along on its minimalism, but its list of social infractions left something to be desired (“Nuclear ban never stays in tune” was redundant to past concerns, and “stealing ladies’ purses and setting them aflame” seemed like maybe not as much a problem as Prince thought it was). Batman had “The Future,” an anthem of cool despair and economic privation that sarcastically quotes Lincoln Steffens’s famous assessment of the USSR: “I’ve seen the future, and it works.” But iterations of the theme became either more superficial (the title track of Chaos and Disorder) or more enervated (“United States of Division,” a listlessly pessimistic download from 2004). In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Prince rushed into the studio and rushed out a song called “S.S.T.” The title was oblique—it referred to “sea surface temperature,” a meteorological metric for forecasting hurricanes—and the song was not particularly memorable. And “Planet Earth,” the title track from his 2007 album, couldn’t measure up to similar endeavors like Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song,” a loony burst of empathic rage from 1995 in which Jackson wails about our responsibility to other living things (“What about elephants? / Have we lost their trust?”).
The most satisfying articulation of Prince’s social conscience was buried on one of his least satisfying albums: “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” from Diamonds and Pearls. A modest, tuneful work that explicitly reached back to early-seventies social- conscience songs by artists like Curtis Mayfield, “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” emphasized the value of ethical living in a world dominated by greed and power. It eschewed flash and technology; the only vocal effect, a flattening out when his voice increased in volume, was a recording-booth error that Prince liked enough to leave uncorrected.
On the album version of “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” Prince didn’t identify the race of his characters. “Make certain that your soul’s all right,” he sang, specifying nothing about the body that encased that soul. In the video that Spike Lee made for the song, however, the family in crisis was figured as African-American. The video was only an interpretation, but it explicitly raised the issue of race, which was a complex and contradictory one throughout Prince’s career. Ten years earlier, at the beginning of “Lady Cab Driver,” Prince tried to hail a cab, only to have several (from the sound of it) pass him by. It was a canny joke about the difficulty for a black man in hailing a cab in New York City, but also a rare early admission that he was a black artist. More commonly, he refused to answer the question he raised on “Controversy”: “Am I black or white?” In interviews, he promoted confusion about his background, telling Bill Adler of Rolling Stone that he was “the son of a half-black father and an Italian mother.” Purple Rain, which cast the Greek actress Olga Karlatos as the Kid’s mother, reinforced this notion, and for years even devoted fans insisted that it was the case. (The story persisted until after his death— prominent newspapers, including The New York Times and the British Independent, referred to him incorrectly as “biracial.”)
His obfuscation on matters of race may have been a way of toying with interviewers or a strategy for broadening his audience base. It may also have been a more meaningful fiction, a nod to one of his inspirations. In a number of songs (“Private Joy,” “Manic Monday”), not to mention in his portrayal of Christopher Tracy in the movie Under the Cherry Moon, he linked himself to Rudolph Valentino, the Italian-born American actor who rose to fame in the ’20s playing roles like the Sheik. Valentino was not only a romantic icon, he was a trailblazer when it came to dissolving racial stereotypes in American movies. He played the Sheik as a fully formed character, and when he was asked if it was plausible for a woman to fall in love with a savage, he attacked the premise. “The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world,” Valentino said. “The Moors are closely akin to the Arabs. I know them. The Arabians are dignified and keen-brained. People are not savages because they have dark skin.”
Racial identity was connected, of course, to cultural identity. Classic soul music, most prominent in the ’60s and early ’70s, drew on the rawness of blues and the spirituality of gospel to take a measure of the human condition. But when soul music promoted social advancement, it did so primarily with an eye toward upward mobility. Soul singers placed a high value on conventional markers of social success like marriage, income, and home ownership. Prince could sound those notes, certainly, and there were periods where he foregrounded them—the “let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby” line in “Sign O’ the Times,” or for that matter the Emancipation era, where he sketched out precisely that life in a series of songs. But Prince was also a rock-and-roll star and a funk subversive with a penchant for behaviors that would have shocked most of those soul artists. How he saw social change, whether through aspiration, revolution, or Revolution, depended on where he located himself along that spectrum.
Excerpted from Dig If You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Ben Greenman. All rights reserved.
Ben Greenman is a New York Times bestselling author and New Yorker contributor who has written both fiction and nonfiction. His novels and short-story collections include The Slippage and Superbad, he was Questlove's collaborator on Mo’ Meta Blues and Something to Food About, and he has written memoirs with George Clinton and Brian Wilson. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, McSweeney's, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince, his latest book, will be published April 11.