Every Prince fan has a song that sums up his genius, and for me it’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” one of the tormented strange-relationship soul laments from his 1987 masterpiece Sign O’ the Times. There aren’t any other songs like this one. Prince is fighting with his girlfriend, so he stomps out and goes to a restaurant to sit by himself and sulk. (“Yeah, lemme get a fruit cocktail, I ain’t too hungry.”) The hipster boho waitress working the night shift picks him up. “You’re kinda cute — wanna take a bath?” For a girl in a Prince song, this is the subtle approach.
They decide to spend the night together but not have sex, so he keeps his pants on in the bubble bath while listening to Joni Mitchell. They trust each other, which is a new and scary experience for him. Hanging out with Dorothy teaches Prince how to be a friend to his girlfriend, so he goes back to her and takes another bath with his pants on. All the fighting stops. Next time it happens, he’ll know what to do.
This song fucked me up in 1987, fucks me up now, never will stop fucking me up. No other male songwriter of his or any other generation wrote songs about women like this. In an alternate universe, Prince retires in 1987 the day after he writes “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and he’s still the coolest man who walked the earth.
Prince spent nearly 40 amazing years on the frontlines, as the most maddenly brilliant and unpredictable artist in the game. He built his own pop gospel out of his sexual and spiritual concerns, yet with a voice that was full of intimate affection, pushing farther emotionally than anyone else. When he sang, he came on like kinda sorta your best friend. He made the Eighties’ best single, “Little Red Corvette,” and the decade’s two best albums, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times. He changed how music felt and sounded. The news of his death today, at just 57, is truly heartbreaking because he seemed built to thrive into his golden years, an artist we all expected to remain prolific and independent and stubborn and gloriously himself for years to come. We all deserved a chance to hear Old Man Prince. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.
Prince was an utter original from the moment he arrived at the end of the Seventies and dawn of the Eighties — “I Wanna Be Your Lover” might seem polite compared to what came a few years later, but back when it was the only Prince song anyone knew, it was genuinely shocking to hear on the radio. The feminine ache in his vocal, the way he sighed “don’t wanna pressure you, baby,” his melodic disco guitar (more Chic than he’d ever sound again), the witty way he paused for the hook — “I wanna be the only one who make you come … running” — it sounded like nothing else on the airwaves in 1979. And even though Prince already had his own unmistakable sound, this was just the beginnning. He was breaking us in as gently as he could.
He truly exploded a year later with Dirty Mind, preaching his gospel in “Uptown,” his ode to Minneapolis Sex City as a free-love utopia full of fluid boundaries and open possibilities, no racial or cultural or gender turf wars, white or black or Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’. “It’s all about being free,” he screamed, and he gave that freedom a sound. You could hear him imagine that freedom in a manifesto like “Sexuality,” a non-hit from 1981, a song I only discovered when Billy Idol played it the night he was a guest VJ on MTV. The music had shameless disco beats, Euro-gloss synth-pop, rock guitar, gender-bending squeals; the lyrics were a call to arms for hedonists and life-lovers to fight back against the double-drag prudes. “We live in a world overrun by tourists,” Prince sneered. “They look at life through a pocket camera. What — no flash again?” Talk about a prophet: Prince was commanding you to smash your cellphone and live in the moment years before your cellphone was even invented.
Prince was the artist in the Eighties who kept everybody guessing year to year what he’d try next, scrapping the formula he ruled the radio with last year to try something different, dropping a new art-damaged (yet chart-topping) manifesto each summer the way the Beatles and Bowie and Dylan used to do. He was one of the world’s biggest stars, yet he operated with the weirdness of a small-time cult artist. At a time when pop was cowed by the past, Prince was the guy who refused to concede a thing to nostalgia, determined to go up against all the giants of pop/rock/R&B history and top them all, doing the twist a little bit harder than they did in ’66, a little bit faster than they did in ’67, to shut up everybody who wanted to surrender to the past. He went up against the whole pop tradition and showed it no mercy, but showed it how to grind.
So he moved from Dirty Mind and Controversy to expansive New Wave apocalypse (1999) to guitar-hero rock (Purple Rain) to kiddie psych-fluff (Around the World in a Day) to minimal funk (Parade) to the expansive double-album genre-devouring triumph of Sign O’ the Times. Some of these experiments were flops (have you listened to Side Two of Around the World in a Day lately?) while some of his best songs remained throwaways, like “Good Love,” which would have been one of the three or four best songs on Sign O’ the Times, except he buried it on the soundtrack to the 1988 Michael J. Fox movie Bright Lights, Big City. “Gustav Mahler Number Three is jamming on the box / I’ll have another glass of you, this time on the rocks” — now there’s a Prince lyric. That was the nature of the game he was playing, at a time when everyone else at his level (even Bowie!) seemed to be playing it safe.
He loved to do souped-up perved-out versions of other people’s music; he loved to steal in a way that made Bowie or the Stones or Stevie Wonder look like dabblers. And the remarkable thing was how he inspired other artists to rise to his challenge. The reason 1984 was the greatest pop radio summer ever was that everybody was trying to make their own Prince record, while Prince was already a year ahead of everyone else. So Van Halen hit Number One with “Jump,” knocking off the “Dirty Mind” synth hook, while Prince hit Number One with “Let’s Go Crazy,” where he tried to sound like Van Halen and beat them at their own moves.
For the rest of the Eighties, rock stars who looked washed up could score Number One hits with Prince cops — from Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” (hello, “1999”) to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (hello, “When You Were Mine”). He kept shining his purple light on other hitmakers — mostly foxy ladies, by some coincidence — whether that meant playing the synth hook on Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back” or writing hits for the Bangles and Sheena Easton or Sheila E. (You know “The Glamorous Life” and you know “A Love Bizarre,” but do you know “Yellow”? Good Lord, what a song.) “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a piece of filler from the album he made for the Family, almost accidentally became one of his most famous hits after Sinead O’Connor did it (though the real keeper from the Family album is “High Fashion”). He loved the give-and-take of the pop hustle. He was the first big-money star to invite, or dare, rappers to sample him, in his 1988 “I Wish U Heaven” 12-inch: “Take this beat, I don’t mind / Got so many others, they’re so fine.”
Prince was showing signs of strain by the time of Diamonds and Pearls in 1991. He scored a well-deserved Number One hit with the T. Rex rip “Cream,” but for the first time, Prince was clearly trying hard for a hit on somebody else’s terms. Every pop songwriter has the right to resort to a “girl”/”pearl”/”world” rhyme once in a career, but to do it in a chorus looks cynical, and to name your album after it basically means you’re saying “Fine, I give up, what do you people want from me?” (Although Diamond and Pearl themselves were two of the coolest Prince supporting players ever.) But it was the last time he ever tried going conventional. He changed his name to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, began appearing with the word “SLAVE” written across his face, and adapted to a new pace — no longer scoring as many pop hits, but still pushing and stretching with each album, with plenty of hidden gems for the fans who were still willing to hunt for them.
His songbook is full of buried treasures like “Dolphin” on The Gold Exerience, or his version of Joan Osborne’s Nineties Lilith-Fair rock fave “One of Us” stranded on Emancipation, or “Laydown” from a few years ago, with the greeting, “From the heart of Minnesota / Here comes the purple Yoda!” He remained a mystery man who could reduce any room to rubble just by walking in. He made an unforgettable appearance at the Grammy Awards in 2014, strolling in and twirling his cane and giving a contemptuous eyeroll, basking in his ovation and awarding Album of the Year. “Albums still matter,” he said, as he opened the envelope. “Like books and black lives.” And then he strolled off into the night — one step ahead of everybody else, as always.
Rest in purple, Prince.