Religious Symbolism

P control, part 22: Prince

To swipe a sassy intro from Janet Jackson--that's Ms. Jackson, for those who are nasty--this is a story about control.

Dig, if U will, the picture: Last week I received a frantic message from a representative of Xcel Energy Center, where the two arena gigs in Prince's week-long "celebration" will be held. The caller suggested that I devise five interview questions for his Purple Majesty.

Could I ask about the forthcoming album?

"There may not be a forthcoming album," I was cryptically advised.

So I e-mailed the questions, and, just a few hours later, found that they'd been returned for being "too personal" for Prince's taste. By "too personal," one would have thought that I'd asked him if he'd ever, ahem, climbed Sheena E.'s "sugar walls," or if it was just performance anxiety that once caused him to wonder whether there was "something wrong with the machinery." But no: I was just a squeaky-clean rock scribe asking if the artist had ever considered forming a musician's union; if he was ever planning on releasing those crucial tracks he recorded with Miles Davis; what he thought about Prince cover albums such as Dump's That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?; and which verses of the Bible had helped govern his spiritual path. Still, I was sternly advised to reformat my questions to address only the following: Prince: A Celebration, the NPG online music club, and the forthcoming album The Rainbow Children. (Um, wasn't I just told that "There may not be a new album"?)

This whole rigamarole seems symptomatic of the artist's ever-expanding obsession with control, especially in relation to the media. Near the start of Prince's epic tussle with the music industry (not to be confused with his umpteenth "spiritual transformation"), countless layout departments were forced to change their fonts to accommodate his glyphic sign o' the times. (Note to Prince: Owing to your linguistic eccentricities, not to mention your aversion to tape-recorded interviews, I have taken the liberty in this article of sampling your lyrics in order to translate various spoken-word Prince-isms. I hope I'm not infringing on your copyright--or Warner Bros.') A few anonymous sources told me that anyone who works with Prince is forced to sign agreements stating that he or she will never badmouth him in front of journalists. (Princespeak: "And if de-elevator tries to break U down, go crazy!") And at a Celebration press conference at Paisley Park last week, Prince stated that, as part of his latest spiritual transformation, he's using his faith to assert control over his use of profanity (Princespeak: "You sexy mutha [expletive]!")--but at least he'll still sing about sex.

Go on, make your knock-knock jokes about Prince the Jehovah's Witness while you can. But U won't be laughing when the newly religious one beats down your door and tries to make you exchange your women's rights for front-row seats to the Second Coming. (Even though Jesus could probably stage the biggest comeback tour in history, his tickets would still go for less than the $70 "celebration.") Indeed, from Prince's newly soap-washed mouth--"Even Tipper Gore can come," he proudly explained at the conference--came the news that he had adopted the holy, hierarchical view wherein man ranks below God, and woman below man.

"Would you rather be a leader or a follower?" Prince asked the dozen or so journalists at the conference. "I would rather be a follower. That's what the Bible says is the right thing to do. Only one person in the Bible was not God's follower, and look what happened with that!" Although Prince's remark stopped just short of name-dropping Eve, it also symbolized his general scorn for feminist women. "Twenty-first century women do not want to live by a role," Prince said. "They want to say to men, Let's switch our roles. But things don't work that way. You have to know your role and make it work."

In the May 28 issue of People, former Prince sidekick Apollonia explained exactly how the artist had made her role work: by controlling her life both on and off the set. Apollonia claimed that when she was filming Purple Rain in 1983, Prince insisted that she break up with then-boyfriend David Lee Roth, eat a special diet of candy and tea, dress exactly as he did, and even jump repeatedly into Lake Minnetonka in her underwear until he was satisfied with the scene--while poor Apollonia went on to suffer hypothermia. (Princespeak: "I only want 2 see U bathing in the purple rain!")

Needless to say, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in Prince's religious and business philosophies: He apparently insists on having near-obsessive-compulsive control over the women in his life, the music industry people with whom he works, and the media representatives who write about him; yet he also prides himself on informing music moguls that they can't control him as he controls others.

At the conference, Prince spoke eloquently about fighting corporate radio stations' attempts to program the minds of our youth. (Has the Purple One been reading Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy?) Still, he refused to acknowledge his own role in programming young women's minds with his skewed gender standards. This seems especially hypocritical considering that, when I asked if he'd ever think about recording an album on Ani Difranco's indie Righteous Babe label, he replied, "In a second--she's a good friend." (Princespeak: "Call me up whenever U want 2 grind!") How can Prince think that a woman's role is subservient to a man's and still have the utmost respect for a woman who sings "Every time I move/I make a women's movement"? And how can someone who so revolutionized gender roles in the early Eighties with his androgynous style and ambiguous sexual orientation suddenly insist that we should all adhere to "traditional" values?

If Prince doesn't understand 21st-century women's crusade for rights when we state it in plain English, perhaps he'll understand our frustration if we use his own screwy language. Princespeak: "How can U just leave me standing/Alone in a world that's so cold?"

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