Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Gene Seymour: Prince flouted convention, got under your skin even as he kept you at distance
He says he seemed to be in on some universal secret, some as-yet-unknowable key to finding harmony
He contained multitudes, flouted convention and ruled his world.
He was a physically small person who spoke softly and still dominated every room he inhabited. At any given moment, he could brandish the contents of his “dirty mind” without apology or explanation and, in the next moment, convey the power of religious faith with the righteous conviction of an evangelical firebrand.
His eyes were deep dark pools that devoured your resistance – and prepared you for anything.
James Brown and Joni Mitchell were his idols and, under their seemingly disparate influences, he could throw down the thickest, hardest grooves of any rhythm-and-blues musician of his generation while weaving some of the most enigmatic, indelible imagery in pop music. (I hear doves cry as I write this, but they don’t make up even an eighth of the memories swarming in front of me.)
He got under people’s skins even while he seemed to keep them at a distance. His devotees took his impudence for an invitation. The weirder and more outrageous he got, the more convinced people were of his honesty. “He tells the truth,” a teddy-wearing fan in Philadelphia told me when I asked why she devoted Thanksgiving Day 1984 to his concert – and her waking life to his music.
When writing about Prince Rogers Nelson, whose death at 57 seems to have shaken the whole universe to its knees, you becomes aware after a while that you’re compiling an inventory of contradictions, all of which he wore with as much nonchalant swagger as the electric-purple, gold-fringed tunics he wore in the mid-’80s, when he was at or very near his peak as a pop star.
This was when most of the squares calling shots in the mainstream media wasted their time straining to compare Prince to Michael Jackson, to whose dominion as unofficial “King of Pop” Prince seemed to be the only legitimate threat, especially after both the movie and album “Purple Rain” seized the zeitgeist’s attention away from the mercurial Jackson.
Apples and oranges, we insisted whenever such direct comparisons were made. Jackson’s artistry may have been as boundary breaching and galvanic in impact as Prince’s and they both knew their way around the blues-and-soul block. But Prince went to places MJ never did; some dark and forbidding, others erotic and cathartic. Jackson could inspire poetry; Prince wrote “Raspberry Beret,” “Erotic City,” and (insert guitar lick here) “Kiss,” among many, many others.
A far better comparison to be made – really – is with Miles Davis. As with that willful, shape-shifting jazz giant, Prince was an inscrutable chameleon, rigid only in his unwillingness to keep to a single course, artistically and otherwise. At one point, he was willing to risk the oceans of good will he summoned from the public by insisting he be referred to by an arcane symbol I’ve never been able to find on my keyboard.
It didn’t matter. As was the case with Davis, everywhere Prince went, millions followed.
Why? Ask why people read great books. (Something Prince once encouraged while handing out a Grammy.) There was always, in Prince’s life and work, a reason to keep turning the page to find out what happens next. We all figured that someone who so resolutely followed the path he cleared for himself, leaving gleaming paradoxes and thundering guitar riffs in his wake, had to be in on some universal secret, some as-yet-unknowable key to finding harmony in discord, illumination in darkness, constancy in chaos, something that, when you put all the craziness together, came close to that truth my fan friend talked about more than 30 years ago.
Muhammad Ali has died and, as a friend of mine remarked the other night, we now know what it’s like to live on a smaller planet.
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