Monday, May 30, 2016

My Name Is...?: When Prince Was Not Prince


In my previous post, I recalled the time Prince’s music first impacted my life and how much the allure of his humour and confidence helped shape my own character. I had shaken off more than a few childhood shackles to the strains of Batdance, Party Man and Thieves In The Temple et all, but what maintained my fascination with Prince, was the ease of his shape-shifting identity, which seemed equally as vital to him as music itself. In seamless succession, the neon-lit bohemian artist-in-nude-sans-gloves from 1999, had apparently slipped out only to re-emerge a few years later as comic book icon The Joker, with total commitment to the transformation. Along the way, he gender-bended from cocky lady killer (Christopher Tracy) to clichéd gay archetypes and everything in between like a care-free child skipping along a stony path – always avoiding the cracks.

Prince unveils Gemini in Batdance
Many Prince fans have a favourite era, or favourite Prince look. For me, the late '80s Batman-era was it. At this stage, he wore his hair long and appeared louche and brooding, even lowering his speaking voice. Still new to Prince’s world, I had yet to discover that he was in fact playing a character – his latest in a long line – who went by the name Gemini. Also the artist’s astrological sign, Gemini remains my favourite of Prince’s identities. Perhaps his most famous dalliance in role-play was Camille, who in 1987 was responsible for the portions of Sign O’ The Times. However Camille was seemingly abandoned in the wake of the planned-and-scrapped Crystal Ball album leaving fans guessing on what triple album of songs by Prince’s female alter-ego might have been.

'Camille' in 1988
While Camille saw Prince firmly embrace an ongoing dalliance with his feminine side, Gemini allowed his hairy-chested masculine self out to play. One of the strongest drawcards for Prince taking on the Batman project was how much he identified with the dark/light struggle within AND between the lead characters. He would never have been satisfied with simply recording a soundtrack to a film in which he did not have a part, and so Prince created roles for himself. Gemini appeared as an amalgam of The Joker and Batman in the promotional video for Batdance, while a black leather-clad Prince helmed an elaborate recording studio deck from which he appeared to urgently maintain control of his creation. Ultimately, Gemini opens fire on Prince before detonating an electric chair – symbolically destroying his guilt – as Prince brings the escalating madness to an end with an understated cry of “STOP!”.

The timing of the Batman project along with Prince’s desire to compose and perform music under several guises went beyond mere experimentation. It’s widely known Prince could perform a multitude of tasks as band, bandleader, producer and writer, which certainly fed into his schizophrenic reinventions. But he saw himself with such rare clarity that frustration was inevitable when it came to the dealing with business of marketing, and by 1990 a decision to end business as he/we knew it was set in motion. That same year, Prince did the unthinkable and returned to a character from his past. In 1984, The Kid had served him well as the protagonist in Purple Rain, and was as far as Prince’s fans were concerned as close to the man himself as you could get. It was only upon his return in Graffiti Bridge that the sheer flimsiness of the character became clear. It was surprisingly difficult to warm to The Kid in his sophomoric years despite his very clear agenda of standing up to The Man.

The sexually ambiguous Gemini in Party Man

Regardless of the challenging aspects of Prince’s characterisations, audiences loved his many faces and happily went along on for the ride. His fragility in Purple Rain quadrupled Prince’s fan-base while his playfulness in merging Camille with Gemini in Party Man sparkled with mad genius. However a thoroughly confounding challenge for his devotees was to come at the start of the 1990s. Following 1986’s Parade and subsequent film, Under The Cherry Moon, the artist suffered a backlash from his black fans, proclaiming he had sold out to white audiences. As rap and R&B were began to take a strangle hold on the charts Prince, for the first time in his career, decided by 1991 to cut in on another’s wave. Pushing his new backing group The New Power Generation to the forefront, he cut Diamonds and Pearls as an indirect reaction to his black detractors, which only served to highlight a chink in his once flawless armor. Prince was no rapper and he knew it.

Saved by a solid portion of smooth R&B grooves, Diamonds and Pearls was let down by the NPG’s frequently awkward rap babbling and ultimately the project began to look a lot like a quest for attention at someone else’s birthday party. Always the pioneer, Prince suddenly seemed unrecognisable in spite of his former ‘masks’, and while his new identity seemed shaky, nobody could have predicted his next move. In what I’ve come to see as a stroke of unbridled genius, Prince was largely met with ridicule and confusion over his sudden announcement - via cryptic messages on 1992’s Love Symbol album, and less subtly on 1994’s Come – that Prince was dead and in his place S was born. Spirituality has always taken equal billing alongside sensuality in his music, thus initially in response to his reasons for changing his name to the glyph, Prince declared his pre-mortem reincarnation as an explanation.

Prince spotters noted variations of his S symbol had been present in his visual output from as far back as the early 1980s. Through his many incarnations it remained an inconsistent constant; an amalgamation of the common ‘gender glyphs’ which fitted nicely with Prince’s apparent gender duality. To adopt it his name was to render himself not only unpronounceable but also unreachable in the eyes of even many long-time fans. The decision left a palpable nasty taste in the mouths of journalists, who saw it as Prince’s attempt to baffle without good cause. Subsequently, he was demonised and even written off as a joke at a time when he was laying plans to regain his pioneering spirit. Perhaps if he had been more articulate in his given reasons, he would not have suffered such prejudice. In the grey world of business, Prince was a purple bolt of lightning which the creaky, inflexible establishment at Warner Bros. had little tolerance for, and as it turned out, a considerable chunk of his audience failed to warm to as well. As his battle for the rights to his back catalogue and complete artistic freedom are well worn stories by now, I find reactions to Prince’s decision the more fascinating angle to review.

In brief, he was under contract as Prince Rogers Nelson. As in most cases of record contracts, his signature ensured the label had a sizable say in various aspects of the money and creative sides to all operations. The pioneer in Prince, after growing frustration, hatched a never-before-known get-out plan which dragged the imbalanced power game of the music biz into the public eye long before reality talent shows did. Until now, his meanderings into alternate personalities/name changes had been seen as a side effect of his feverish creativity, but once the choice to rebrand himself as S became known as a strictly business decision, the public were less forgiving. Under this name, Prince produced duelling bodies of work, which in fairness did nothing to endear him to his audience, as many saw him as losing his mojo; a result of his now very public battle with Warners. Still under contract, Prince went to war with his label offering them offcuts and half-baked albums to promote as he put out rival sets under his adopted – and therefore not contractually bound – name.

Prince as Tora Tora
The overabundance of Prince/S albums, coupled with further mockery to Warners in the form of his disguised character Tora Tora - who briefly fronted a re-jigged NPG anonymously - caused an imbalance in the vein of quantity over quality. The perception was that Prince’s battle had embittered him as he took to writing the word SLAVE on his cheek and his interviews became increasingly abstract. Looking back at that time, it’s easy to write off Prince as behaving like a spoiled child, incapable of articulating himself to any degree. But I always saw an artist finally fighting the David and Goliath battle he had put off for years and dealing with his enemy using highly original tactics never before tried or tested in what is ultimately an extremely unfair business. It was a massive risk to do what he did and many would never view Prince the same way again. However after the dust settled, there was no doubt who the winner was in the end. Not only Prince himself - with his victoriously re-instated birth name – but also artists who had felt unfairly done by through dealing with the money minders.

For the first time, the old music business model began to look very unstable indeed as more and more artists sought smaller, independent labels to promote their work and retain sizable profits, while the Fat Cats were lumbered with fame-hungry lame duck artists, good for two or three hits before contracts were annulled and tours were cancelled due to lack of interest. Attitudes towards Prince’s perplexing rebellion have softened over time, as more and more musicians stand up to take issue over intellectual property ownership. Perhaps in time his overall least popular period will be heralded as Prince’s greatest legacy.