Feature | Remembering Prince: Something You Can Never Understand

Photo: John Leyba/Denver Post/Getty Images.

“Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him —he was a little Prince-ling. [Laughs] Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!”[Laughs] Joni Mitchell in New York Magazine, May 2005

Prince wrote a lot about loneliness. It was usually in the context of a broken heart, with him speaking from the vantage point of the one left behind and pining – “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” “17 Days,” “When You Were Mine,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Another Lonely Christmas,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”– though sometimes the ache was because he hadn’t yet found love at all (“Still Waiting). But he also sang of loneliness as a crippling existential wound, of a longing so deep and all-consuming that no amount of fucking or partying or anything else could fill the void.

Prince in Minneapolis, 1977. Photograph NC1 RobertWhitman 2014 WENN

“Anna Stesia,” from 1988’s Lovesexy album, begins with a stark, plaintive piano tentatively creeping from beneath the absolute stillness that follows the cacophonic ending of previous track “Glam Slam.” Prince then sings in one of his most raw, heartfelt studio vocal performances, “Have you ever been so lonely that you felt like you were the only one in this world? / Have you ever wanted to play with someone so much you’d take anyone, boy or girl? / Anna Stesia come to me, talk to me, ravish me, liberate my mind…” The track paces him making his way to God’s embrace (“Maybe, maybe, maybe I could learn to love if I was closer to something… yeah, closer to God…”), and ends with an ecstatic choir chanting “Love is God; God is love / Girls and boys, love God above.”

Prince, who was raised a Seventh Day Adventist and in 2001 converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness, is far from the first famished soul who could only be sated by giving himself completely over to God. And it’s somehow fitting that both Sheila E. and Vanity, two of the most important women in the music universe he constructed (each woman being, at different times, both his lover and creative collaborator) also eventually made their way to strict religious beliefs. The symbiotic relationship between belief in God and deep, profound loneliness that can’t be quelled by mere human contact is a consistent narrative thread in his work.

His intimate familiarity with real loneliness, the fact of it being a constant companion to his musical genius, is something many of us who were exiled (by choice; without choice) from family, church, or society, early on gleaned beneath the swagger and brilliance. It was a minor chord we heard clearly and felt deeply – we freaks, faggots, outcasts, unapologetic ‘hos – even as he was singing about getting head, flipping off Ronald Reagan, and striving for a world where people of all colors and inclinations stripped themselves of  clothing and all pre- and misconceptions. It was what shaded and grounded his work: he innately understood what it was to be on the margins, to be vulnerable there, riddled with loneliness and longing – and raging libido. He mined that place for outsider insight, turned being an outsider into his power source (think Cynthia Rose from his song “Starfish and Coffee”) as he praised God by celebrating the common ground between spiritual and sexual ecstasy.

For a lot of people, he served as a vibrant example of someone who could be devoutly religious and utterly absent guilt or shame for all the things the world, via religion and retrograde cultural beliefs and practices, told you were wrong about you. And for those as indifferent to God as He seemingly was to them, Prince’s secular music – with and despite all its references to Him and the afterlife – ironically served the same function the choir did in church on Sunday. You ground your teeth through the pastor’s high velocity, empty-calories sermons and communed with Spirit, felt Spirit, through the offering of the choir. Prince’s music ministered to the exiled. It offered respite and salvation, visions of a place beyond wherever you were currently stranded. It was someplace you fit and were right, just as you were.

Prince at the Cobo Center, Detroit, 1980. Photo by Leni Sinclair

“Now where I come from / We don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be / Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care / It’s all about being there / Everybody’s going uptown…” – Prince“Uptown”

To fully grasp Prince’s legacies and importance, you have to start with Dirty Mind, arguably his most important album. Not necessarily the best (though a strong argument could be made for that,) but probably his most important. It’s where he first threaded together religion, heartbreak and loneliness, and his own brand of queerness.

Released in 1980, following his 1978 debut For You and self-titled titled 1979 sophomore album, Dirty Mind lays the foundation for the rest of his career. Its world building of the Purple Universe to come, setting the stage for characters with names like Vanity, Morris Day, St. Paul, Cat, and more, as well as a slew of Prince aliases and alter egos. And it starts with the cover art. For You’s cover is a headshot in which a massive afro frames Prince’s mustachioed baby face. A year later, on the cover of Prince, he’s sporting the processed locks he tossed with pimp prerogative and white girl insouciance (or imperiousness). For Dirty Mind, his hair was cut and styled into a modified punk ‘do (“punk” here connotes both the music genre and the homophobic slur) with him staring defiantly into the camera while wearing the perv’s trench coat uniform. Tricked out with studs on one shoulder, the coat flaps open to reveal skimpy black drawz and a bandana tied loosely around his neck. Before you even get to the music, he’s thrown down a gauntlet.

Dirty Mind front and back covers. Courtesy Warner Bros. Records.

Musically, Dirty Mind built on its rock-infused R&B predecessors but took a hard left, shearing away their confectionary glaze and PG-13 innuendo. It folded in the energy of punk (more the table-flipping femme-punk spirit of Poly Styrene and the Slits than, say, the Sex Pistols; aligned with the queer punk-pop poetics of the Buzzcocks), and the melty keyboards of New Wave, all atop a solid funk bed. Prince also proved a deft traditionalist beneath his innovation. The album’s second track, “When You Were Mine,” is a pop masterpiece. It was in the album’s lyrics, though, and his idiosyncratic vocal approach to them, that he detonated bombs, straddling and then pissing on gender lines, rewriting terms of black masculinity, and positioning unbridled libido as the key to racial utopia. The album shifts seamlessly between cocksure ribaldry and aching vulnerability, between swaggering lothario and coy vixen, setting the extremes against one another and then weaving them together in such a way that what emerges is a psyche/persona fully at ease with – in fact, reveling in – all its contradictions.

Prince in concert. By Richard E Aaron/Redferns.

The album is a glamorously seedy first-person narrative voiced by a self-made bad boy – think Lord Byron, Rimbaud, the pimp one block over – casually ticking off all the taboos he’s broken; promising and then delivering life-changing sex; unleashing the freak in you; and letting you and only you (so you think) peep his sensitive heart. He’s as enthralled by the romantic mythos he’s spun around himself as you are, and happily shares all its components – the grit, the angst, the defiance and vulnerability inside the spectacle of him. Dirty Mind is as perfect a rock/pop/soul album as ever recorded, and part of what makes it so potent even today is the faint aura of isolation (the cost of being an outsider) that drifts around its protagonist even as he seduces, laments, and calculatedly shocks. That subtext floats the whole thing, and is present throughout Prince’s discography. Closing track “Party Up,” in which Prince informs us he’s serving “revolutionary rock & roll,” is the album’s coda, ending with the defiantly sneered chant, “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war / ‘cause we don’t wanna fight no more.” It foreshadows a specific kind of social commentary to come (the Sign O’ the Times title-track for example) while being very much of its moment.

Also: RIP: Denise ‘Vanity’ Matthews

More than just bravado, “Party Up” bottles the Cold War angst of the time, and that would appear and reappear through his next few albums. It was his first stab at social commentary tackling ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. The draft, abolished in 1974, was reinstated by Congress in 1980 with the support of President Jimmy Carter.  Under terms of the draft, male college students would have to show proof of registration in order to be eligible for some forms of financial aid. When Ronald Reagan came into office a year later and began a dick wagging contest with Russia, the political climate of the time turned volatile. In addition to “Party Up,” Prince addressed it on Controversy’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” It’s the subject of 1999’s title-track. The politics of war and sex are brought into a tense waltz in Prince’s world. Threat of death inflames libido, making the connection forged through sex a life-affirming protest against the war machine.

Controversy (1981) was an addendum to Dirty Mind, taking on the scandals and raised eyebrows its predecessor had sparked (“I just can’t believe all the things people say… / Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?”) while doubling down on Prince’s liberation politics. “Private Joy” extolled the joys of self-pleasuring. “Jack U Off” offered to lend a hand to a partner, and “Sexuality,” punctuated with his trademarked high-pitch yelps, laid out his manifesto: Stand up everybody / This is your life / Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight / You don’t need no money, you don’t need no clothes / The second coming, anything goes / Sexuality is all you’ll ever need… /  C’mon everybody, yeah, this is your life / I’m talking about a revolution, we gotta organize / We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race / New age revelation, I think we got a case…” One of the most powerful lyrics on the album, one that likely resonated with a lot of the outcasts who constituted his early following (and circles back to the sense of isolation/loneliness in the form of hopelessness), is tossed off almost as a throwaway line in the title track: “Some people wanna die so they can be free.”

Dirty Mind album sleeve. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Prince was famously booed by the Rolling Stones’ audience when he opened for them at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stop of their 1981 tour. This is an important plot-point in his career narrative. His being on that stage should have been a triumphant moment but instead exemplified the never-ending pushback and costs of being truly different, talent be damned. He wasn’t yet a beloved icon; he was still a maybe-faggot freak and was treated as such. Though he’d gained a sizeable following by this time, mainstream America wasn’t even close to being ready for a bikini-clad, falsetto-wielding black man who’d shaped himself into a doe-eyed, fey, punk aesthete. Rather than being cowed by the experience, though, it pushed him to raise his middle finger even higher.

The pull-out poster for the Controversy album was him standing in a pair of bikini briefs in a shower stall, arms folded behind his head, water pelting his body, and a huge crucifix just to the right of the showerhead, with him posed like a starlet in some softcore spread. The photo on the back of one of the two album sleeves for 1999 had him in bed nude, the sheet pulled half-way down his arched ass, him staring into the camera on some Brigitte Bardot sex-kitten vibe. It wasn’t just traditional rock fans who were unnerved. As the ‘80s unfolded, hip-hop roared back rebuttal to the kind of militantly effete, outside-the-lines maleness Prince was working, and as the ‘80s rolled into the ‘90s, hip-hop hawked cultural revolution hinged on rigidly policed sex and gender roles, rooted in unbridled homophobia and misogyny. It was gruesome reassertion and reification of the very status quo that had erased or suffocated so many of us. It also made Prince’s music and persona all the more vital, ensured that their revolutionary thrusts remained (and remain) as potent and relevant as ever.

Prince 1999 album sleeve. Courtesy Allen Beaulieu Photography / Warner Bros.

Writing about the ways Prince toyed with identity almost does it a disservice because there’s no way to capture more than a sliver of what he did and how important it was and still is. The reflex is to use the bloodless language of academia, to filter what he did through various schools of theory, which mummifies it, drains it of poetry, pre-cum, and magic. His playing with identity was smart and shrewdly considered, it was cerebral, but it was also part of his intrinsic genius, too deeply interwoven with his musical gifts to be separated from them. The reason it was and is so powerful is that it was playful in its seriousness, mocking socially (and self) constructed barriers around race, gender and sexuality. There was something impish about it, which might have been its most unsettling quality.

It was him giving himself – and us – permission to have fun as we peeled back layers and tangoed with taboo. He wasn’t so much pulling on and then shedding identities as saying we already have multiple complex selves within ourselves and they all deserve their moment in the spotlight. You achieve synthesis, find out who the core you is, by giving voice to each aspect of yourself. Or, to quote the great Chaka Khan and put her words in Prince’s mouth, “It’s all in me. Anything you want done baby, I’ll do it naturally.”

Controversy pull-out poster. Courtesy warner Bros.

For Prince, that meant not only the shifting of his sound, evolution of his wardrobe, and changes in the lineup of his backing band, it meant creating groups like Vanity 6 and The Family, and molding the Time (one of the best soul/funk bands ever) into existence, in most cases writing, producing, arranging (and sometimes lending guest vocals to) their albums, working under various aliases (i.e., Jamie Starr; Christopher; Camille) while “officially” assigning creative credit to the groups. But as magnetic and talented as those entities were on their own, they were also iterations of Prince, which is mind-blowing when you juxtapose the inimitable (sorry Bruno Mars) black dick swagger of The Time with the femme fatale pussy-power of Vanity 6, and then realize they’re the same thing at core, complements that are essentially mirror images. Prince’s midwifing of the two groups into existence was distillation and manifestation of his own yin and yang.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince revealed that he was a fan and student of women singers, and simply wasn’t that interested in male vocalists. In that regard, he’s kindred spirit to R&B’s last real genius, Luther Vandross, who worshipped at the shrine of the Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Ghost (Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross.) It wasn’t jealousy or even competitiveness with other males that made Prince and Vandross favor women singers. Both men were after the emotional freedom of female vocalists who are sublime technicians with singular instruments, recognizing that even the most emotive of male singers are often constrained by adhering to notions and performances of acceptable male expressiveness. Prince told Smiley he preferred singing ballads in his upper register for this reason; he was after the freedom he found there. Check out “Adore,” “Still Waiting,” “Do Me Baby,” “Gotta Broken Heart Again” “When 2 R In Love” “How Come U Don’t Call Me,” “Insatiable,” “Solo,” and “Free” to hear what freedom sounds like.

But Prince wasn’t completely turning his back on the power embedded in maleness, specifically black maleness. He simply wasn’t adhering to all the rules and limitations imposed upon it — from within and without. The Black American male is the global avatar of cool, from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix, to the kid currently blowing up Instagram and Vine. It’s that thing that can’t be fully described or explained. Early in his career Prince pulled up a seat at the table of the ruling elders of cool and claimed his spot in the pantheon. Though he was a singular talent (or because he was a singular talent), he was immersed and actively conversant in multiple traditions, eras and movements at once, in dialogue with artists who may not immediately come to mind when people talk about him. His conscious, pointed anchoring of feminine expression in his art, just like Luther Vandross, and his facility in working with women artists, just like Vandross, is one example. (It means absolutely everything that Vandross and Prince cut their artistic teeth before hip-hop blitzed the cultural landscape.) Here are some others:

Prince in concert. Photo by Richard E. Aaron.

1. Like all great and serious artists, he was first and foremost a student, one who never recused himself from the responsibility of learning. He owed a whole lot to Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner, Miles Davis, and George Clinton, but was also hugely indebted (and vocal about saying so) to Joni Mitchell, whose songwriting style was a major influence. Her dedicated genre questing in the ‘70s burned off a lot of her early fans but never deterred her from following her own path and vision, which became/was Prince’s model for how an artist should be an artist. Also in the mix: myriad funk and soul bands of the late ‘60s through the ‘70s; the groundbreaking ‘70s albums by Shuggie Otis, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye; doo-wop; jazz; Motown; British punk and New Wave (for both sartorial and sonic aesthetics); LA’s short-lived Paisley Underground movement of the 1980s, which not only gave him the name for his Paisley Park complex, but inspired the Around the World in a Day album. (Its first single “Raspberry Beret” is a perfect example of his take on the sound). His crush on Bangles lead singer Susannah Hoffs (the Bangles were arguably the most successful of the Paisley scene’s artists) led him to give them the song “Manic Monday,” which he’d originally written for Apollonia 6.

2. The early to mid ‘80s remain one of the most extraordinary periods in global pop regarding the creation and marketing of subversive gender identities. Annie Lennox, Boy George, and a slew of British gender-benders who briefly ruled MTV were all clear descendants of David Bowie. Prince and Grace Jones were equally radical in the gender politics of their public personas, but the fact of their being black meant they worked in a more charged register, one floated by long histories of hijacked, misunderstood, and misrepresented black sexuality and gender concerns. Madonna gets filed with this movement, and although she was a sex/gender agent provocateur (and suffered scathing misogyny and sexism as a result,) she wasn’t on the same plane as those whose forays into gender play were about incinerating the binary.

The sleeve for “Sexuality” single.

3. One of the great ironies about the anxieties Prince generated around his particular performance of gender is that it actually underscored his hetero bona fides. An openly gay man at that time could not have gotten away with what he did and garnered a large pop audience. While Prince was well aware of what he was borrowing from Little Richard, he may not have known that he was stepping into a grand tradition of Black gender-fuck that stretches back to the Harlem Renaissance with lesbian blues singer Gladys Bentley and includes Rock & Roll pioneer Esquerita (a contemporary of Little Richard); disco diva, Sylvester; and the brilliant Jackie Shane.

4. While part of the multiracial, ocean spanning conversation about gender and music in the early ‘80s, Prince was also enmeshed in an overlapping conversation on American shores that was specifically about Black American masculinity. Black entertainment magazines of the day fanned rivalries between Prince, Michael Jackson, and Rick James, and though it wasn’t explicitly spelled out, what was at stake was whose presentation and definition of black masculinity would rule. (Though a lot of people had a very clear favorite among the trio, most still listened to all three.) Michael was the wholesome boy-next-door who’d grown up with or right in front of us, and was the crown prince (so to speak) still full of promise. Rick was old-school black hetero maleness reinvigorated. Armed with a thicker physical build than the slight frames of Prince and Michael, and with a rep that he could and would literally kick your ass, his music was forward-looking while his macho persona was something culturally conservative fathers, uncles, brothers, and neighbors could identify with and support without qualification. And Prince was Prince. It was the rivalry between him and Rick James that turned tense and personal in real life. Thing is, they were much more alike than either would have likely admitted at that point, flipsides of the same coin. There’s irony in Rick James, clad in skin-tight leather pants and pecs-exposing matching vest, sporting glitter-speckled braids, sneering that Prince was a punk, and casting aspersions on his sexuality.

There’s so much more to say, but the internet’s not big enough to hold it all. Here are just a few more ideas to chew on:

He was color-struck as fuck, an aesthetic that defined not only his personal life (his business, of course) but also the overwhelming majority of women he chose to populate his creative sphere. There were exceptions: underrated British soul singer Mica Paris; the great Patrice Rushen, for whom he wrote “I Feel For You;” Rosie Gaines (his former backing singer and keyboardist); and of course the legends he worked with – Mavis Staples, Pattie LaBelle, Chaka Khan. But those women served entirely different purposes in the Prince galaxy than those he put on the romantic/sexual pedestal.

The brilliance of Wendy & Lisa was absolutely integral to him realizing his artistic vision.

The song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign O’ the Times shows that his astuteness about gender wasn’t confined to wardrobe, stage demeanor, or flirting with ambiguity when describing himself in song. “Girlfriend” is a sharp dissection of gender roles and the ways unthinking performance of them inhibits true connection. It also wittily illustrates how habit and conditioning can make you slip into the very thing you’re critiquing even as you’re critiquing it. In the lyrics, Prince is offering not only to literally strip naked, but to step outside the suffocating and deadly garb of conventional gender performances in the quest for real intimacy. He knew that those roles as socially prescribed and uncritically embraced aren’t just performance or mask, but prisons where true human connection goes to die. Still, he can’t stop himself from macking and trying to score some pussy in the middle of being all, “This is what a feminist looks like.” And therein is the brilliance.

He was a gift to the world of gifs, a master of the side-eye who was second only to Whitney Houston in that regard.

In his youth, he could be a real dick to the people working with him.

For the movie Purple Rain, “loosely” based on his life, Prince invented a back-story that mined the tropes of the tragic mulatto. (Maybe only black folks can appreciate just how incredibly black trafficking in that particular revisionist/fetishistic/retrograde racial fantasy really is.) His character Kid had a long-suffering white mother (played by Greek actress Olga Karlatos) and a physically abusive, tortured Black father (played by Clarence Williams III). The father was a gifted musician who’d never compromised the integrity of his music, and had apparently paid a high price for that. This fictive racial spin on reality is undoubtedly why so many people apparently thought Prince was biracial. Both his parents were African American. With that in mind, Prince didn’t “transcend his race,” as some commentators babbled after his death. He embodied blackness, and in a way that a lot of people of all races (including Black folks) weren’t and still aren’t ready for.

“Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” – Prince at the 2015 Grammys.

For his month-long 2011 residency at the LA Forum, “A 21-Night Stand,” Prince took a stand for his everyday fans, and eighty-five percent of the tickets were priced at just twenty-five dollars. It sold out every night. Even with a stellar revolving cast of guest singers – Chaka Khan, Ledisi, Mint Condition, Alicia Keys – he shone the brightest. The night I went, Sheila E. and Cuba Gooding were called onstage to dance alongside him. Sheila, in a skin-fitting red dress and high heels, twisted, shimmied, and danced her ass off, sexy as ever. Her chemistry with Prince was palpable. Cuba was a stand-in for the audience, not for his moves (which were impressive) but for the wide-eyed grin he kept on his face the whole time, as if disbelieving where he was and exactly who he was next to. His whole face read, “Can you believe this shit, man? I am living life.”

He brought the same qualities to his singing and songwriting: soulfulness, wit, playfulness, raunchiness, vulnerability, sensuality and simmering sexuality. His beguilingly left-of-center worldview as a writer was matched by a performing style (in the studio and onstage) alternately tender and so wildly over-the-top you thought he’d lose control of his instrument. But he was never less than focused and precise. And as a live performer, he was distinctly old-school: his every cell was absolutely committed to getting the audience off. He was determined to floor you with the force of his talent, not distract you with a lot of bells and whistles.

Prince spawned imitators (of varying degrees of talent) almost from the start, with acts lifting liberally from him or his various protégés. That included obvious examples like Klymaxx (Bernadette Cooper was a female Morris Day who served butch playa realness) and Ready for the World, whose “Oh, Sheila” was a straight up bite. But there was also Jamie Principle’s and Frankie Knuckles’ foundational 1987 House classic “Baby Wants to Ride.” It’s often cited as an example of the ways Black youth in Chicago (like Black kids in Detroit) were absorbing European music of the day and fusing it with local nascent House or techno elements, but Prince’s imprint is also all over it. His creative DNA – diluted as it might be – is now everywhere. As is eventually the case with all truly great artists, there are folks out there who belong to him and they don’t even know it.

Contemporary artists who carry something of Prince’s DNA – a hint of his sound, some facsimile of his sexual frankness; either his tireless work ethic or something of the Divine that illumined him (or, in one or two cases, both) – include D’Angelo, Meshell, Laura Mvula, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean, Erykah Badu, Andre 3000, Miguel, B. Slade, Beyonce, Cody Chessnutt, Stromae, Mykki Blanco. Stromae is the only hetero male on the list whose work presents gender as an unstable element, something to be played with, fucked with, critiqued. It’s one reason his stuff (the majority of which isn’t explicitly concerned with gender) has such an electric buzz through it. His willingness to thumb a nose at limiting gender rules and roles is rooted in a larger, sharp and nuanced politic that plays out in all his music and accompanying videos as he, like Prince, imagines and strives to create utopia for all.

Prince, one of rock & roll’s all-time greatest guitarists, wrote, sang, arranged, composed and played all the instruments on his 1978 debut album For You, which includes the original version of “I Feel for You.” He was nineteen years old when he recorded the album.

There are going to be (should be, hopefully will be) countless articles in the future written by musicians and serious music scholars who will try to capture something of the scale and scope of his genius as a pure musician. Because that’s what he was first and foremost. If he hadn’t been that at his core, then all the swagger and attitude would have been for naught. He wouldn’t have had a pump to stand on. But for some of us ordinary, non-musician fiends for music, it’s what he did with that genius, what he applied it to, what he used it to discern and disseminate, the conversations he stoked, the confirmations and affirmations he dispensed, that opened up the world, kept us sane, kept some of us alive. That undoubtedly sounds like hyperbole. But it’s true.

Best lyric: Impossible to choose but, gun to the head, it has to be: “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand…,” from “I Would Die 4 U.”

Runner up: “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size,” from “Kiss.”

Best character in a song: Cynthia Rose, from “Starfish and Coffee.”

Runners up: Annie Christian; Dorothy, from “Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

Best film: The one that runs through your head while listening to the 1999 or Sign O’ the Times albums/CDs.

Best cover of a Prince song:When You Were Mine” (Cyndi Lauper). Covering the song on her 1983 solo debut album She’s So Unusual, Lauper and producers Rick Chertoff and William Wittman underscored the original track’s New Wave sound, and then pushed up the fader on its queerness. Lauper didn’t alter the song’s lyrics, so the line, “I never cared, I never was the kind to make a fuss / when he was there sleeping in between the two of us,” immediately places the listener in the middle of a love triangle in which Lauper is either singing to a woman who has left her for a man, or a man who has left her for another man. Or she’s singing to someone who actually identifies as neither. (“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” – Prince in “I Would Die 4 U.”) The fact that the song is only about the heartache caused, not the gender configurations in play, makes it a radical proposition still.

Runners up: “Nothing Compares to U” (Prince and Rosie Gaines), “How Come U Don’t Call Me” (Stephanie Mills) and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (TLC).

Best song expressly about God:Love, Thy Will Be Done” by Martika (who also co-wrote it.)

Best Female Doppleganger: Vanity (aka the Prototype)

Best Prince moment in a Prince film: The spin below.

Best B-side: “17 Days”

Best unreleased bootleg track: Extra Loveable (original version)

Best celebrity tribute to him after his death: Erykah Badu


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