There’s a weirdly tense chapter in the poet Patricia Lockwood’s 2017 memoir, Priestdaddy, about the night her mother discovered semen on the bedsheets of her supposedly fresh hotel room. “She looks like Edgar Allan Poe, haunted by cum, chased through the slick streets at night by cum,” Lockwood writes. Who can blame her for her horror since, when taken out of context, “the stimuli involved in sexual encounters are… strongly perceived to hold high disgust qualities”, according to psychologists at the University of Groningen?
The researchers noted, however, that these “feelings of disgust” weaken following sexual arousal. In a 2012 study, after exposing a group of women to “female-friendly erotica”, they found that the test subjects became “more willing to touch and do initially disgusting tasks”, such as taking “a sip of juice with a large insect in the cup” and lubricating a vibrator. “Saliva, sweat, semen and body odours,” they wrote, are generally considered gross. But turn a person on and somehow it’s all hot stuff.
Prince understood this better than any other pop musician. “A good ballad should always put U in the mood 4 making love,” he writes in The Beautiful Ones, his unfinished autobiography. He applied this principle to every genre he promiscuously tried, from hard rock and hip hop to jazz and straight-ahead pop: each of his albums heave with come-ons that edge the listener towards a particular type of happy ending.
Sex, to Prince, was shorthand for a life fully lived in the enormous present – hence the somewhat ominous warning in “Let’s Go Crazy” that, “You better live now/Before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.” It was a matter of the soul’s earthly fulfilment. But it was also just sex, and he liked it. I suppose it takes a certain kind of man to find other people’s used condoms a turn-on, but there they are in the lyrics of “Little Red Corvette” – a “pocket full” of them. Prince was that horny.
His horniness, though, had an innocence to it. To his fans, it rarely felt sinister because it was never concealed. It was shameless, joyous, celebrated as a very special purpose. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” wrote Oscar Wilde. For Prince, those stars were often to be found scattered on the gutter itself.
The “Parental Advisory” labels that started to appear on the packaging of sexually explicit music a few decades ago were a response, in part, to his 1984 song “Darling Nikki”, which opens with a “sex fiend” in a hotel lobby “masturbating with a magazine”. Its flagrant vulgarity stunned into action the activist Tipper Gore, who set up the US Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 to raise awareness of what she viewed as a new pornographic turn in mainstream music. What Gore may have missed is the moral effect of the song. It doesn’t glorify depravity; rather, it implicitly questions whether sex is depraved at all. Prince once said that, more than sex in itself, his songs explored “the need for love, the need for sexuality, basic freedom, equality”. His best work does precisely that, with lust dramatising all human desire.
Prince’s imagination remained adolescent, which is to say that it was perpetually in the process of forming. In the late 1980s, he grew preoccupied with the machinations of the music industry and became increasingly disillusioned by the inequalities of an unrepentantly racist America.
Yet he never really lost his romantic belief in self-creation, which gave his music the mythic quality that resonated so powerfully with the maximalism of the Reagan years. It’s not so surprising, then, that the 40-odd pages of his memoir that he managed to complete before his opioid-related death in 2016 are peppered with the language of Hollywood, the Mount Olympus of American mythology.
The stories told in The Beautiful Ones are filmic dreams of a life. He remembers these episodes as you would scenes from a movie you watched a dozen times as a kid. His first kiss, which was with a white girl while playing house as a child, are described as “not lasting over three seconds each, in line with the Hays code” – a playful reference to the production rules that placed limits on how long on-screen couples were allowed to make out for in the US until 1968.
A later kiss, shared with another girl in front of his high school locker, is described as “a scene from a John Hughes film”. As amusing as it is to picture Prince inhabiting the world of Sixteen Candles, all of this makes sense. For the Artist, real life was just matter to be crafted, performed and produced, much like a movie, or a song.
Prince ended up a devout Jehovah’s Witness brandishing a swear jar in Paisley Park – ostensibly a cathedral dedicated to himself. But he was always a follower of a simpler faith, too, which amounted to a conviction that imagination matters. “Make-believe characters wearing make-believe clothes all 2gether creating memories & calling it Life” – that’s how he describes his childhood, and it would suffice, too, as a description of his vocation.
The Beautiful Ones was intended to be a major book. An eloquent, lengthy introduction by Dan Piepenbring, the young writer hired to co-write it, tells the story of its genesis and the original project’s abrupt cancellation after Prince’s death. It was to be an analysis of “the dismal state” of the modern music industry (Prince complains that “they keep trying to ram Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran down our throats”); it would be an instruction manual for black artists on how to reclaim their agency; a celebration of the singer’s mother; a lyrical telling of his life story, leading all the way up to his superhumanly impressive performance at the Super Bowl in 2007.
All we have, in the end, are scraps: a few chapters confined to Prince’s pre-stardom youth, alongside photographs from that era. Yet his message was simple enough for him to fit into two words: “FREE WILL”. So this fragment will do. If you want more detail, you can read Matt Thorne’s extensive 2012 biography. Besides, the incompleteness of the final book suits a singer who spent decades hiding away (in an actual vault) more songs than he ever released. An artist, he writes here, must retain “a part of oneself that is never shown”. To put it another way, he gave us explicit songs about sex and even used to mime it at gigs on an onstage bed – and you didn’t need to see the stains on the sheets to get his point.
The Beautiful Ones
Century, 288pp, £25
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong