Nothing Compares 2 Him (A Second Retrospective)

Whom would I be kidding if I said I had cared about anyone’s music but Prince’s for the last week and a half? I have found myself thinking constantly about how Prince intersected with pop culture and how the world around him inspired him. So, after my last post, which counted twelve of his finest moments, I return with a dozen more.

1. “The Beautiful Ones” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). When I went with a friend to see Purple Rain at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square last Tuesday, “The Beautiful Ones” stood out as one of the highlights of the film. To be clear, even though I know the Purple Rain soundtrack inside out, I had never actually seen the entire film, or if I had, it was many years ago and probably in a television-friendly cut on MTV or VH1. So it was a revelation when I saw the way that Purple Rain uses this particular song, which has quite possibly the best vocal on the album. As rising star “The Kid,” Prince pleads with Apollonia (same name for both actress and character) to choose between his love and the ill-gotten gains of stardom as a pop tart in the employ of antagonist Morris Day (again, same actor/character name). In an essay written for Rolling Stone on April 22, Tim Grierson wrote that “[Prince’s] finest movie moment jettisons acting all together and delves purely into the art form he mastered. Watch Prince’s performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ in Purple Rain, which — in a mere five minutes — embodies everything he did so incredibly: emotion, passion, sensuality, poignancy, combustible sex appeal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him star power.” True, true, true.

2. “Darling Nikki” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Oh, “Darling Nikki.” Yes, this is the song that spurred Tipper Gore to create the “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs that she felt were destroying vulnerable young ears and should be kept at a distance from the youth of America. Prince is therefore single-handedly responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory label on CDs, which were the result of the war waged by Gore. As if it could have been done any other way, the song’s inclusion in Purple Rain is a memorable one; bathed in brilliantly red stage lighting, “The Kid” taunts Apollonia (still torn between having her pop-star career and being with him), which is quite a feat considering her own big number in the film, the ridiculously cheesy “Sex Shooter.” Next to that, “Darling Nikki,” with its slow-burning buildup and almost ominous blares of keyboard from Revolution member Lisa Coleman, is one of the seven wonders of the world. The link between Prince’s music and sexuality is best described by Dodai Stewart in her essay “On Prince, Blackness, and Sexuality”: “Prince leaves us, as part of his legacy, a wholly unique case study for a black American male pop star. He didn’t have the put-upon polish or narrow repertoire of the smooth, seductive, quiet storm R&B guys. He wasn’t all braggadocio and brawn like the rappers. He had little in common with the slutty, sloppy, noisy rock gods. His sexuality funneled his feelings—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—into a quest for physical connection, one twin’s craving to find, touch, and melt into his other half, which would then, finally, finally, make him whole. Two bodies coming together so that the minds and souls could follow. His sexuality was not monolithic; he was insistent and reticent, fragile and strong, curious, exploratory, experimental, horny. Not the typical American sex symbol. Not tall, not brawny. But deeply interested in the topography of pleasure: Discovering its limits, giving it, taking his own, finding someone else’s. ‘Sexuality is all you’ll ever need,’ he sang in 1981’s ‘Sexuality.’ ‘Sexuality, let your body be free.'”

More succinctly, I’m also reminded of what music critic Robert Christgau wrote about Prince in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

3. “I Would Die 4 U” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Following the film’s apex, Prince’s performance of the title power ballad, there is joyous liberation in the exuberance of “I Would Die 4 U.” The audience (both in the film and the viewers watching on the other side of the screen) knows that this is going to be something different because after all the Sturm und Drang of the previous ten or so minutes, “The Kid” returns to the stage with a grin, totally aware that he now has complete possession of the adoring crowd. What follows is the stuff that Internet dreams are made of, given that people have made GIFs out of every single second, from the gliding movements of Prince’s high-heeled boots to this slick move to the slow-motion shuffle-slide across the floor. Maybe even more than by those specific images, you could sum up Prince’s magnetism with the first lines of the song: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” Whatever their reasons for loving Prince, everyone at the Times Square screening (myself included) was cheering, clapping and stomping along to the beat.

4. Prince (with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) accepting the Oscar for “Best Original Song Score” for Purple Rain (Academy Awards, 1985). It’s easy to forget that Purple Rain is an Oscar-winning movie since the “Song Score” category has not been awarded to any films since Prince won the prize. (You can read a bit more about that here.) I’m glad that Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s collaborators in his band The Revolution, were also on hand to accept the gold since they contributed so much to the impact of the film/album’s nine songs. One also must wonder how many boys and girls were watching the telecast and were mesmerized by sight of the Purple One draped in a glitter-covered caftan, looking kind of like a sparkly nun.

5. “When Doves Cry” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988). I can’t be certain where I would have seen this clip when I was younger since it couldn’t possibly have been on YouTube, but I have a definite memory of seeing it at some point during either high school or college because in those days I had a habit of passing time in any math or science class by scrawling stuff about music all over my notebook margins, and whenever it was that I saw this live video of “When Doves Cry,” I remember writing something the next day along the lines of “1988: Prince as a cover model from a Harlequin romance about pirates.” Who wouldn’t want that?

6. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (music video; studio version appears on the album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990) and Prince featuring Rosie Gaines, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (from the concert film Rave Un2 the Year 2000, 1999). “Nothing Compares 2 U” has to be the most famous Prince song that he didn’t make famous himself. Originally penned by him in 1985 for one of his side projects, The Family, the cover by Sinéad O’Connor in 1990 went #1 around the world, was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (#162) and has a music video which is considered iconic. O’Connor’s version influenced by the memories of her mother’s death in a car accident in 1985 is the definitive rendition but both expressions of the song are beautiful.

7. “Muppets Tonight” (guest host gig (as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”), 1997). Let it never be said that Prince didn’t have a sense of humor. Bless him, in the “Hoo-Haw” farmer segments, there are a couple of moments when he sounds like Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie.

8. “Purple Rain” (live at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, 2007). Fittingly it rained during this epic presentation, which was seen by 140 million TV viewers. Watch and be amazed.

9. “Creep” (live at Coachella, 2008). Anyone who has ever heard Radiohead’s “Creep,” the 1993 single that launched them into the stratosphere of alt-rock deification, must recognize that it’s a song that takes on new life when covered by other artists. The song means one thing when performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it’s totally different when you hear it done by Macy Gray, an African-American woman who was in her mid-40s when she included it in her album Covered in 2012. Prince’s interpretation is also interesting; he changes up the lyrics but makes the guitar sound even more unsettling than I’ve heard previously. I like to think that Radiohead’s recent decision to remove themselves entirely from their social media websites is a strange little tribute to Prince, whose well-documented battles with the Internet are the stuff of legend.

10. “New Girl” episode “Prince” (2014). Did Prince share the same pastimes as us regular, boring people who watch sitcoms? Evidently, since he was apparently a fan of the FOX comedy “New Girl” and agreed to do a guest spot two years ago. He acts as a spiritual advisor to Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who needs some help in the crucial step of being able to say “I love you” to new boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson). Pancakes, ping pong and butterflies are all involved in Prince’s magical process. And one of the absolute best parts? Jess’s makeover is set to the energetic sound of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (from his 1980 album Dirty Mind).

11. Interview with Arsenio Hall and fan questions (2014). I hadn’t seen this interview before last week. Arsenio gets some good answers out of Prince, and the fan Q&A part has some pretty nice moments.

12. “Baltimore” (feat. Eryn Allen Kane) (lyrics video; studio version appears on the album Hit n Run Phase Two, 2015). In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1990, Prince commented on an unreleased work, The Black Album (1987), by saying that “I was very angry a lot of the time back then and that was reflected in that album. I suddenly realized that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind. I didn’t want that angry, bitter thing to be the last thing. I learned from that album, but I don’t want to go back.” Since Hit n Run Phase Two is the last Prince album released in his lifetime, I think it means even more that he wrote and recorded a deeply political song concerned with Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement. For a long time – most of his career, I guess – Prince avoided covering overtly political topics in his songs, but he was obviously so moved by this cause that he had to speak out. If he were still here, he would undoubtedly hold more concerts like the “Rally 4 Peace” in Baltimore last May.

A last word: D’Angelo featuring Princess, “Sometimes It Snows in April” (performed live on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2016). I don’t usually cry over celebrity deaths. It’s simply a fact of my emotional makeup; I can weep at the drop of a hat while watching a movie, but when a singer or actor dies, the reality/finality of it is usually numbing more than anything else. Days passed after Prince’s death, and I listened to his music obsessively, but I didn’t cry. Not until this past Wednesday morning, that is. I was on an Amtrak train to Boston, exhausted because I hadn’t slept at all that night so that I would be ready to leave my house at 4:45 and board the 6:55 train. As I sat in my window seat I watched the video of D’Angelo performing on “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday night, which I had missed because I had been busy getting ready for my trip. Backed by Princess, a Prince cover duo made up of Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, D’Angelo delivers a moving performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April,” the last song in Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and also the last track on the Prince and the Revolution album Parade (1986). Obviously the song has taken on a new, tragic meaning given Prince’s passing on April 21 and you can hear the heartbreak in D’Angelo’s voice as he gives the song his all. It had me quietly shedding more than a few tears in the bright morning sunlight.

I was crying not just because of how sad I was, but also because I was so angry. I was confronted with this overwhelming feeling that Prince’s death wasn’t right, that it should not have happened in a compassionate universe. He should still be writing and recording songs with powerful messages, songs that could open people’s eyes to the injustices of the world (but maybe also continue to make the slow jams that everyone loves). I used to read his Twitter page, marveling at the fact that he actually wanted to have a presence on social media, and the fact that he referred to his Instagram account as “Princestagram,” a name he would write out in capital letters and often with several exclamation points. (The man certainly popularized what we now think of as text-speak, “U” and “B” and “2,” etc.) I realize I’ve hit upon what distresses me the most; for so long Prince was this enigmatic, larger-than-life figure, but in recent years he had become more knowable, connecting with his fans in a way he never had before. Now we won’t get the chance to know him any better, or at least not in his own voice. We might get glimpses of the man in archival material released from his fabled Paisley Park vaults, but it won’t be the same as his existing in real time and telling us himself. We had a conversation going – one that still felt like it was only just beginning – and now it has ended. That’s what hurts the most.

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