Remembering Prince: Music & Social Change

Consider this a different kind of reminiscence about Prince, who passed away yesterday. And trust me, there is a connection to social change - I promise.

For many in my generation, Prince's Purple Rain was a ticket to cool - sure, I saw it when it came to the Brighton theater, but I also managed to secure a copy of the soundtrack. (Along with The Time's Ice Cream Castles). For several months, I felt greater confidence, especially with female high school classmates - both were impressed that I had the album. If memory serves, one was a casual gathering; the other was during running of a retreat for underclassmen (and that classmate was impressed that I also knew the Rolling Stones "Shattered").

But more importantly, it was Purple Rain that started me working backwards through Prince's catalog, and I came across two albums that are not only my favorites (and I believe are underrated), but I think they demonstrate Prince's philosophy...and how that philosophy influenced my thinking.

I'm talking, of course, about Controversy and Dirty Mind: two early albums where Prince solidified his sound and his backing band. In short, these albums are very remarkable in how the music rocks hard and swings easily at the same time. We might expect this from a veteran band of twenty years or so - from a relatively young man early in his music career, they're revelatory. And let's be clear - as an adolescent, some of the lyrics were very tantalizing.

But some of the sentiments were more than just prurient - Prince wrote lyrics that not only addressed social complexities, but also managed to promote a kind of utopian feeling - a sense of hope that permeated throughout his musical career.  Yes, he has a wide ranging body of work beyond that, and he managed to take on issues of ownership of creative works with glee and insight  (remember when he was "The Artist Formerly Known As..."?) But at the time, none of that existed yet - in the grooves were some radical ideas that affected my outlook.

Rather than skirt contradictions, Prince took them head-on in his lyrics. When a musician places lines like "Do I believe in God?/Do I believe in me?" and "Some people wanna die/so they can be free?" in the same chorus (much less the same song), it speaks volumes. His band was multi-racial and multi-gender at a time when it was not considered "normal."

But within Prince's lyrics were blunt, dealing with sexuality, urban life, and community in a way that very few artists could at the time. (Trust me, he swayed me away from my then-obsession, Paul Weller and the Jam). Part of it was how he mixed the secular with the sexual - in "Sexuality", the second track from Controversy, he declared

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...
Reproduction of a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize

Now, granted, it's easy to take at face value, but look beneath, the idea of creating new leadership? A willingness to wipe out social constructs? Had Prince released this song now, he would be automatically labeled "social justice warrior"....and he'd wear it proudly. And as a result, I learned that being a social change advocate could be done within a variety of contexts...and that I had the unique ability to make a difference simply through treating others with respect.

But Prince's ability to describe tough situations with compassion had a powerful influence on me. Consider "Uptown" from Dirty Mind - on the one hand, it's a description of two people having a moment. But as the song progresses, the story becomes one of seeing someone else's humanity, and moving towards an idea where all humanity matters:

Said to myself, said
"She's just a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed up dame
She's just a victim of society and all its games"
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

Looking back, that might be the greatest influence Prince's music has had on me - the idea that we can all share a common humanity, and can live as individuals who accept each other's differences seemed a lot less radical to a teenage mind. It actually seemed practical, workable, doable...and even as I kept up with his music and his activities, it was that sense of hope and community that kept drawing me back into listening.

Plus, Prince wrote some killer tunes.

You'll read many tributes to Prince. But I think the greatest tribute I can share is how his music influenced my philosophy of social change. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

But now, time to dig out my vinyl copies of Controversy and Dirty Mind...

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