Last April, the pop star Prince died a sudden death at the age of 57, and I am among those still mourning his loss, having been a fan for most of my life. I remember just where I was standing when I became a Prince fan: at the top of the key of the main court at Calvin College, attending basketball camp. Strains of Prince’s smash hit “1999” somehow dribbled onto the court around me and I simply, immediately loved it.
35 years downstream and still digging that particular jam, I think that what caught my ear in 1982 was the combination of joy + funk, which marks an especially potent instance of aural catholicity, that is, sounds that strike a natural chord in the human ear sans social preparation. My parents listened to English choral and Irish folk records — Kings College, Cambridge, and the Irish Rovers, inter alia. Perhaps, in my case, Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” primed the Prince pump several years prior. But I rather think that his synth power chords and driving bass would make any kid with an ounce of natural boogy irresistibly shake it, the world over, and if the Universal Child, then All.
In college, when I turned my hand to pop-cultural exegesis of Prince’s theology (yes, American Studies; moreover in Minnesota, Prince’s home state), a friend enjoyed poking fun at the casual apocalypticism of “2 thousand zero zero party over / Oops, out of time,” and I laughed in recognition of words I had never noticed before: evidence that music comes first and either delights or doesn’t. If and as it does, lyrics attract attention in turn. Few consumers are so ideological as to force themselves to listen to lyrically-correct-and-lifeless songs under the heading “orthodoxy” because there are so many more satisfying ways to bathe in or otherwise draw the bath of one’s righteousness, like by reading a good book, or … sure, caring for the poor and loving enemies.
Which is not to say that lyrics don’t matter. As creatures made in God’s image — God, who is spirit (John 4:24) — we long for a satisfying unity of mind and body, as in the sacraments: the word is added to the element (see Aquinas, Summa III 60, 6 sc and elsewhere, citing Augustine). In the case of music, we do not love the earworm alone but only as it is perfected by soul-stirring sentiment, uttered by another human being with intention. Yes, many human beings love songs with words they do not understand, perhaps because they are in another language or because the words are, in fact, gibberish. But just as the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26), so does the human spirit in a bid of longing, love, lament, delight. Our spirits may even best be communicated apart from — beyond, before — language, in a kind of Augustinian “mental word” that is rational and so spiritually significant.
Something like the foregoing has helped me to make sense of my love of Prince’s music and message in their most spiritually fruitful instances and also to articulate why and how his work is problematic. The groove and the hook come first. In turn, one stumbles on the stones of seemingly insufferable rudeness and self-centered childishness pressed up against glistening gems of genius: see Purple Rain (1984), both album and film, and the three preceding landmark records. From Dirty Mind (1980) one finds frustration and large-hearted love in equal measure (“Uptown” is the masterstroke), and already with Controversy (1981) the better angels of affection and vulnerability, good will, and humor appear. By Sign o’ the Times (1987), the ninth studio album of a man still in his 20s, one finds a decided deepening of soul with readiness to confess fault and look up and out to God and — even, explicitly — Jesus as the source of life, light, and hope.
From there, the course of steady belief and faltering faithfulness is set, and to listen in love is to help imagine a race run with perseverance so as to win (“I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified”: 1 Cor. 9:27). That is, one learns to pray for a brother who has himself been ready so often with the encouraging word. What to do but look for the good, ignore the bad, and accept the imperfection of gifts wrapped in alloyed beauty that signify a spirit set somewhere on the pilgrim’s way of healing and wholeness: the old road of repentance, confession, forgiveness, and renewed life with God.
I’ve been praying for Prince Rogers Nelson and grateful for his prayers in the form of so many songs, and in the communion of souls we share. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
Brief guide to some favorites
Like so many prolific popular composers, Prince’s catalogue is uneven and less interesting in later years. The early, raw talent is most astonishing and rewarding, and perhaps more in need of patient charity, “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Col. 1:24). Here are some favorites in chronological order, with asterisks (*) marking the ones to sift and savor with the love of a parent or spouse — praising the good, picking your battles, knowing when to laugh. The rest may simply be celebrated.
“Just as Long as We’re Together” (1978): A selection from the sustainedly fun, if superficial, first album. Over-produced pop? Perhaps. But this longest song demonstrates a depth of funk from the start, besides crazy skills — playing all the instruments, as ever. A 20-year-old Prince sees the BeeGees and raises them a large helping of soul.
“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” (1979): What this song lacks in lyrical depth it makes up with tongue-in-cheek strut in service of self-expression. Here we have hyperbolic disco rock-funk of the highest order with a blazing guitar cap that shows the young musician had learned the art of pop hooks. This was Prince’s second hit, reaching #13 on the R&B Singles chart.
*”Controversy” (1981): Another hit single, expanding Prince’s fusion of rock, pop, and funk, while marking the appearance of Christian grammar as a wrestling with the constraints of society, its rules and mores, in the interest of freedom both this-worldly and eternal. He wants it both ways, of course — carnal pleasures on the way to salvation — and the tension remains unresolved. That said, the vulnerabilities with which he is concerned (“Do U get high? / Does your Daddy cry?”) placed within an ultimate horizon (“Do I believe in God? / Do I believe in me?”) issue in an extraordinary, non-ironic recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
*”Private Joy” (1981): A quintessential, early instance of the joyful jam, writ as a new wave fusion of pop, disco, funk, plus hot guitar licks that complicate the genre classification. Harmonies on the chorus are worth the price of admission; add big scream to taste. “If anybody asks you / You belong to Prince.”
“Let’s Go Crazy” (1984): More metaphysics, in this crowned-jewel of chart-topping 80’s pop-rock-dance anthems (“Dearly beloved…”), aimed, as Prince explains initially, at “the afterworld.” Fair enough/whatever, we may think, as the beat drops and head-bobbing begins. But then “De-Elevator” appears, as a figure of the Devil, who partly prompts the pressing need for a response to inevitable death: “What’s it all for?” Answer #1: “Better live now, before the Grim Reaper comes knocking on your door.” Answer #2, in the face of the recurring question: “Are we going to let De-Elevator break us down?”: “Hang tough children / He’s coming,” a muted christological pledge for those with ears to hear, that explains the final word: “Take me away.”
“America” (1985): Funky jam from Around the World in a Day, which initiated stage two of Prince’s career, marked by more lyrical seriousness and developed religious themes. Bearing a family resemblance to the hooks of “1999,” this song sticks a political stake in the ground with memorable passion:
Make minimum wage
Livin’ in a one-room jungle
Can’t get over
She’s almost dead
She may not be in the black
But she’s happy she ain’t in the red
God shed his grace on thee
Keep the children free.
Recommended from Sign o’ the Times (1987): bluesy perfection of the title track; synthesized rock & soul triumph of “Play in the sunshine” (“We gonna love all our enemies … / We’re gonna teach him that love will make him tall”).
*”Eye No” (1988): The first song on Lovesexy, Prince’s best album on grounds of composition, lyrical care, immaculate production, sophisticated instrumentation (horns!), and theological vision, in a classic gospel idiom on top of rock, pop, and dance layers. Superficially, the album presents a struggle between good and evil, the latter now personified as “Spooky Electric,” and while God moves front and center concupiscence remains the persistent idol. God, however, has found Prince, so we are in old-fashioned operative grace territory:
I know there is a heaven
I know there is a hell
Listen to me people
I got a story to tell
I know there was confusion
Lightnin’ all around me
That’s when I called His name
Don’t you know He found me.
He, lest we doubt, is “my Lord,” also identified with love — most memorably in the stand-out “Anna Stesia” later in the album, which ascends to the moment of conversion and a glorious web of guitars: “Save me Jesus, I’ve been a fool / How could I forget that you are the rule? / You are my God, I am Your child / From now on, for you I shall be wild / I shall be quick, I shall be strong / I’ll tell your story, no matter how long.”
Also recommended: the soul workshop of “Dance on” with synthesizer marvels, blazing guitar, and smart social criticism; the winding spiritual journey of “Positivity,” a punctuation point (“Hold on 2 your soul”) with all hands, horns, and guitars on deck.
Bonus from Diamonds and Pearls (1991): “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night,” an all-time best specimen of soul.
“The Holy River” (1996): Another instance of the sub-genre religious conversion songs, this one startlingly righteous and cheesy in equal measure. The first two and a half minutes are meh, ’til the song turns a corner on the way to church: “Keepin’ U happy and proud 2 call His name / Jesus.” Prince goes on to elaborate a baptismal theology-cum-reincarnation, finally yielding to Santana-style soaring guitars, quirky progressions, and synths.
“1999” (1999 remix): This latter version delivers musical freshness and, by the fact of its re-release, invites reconsideration in light of mid-career maturation. The song’s sacramental eschatology is intensified, as in the final amplification of the main image, aided by gospel layers: “We could all die any day / I ain’t gonna die / I’d rather dance my life away / Listen what I’m tryin’ to say.”
I judge Prince’s third and final stage to start with the new sound of the not bad Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999), after which followed 16 decidedly uneven albums. In this least interesting period, concurrent with his becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, one may still marvel at the output and musical evolution, and nuggets turn up here and there. Two fun instances, from the beginning and the end: the re-fashioned experimental funk of “Strange but True” (1999) as a claim on forgiveness and trust in God after divorce; the would-be dance anthem of “Fallinlove2nite” (2015), where the Euro-synth meets American soul plus horns.
See if you can do better, Lady Gaga, if that is your name.