ON THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF PRINCE

I read recently that Wendy and Lisa get the vibe from Prince that he disapproves of their lesbian relationship, even though they were all in the Revolution together. That struck me as odd. In addition to being an extraordinary talent, Prince made a name for himself by being androgynous and sexually unrepentent and queer—as my grandparents would use that word. Is he really in a position to cast aspersions on the sexual proclivities of others? Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe he is afforded that position by being a Jehovah’s Witness. Or maybe by being a genius. He is, after all, my favorite living musician, and I have some reservations about speculating about his personal beliefs, even more reservations about judging those beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to a paradox: the possible convervatism in the sexual politics of our most sexually liberated performer.

One explanation is that, actually, the conservatism was always there. To be clear, we’re talking about the man who wrote a song called “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which he sang under the guise of Camille, a hermaphrodite whose voice was a sped-up version of Prince’s. He also wrote a song about getting sexed and pimped by his own sister, and a song that inspired Tipper Gore to start the PMRC. One of my favorite Prince lyrics is this one: “I’m not saying this just to be nasty, but I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth. Can you relate?” Yes. I could always relate. It was my understanding that these Satanic verses were, in fact, the opposite of Satanic: they were testimony that we know God by the ecstasy of orgasm.

There is one type of orgasm, however, that I have never known Prince to write about: the kind you get from anal sex. It is an omission that leads me to wonder if a certain kind of passion, the kind that dare not speak its name, has always been distatseful to Prince. Maybe, to him, it represents blasphemy: when you have anal sex, you’re doing God’s work in the wrong sort of way. A sacreligious way. Maybe even hetero couples are sinners when they try it. Of course, this would mean that when Prince sang “Sexuality is all I ever need,” he was talking about sexuality in terms more narrow than you or I might have guessed.

The handful of references to being gay in Prince’s lyrics (that I have found) do not entirely refute this theory. “Bambi,” an early song in which Prince tries to seduce a young lesbian, contains the line “Maybe it’s ’cause you’re so young.” In “Uptown,” Prince describes being asked by a woman if he’s gay, and then remarks “She’s just a crazy crazy crazy little mixed up dame,” which makes you wonder how much he was offended by the question. Neither of these is shockingly homophobic, but I do detect traces of a certain kind of straight-boy attitude, the kind that says “I just don’t get it with those people.”

But I think I’ve gone too far. Parsing his lyrics like this, trying to read his mind, is exactly the sort of thing I try to avoid; it’s one thing to judge the lyrics, another to extrapolate the man behind them (especially a chameleon like Prince). One reason I like Prince is that he has always been provocative and sly, and I would hate to misunderstand him by citing songs of his that were written in the poetic voice. After all, my single favorite Prince song ever is “Controversy,” which I have always considered, rightly or wrongly, to be the Prince-iest of them all. The first line is: “I just can’t believe all the things people say/ Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” It is in many ways a perfect first line: daring, ambiguous, personal. And also accusatory. The subtext is “Fuck you for asking.” Could it be that the truest perverts among us are those that get hung up on the difference between black and white and straight and gay? Maybe trying to guess Prince’s innermost feelings on the subject is itself more prurient than anything Prince himself ever wrote, or didn’t write.

Which is why, for everything I’ve just written, “Controversy” is the song that makes me think I’m wrong. Even if Prince does, in whatever way, disapprove of Wendy and Lisa in bed together, the truth is probably more complicated. We may know God by the ecstasy of orgasm, but that doesn’t mean we know Prince.

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