Prince and the Revelation
Prince and the Revelation
by Will Stockton
Two thousand zero zero, party over, oops, out of time.
— Prince, “1999”
In 1999, Prince repeatedly told the press that he would retire his eponymous hit at the end of the year. “1999” is a 1982 Cold War song about partying (even the gerund sounds dated) through the apocalypse, and on the eve of the new millennium, Prince’s decision to never play the song again signaled his perception of its anachronism. His point was not merely that the Cold War was over. At the time, he was also becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, and thus backdating the beginning of the end of days to 1914. On stage, the song went dormant for eight years, reappearing six years into the War on Terror during the tour for the album Planet Earth. Glancing toward that war in lyrics that illustrate his larger loss of lyrical prowess – “Imagine sending your first born off to fight a war / With no good reason how it started or what they’re fighting for” — the eponymous song on that 2007 album sounded Prince’s new eschatological vision: “Planet Earth must now come into the balance with the one.” Two visions of the End of Days: one of dancing in the face of destruction, another of reconciling oneself to the singular truth of scripture. He sometimes played both songs in the same set, counterpoising two distinct revelations.
In 2010, my father – white and seven years older than Prince – was diagnosed with throat cancer three days before his brother died of colon cancer, and then diagnosed with an unrelated ocular melanoma a few weeks after the conclusion of chemo and radiation, and then diagnosed with a severe case of diverticulitis that necessitated a bowel resectioning following his recovery from internal ocular radiotherapy. I thought that a God I no longer believe in was trying to kill my father with a horrid combination of grief and fear and pain. But my father thought that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the White House.
In his book on Prince’s cultural iconicity, Touré argues that “1999” sounded the political apathy of a generation growing up under the threat of imminent destruction.[i] Yet Prince has not always take a “partyup” (to borrow the title of the last track on 1981’a Dirty Mind) attitude in the face of ruin’s forecast. In other songs like “America” and “Sign ‘o’ the Times,” he records a civilization in decline as if he’s merely a “reporter” (“Chaos and Disorder”). Occasionally, he’s downright conspiratorial, as in these lines from “Dreamer”: “While the helicopter circles us, / This theory’s getting deep / Think they’re spraying chemicals over the city / While we sleep.” “Dreamer” and “Planet Earth” come from more recent, much less popular albums, Prince having gradually lost touch, in Touré’s analysis, with the national zeitgeist in the late eighties. In 1988, if one can be precise, with the release of the album Lovesexy.
Opening with the lyric “I know there is a heaven. / I know there is a hell. / Listen to me people. / I gotta story to tell,“ Lovesexy, Touré writes, “is Prince’s most evangelical album during his zenith.”[ii] It spreads the Gospel according to Prince: a Gospel of salvation and sex — of sex as salvation — forged in a childhood of Seventh-Day Adventism and, if a song like “Sister” is to be believed, incestuous training in the ars erotica. On his way to becoming an artist whose “best days” are widely considered to be behind him, Prince has become more evangelical still, albeit less pornographic. The man who in 1992 could still write “Sexy MF” no longer curses. He witnesses door-to-door. Prince has fallen out of time.
My first revelation that I was falling for Prince came a few years before “1999” was set to expire. I stumbled upon his 1995 album The Gold Experience and its single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Those mid-nineties albums — those three attempts to satisfy a soured contract with Warner Brothers (The Gold Experience along with 1994’s Come and 1996’s Chaos and Disorder), and one celebration of that contract’s end (1996’s Emancipation) — brought me to the altar of the Artist where I still worship today. Other albums contain better music, but these albums composed the soundtrack of my first love affair. In the mid-nineties, I did not countenance Prince’s vision of the divine sanction of extramarital eroticism. Yet I found his music liberating, crushing, all the more so because the boy I had a crush on at the time also developed a crush on Prince.
Entangled in my fandom are memories of us absconding on the church service after we had played our parts in the church band (me on keyboards, him on bass), of driving around Atlanta white-boy raping to The Gold Experience’s “P Control,” of catching whiffs of his brown, curly hair with its hint of cat litter and ashamedly smelling the sheets on my bed after he had slept in them. Entangled are memories of how he stood naked outside the bathroom door and what he didn’t say when he said that I was the only person he would feel comfortable coming with. Entangled are feelings of freedom I now know to be an effect of the deployment of sexuality as something revealed or concealed – a deployment from which Prince derived what Foucault calls the “speaker’s benefit” of taboo utterance.[iii] But this knowledge that does not diminish my memory of a feeling of liberty occasioned by transgression. No less a Christian when he passed everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech than when he became a Jehovah’s Witness and started exercising discretion, Prince can almost bring the feeling back.
Prince’s songs are replete with references to baptismal waters.[iv] Purple Rain title track is the most obvious example, but see too Emancipation’s “The Holy River.” I remember awaiting the beginning of the apocalypse as I swam along the bottom of a blue-tiled pool in early September 1988. I wondered if and when, because I had been baptized, God would rapture me.
The artist who imagines being someone’s girlfriend remains a conduit to a past that I try to mine for the materials of queer invention. Yet Prince’s high-heeled walk down the fine line between desiring and being a woman is not what I now find most queerly appealing. For me, his primary queer appeal is the self-historical one of returning me to a past where I walk in school-uniform brown loafers down, and sometimes cross, the thin line between friendship and eroticism; where I feel intensely a desire I do not know how to name; where I do not want to give my desire the name my faith tells me is a sin; where, in a fit of supreme teenage melodrama, I feel this pleasure, this desire, this pain so apocalyptically that, one day, I nearly die. Prince conjures the experience of desire as queer – a desire related to but, in its definitional and temporal aporia, distinct from my mere faggotry.
He plays in my head when, lonely in a long-distance relationship, I ask friends to spend the night, and they agree. After a bath, we’re just going to fall asleep.
Will Stockton is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. His books of Renaissance scholarship and creative writing include the forthcoming Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and Marriage (Fordham); Brimstone (Queer Young Cowboys, 2015); Crush, with D. Gilson (Punctum Books, 2014); and Playing Dirty: Sexuality and Waste in Early Modern Comedy (Minnesota, 2011).
[i] Touré, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (New York: Atria, 2013), 64-66.
[ii] Ibid., 134.
[iii] Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage, 1990), 6.
[iv] Touré, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (New York: Atria, 2013), 134.