This introduction seems futile; no amount of vague, attention-piquing description or scene-setting could do the topic of this piece the proper justice. So, I’ll just tell it like it is: I’m here to talk about Prince.
I was first exposed to “The Purple One” through the art that accompanied his hits compilation, The Hits/The B-Sides. Throughout the collection, Prince is pictured in full form: voluminous locks, doe-like, mascara-laden eyes with a tantalizing gaze, soft sassy lips, a masterfully clean-cut beard, a sexy black jumpsuit, and a cane — all flaunted in poses aimed to induce desire.
As a child, I couldn’t fully comprehend the identity of the artist in these images, as I hadn’t yet been exposed to something or someone so seemingly undefinable in my first few years. What was I looking at? This person had beautifully feminine eyes and lips, yet a strikingly masculine build and beard. Confused, I asked my mother if Prince was a boy or a girl; she explained that he was man who sometimes liked to look like a woman. Still puzzled, but all the same fascinated and intrigued, I discovered Prince’s alluring aesthetic: mystery.
The most glaring vein of Prince’s mysterious persona is his sexuality. The driving force behind this uncertainty is his appearance, a characteristic observed from afar, so it’s often the first Prince puzzle with which people come into contact. Even before listening to his music, fans are exposed to Prince’s androgyny through many of his album covers; in addition to The Hits/The B-Sides, the covers of his debut and sophomore albums, Prince and Dirty Mind respectively, are aimed to confuse and intrigue.
On the cover of Prince, the artist is pictured square-shouldered and shirtless in front of a light-blue backdrop, his name ornamented in soft pink above his head and his right nipple exposed above the bottom border. The first album of Prince’s career, it already boasts a medley of masculinity and femininity; his mustache and bold stare clash with the soft blue and pink hues that surround him to dilute the viewers sense of his sexuality.
With Dirty Mind, Prince built upon his already shocking appearance: donned in nothing more than a coat, a scarf, and high-cut briefs, the man poses sexily with the same mustache and brash expression as Prince. Nearly naked, with body hair exposed and hips tweaked, Prince throws onlookers into a frenzy of discomfort and fascination, as no known concept or label can tag the artist to which their gaze is glued. About the cover and the album’s content, Prince said: “[Dirty Mind] really felt like me for once. When I brought it to the record company it shocked a lot of people… I wasn’t being deliberately provocative, I was being deliberately me.”
Prince extrapolated this male-female ambiguity when he chose to rebrand himself between 1993 and 2000 in the wake of contractual disputes with his record label, Warner Bros. An unpronounceable glyph, Prince’s new identity was a combination of the Mars symbol (♂) and Venus symbol (♀), signs for male and female respectively — androgyny literally manifested itself in Prince’s name for seven years.
Aside from his visual aesthetic, Prince’s androgyny also dominates his actual music. Known for his unfathomable vocal range, Prince had the ability to nail both a feminine falsetto and masculine baritone, so much so that many of his tracks might be unrecognizable to new listeners if they’re unfamiliar with his various vocal personas.
On “Do Me, Baby” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the vocalist hits listeners with his trademark wails and screeches, embodying a diva-like sound historically paired with female vocalists. Conversely, Prince puts his natural voice to use on classics like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain,” sounding undeniably masculine but just as captivating. With this vocal dichotomy, the man went so far as to develop a female alter-ego, named Camille, that he planned to personify for a project in which he’d sing from a woman’s perspective. While the Camille project was cancelled, some tracks survived: on “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Prince’s already-falsetto vocals are slightly up-pitched, conveying a sound that is so incredibly womanly and contrary to his biological identity that it’s chills-inducing.
Regardless of these mixed signals, Prince’s lyrics remain explicitly heterosexual. On “Darling Nikki,” Prince sings of a female sex fiend: “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine / She said how’d you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.” The contrast between his grey-area androgyny and overtly straight lyrics is a major source of Prince’s mystery; he separates heterosexuality from traditional masculinity, once again throwing fans for a loop.
Not only did Prince incorporate an aura of mystery into his music, but he also directly addressed it through his songs. Cognizant of the uncertainty surrounding both his sexuality, as an androgynous figure, and race, as a light-skinned African American, the artist penned, “Controversy.” The song’s opening lines: “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” reveal that Prince was well aware of his tendency to confuse. On the topic of his race and his identity in general, Prince said: “I had a bunch of white friends and a bunch of black friends. I never grew up in one particular culture…I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not on what I say, not on what people claim I am, not on the color of my skin.” The man was undefinable by any metric other than his being and by anyone but himself; he knew this fact and embraced it.
Prince’s mystical aesthetic not only manifested itself through his appearance and music; the artist was also known for his incredibly secretive life. When he wasn’t holed up in his fantastical and exclusive Paisley Park residence outside of Minneapolis, Prince seemed to exist at the quantum level, popping into and out of the universal reality whenever he pleased. Stories from Jimmy Fallon and Questlove hilariously reveal Prince’s tendency to spontaneously appear and disappear when he sought fit, whether for a casual game of ping pong or his own live show.
The final metric of Prince’s mystery lies in perhaps his most definable characteristic: the color purple. Prince was purple: from the motorcycle featured in scenes of the blockbuster film, Purple Rain, to the “Love Symbol” guitar paraded on stage during the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, Prince and purple were inseparable, and no other color could have better served the artist’s mysterious aesthetic. Purple has mystical implications; think of any stereotypical magician or sorceress, and you’ll likely incorporate elements of purple in your image. What’s more, purple is often associated with vanity, extravagance, individualism, and ambiguity, characteristics that scream Prince. Purple is also not traditionally masculine or feminine — sound familiar?
From his appearance to his music, from his temporary name to his favorite color, Prince expertly doctored an aesthetic of mystery. This theme of mystery seems to be tied to Prince’s embrace of individualism; not only were people unsure about what he was — whether straight, gay, black, white, male, or female — almost know one ever knew where he was. His identity was completely individualistic, not tied to or concerned with that of anyone else, and he looked to no one but himself for validation: “Really, I’m normal. A little highly strung, maybe. But normal. But so much has been written about me and people never know what’s right and what’s wrong. I’d rather let them stay confused.” Confused, yes — but there are more apt descriptions for those on whom Prince left his mystical mark: intrigued and inspired. By shedding labels, Prince taught fans what it meant to be an individual.