Why Prince Triumphed With Gen X

Prince was telling us we were all the originators of our own destinies as long as we access our inner essence

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John Sciulli / Getty Images for Samsung

Prince performs as Samsung Galaxy presents Prince and A Tribe Called Quest at SXSW on March 16, 2013 in Austin, Texas

Gen Xers grew up in a world that fed them evidence of a growing equality and a preponderance of black leaders and stars they embraced. Michael Jackson became the world’s biggest recording artist. Eddie Murphy became the biggest star in Hollywood. Bill Cosby had the best-rated show on television. Michael Jordan became the biggest star in the sports world. Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president twice. Oprah began constructing a TV empire. Spike Lee became a major Hollywood filmmaker. And Prince became a megastar.

Hanging over all this was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose shadow loomed over the 1980s as the ultimate example of a black American who whites and blacks both could and should idolize (as opposed to Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, who were idolized by many blacks and had no crossover appeal). In 1986, as Gen X was growing up, the King holiday was first observed. A few years later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after twenty-seven years to reveal himself as yet another a towering global symbol of what can be achieved by a man who refuses to let racism turn him angry and bitter.

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Gen X responded to these shifts with a new cultural biraciality: White kids became knowledgeable about black culture and black kids grew more knowledgeable about and open to white culture. In 1989, author Trey Ellis published a now legendary essay called “The New Black Aesthetic,” which talked about blacks who had a multicultural fluency powering their work. “A cultural mulatto,” Ellis wrote, “educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world. And it is by and large this rapidly growing group of cultural mulattoes that fuels the New Black Aesthetic. We no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please whites or blacks.” Within this movement Ellis identifies “the initial shock troops,” that is, the culture creators who are leading this charge. He names Eddie Murphy, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and, of course, Prince. In a recent interview Ellis said, “Before, there would be a stigma for black artists taking from white culture because [blacks] have such a sense of cultural supremacy so we’d think why are we gonna borrow from some inferior culture? But Prince says I’m gonna take from everybody and he was kind of, like, talking white through his guitar.”

In this crossover-friendly era, when lots of black artists were making work meant for the mainstream without risking their cred, Prince was pushing that envelope by emerging from the funk and soul of the albums Controversy and 1999 into the sound of Purple Rain, which was rock, pop, funk, and soul all wrapped up in a much more mainstream-accessible sound than he’d ever made.

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Alan Leeds told me some people’s response to Prince’s sound was confusion. “My generation [the boomers] said, who does he think he is? Tryin’ to be white? But the younger age group … they didn’t see it that way at all. They grew up looking at the music differently than previous generations because the walls were down and they embraced the music purely on quality as opposed to any kind of categorization. So, it was an evolutionary time and not just in the music — the music was reflecting the evolution of the culture at large.”

Few songs express the idea that Prince’s identity is multifaceted, that he consists of multiple selves at once, as “Controversy.” In many ways, it’s about myth building. Prince is saying the world is asking about me, and he’s feigning a lack of understanding as to why people are so interested in the nooks and crannies of his life. But “Controversy” was written before Prince was a superstar, so he’s not truly responding to the question of “Who are you?” as much as activating a sense of mystery and intrigue about him. It’s a classic marketing technique: He’s making you wonder about him by telling you many others are wondering about him. Is he black or white? Is he straight or gay? Does he believe in God or does he believe in himself? These are the key schisms of his art if not of his life — his race, his sexuality, and his egotism versus his humbling relationship to a higher power. These are issues he’ll hash out in his music throughout his career.

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This is an important song in the strategic effort to build Prince as a person who audiences should be thinking about as more than just a music maker, but as a personal liberator. Someone who rejects labels, thus giving you the freedom to live beyond them, too. He says, “I wish there were no black or white, I wish there were no rules.” And “Life is just a game, we’re all just the same.” This is the ethos of multiculturalism and utopianism set to music. Prince sits at the edges of race, gender, and sexuality and rejects all borders, saying what does it matter what my demographics are? He was crossing over in all sorts of ways, but really he wanted to avoid categorization altogether and be a genre unto himself sonically and interpersonally.

So, just as he’s demonstrated a rare fluidity to slide between rock, soul, pop, and funk, Prince has also used his fluency in a plethora of identity idioms to break free of the conventions and strictures of black male identity. And he presents this message at the moment in history when many people most need to hear it. In Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon, Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock write, “During the neo-conservative Reagan era, monogamy and gender fixity and adherence to religious doctrines and being defined by ethnicity were being promoted heavily and he said that all had to be broken for the sake of inner integrity. Prince was telling us that we are all the originators of our own destinies as long as we access our inner essence. In a society that was marked by high unemployment and the very real prospect of nuclear war, Prince was offering a safe space for his fans to explore the meanings of their own identities and their place within a confusing socio-cultural context.”

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Prince embodies Gen X multiculturalism not only by sonically and thematically but also by making his bands black and white, male and female. “There were some folks that we auditioned that didn’t get the nod because they didn’t fit the branding template that he had in mind: multiracial, male and female,” says former band member Dez Dickerson. Another band member Eric Leeds says, “There were women in the band who were lesbians. There were whites and blacks in the band and several of us who were Jewish in the band. There was this image he was trying to present to the world that it’s not about the differences in us so let’s celebrate the diversity.” Being onstage with a diverse group of people would also protect Prince from music business segregation.

His desire to be marketed and promoted by the pop music staff and not the black music department challenged the music business status quo. But Prince had more tricks up his sleeve than an integrated band: Prince lied to early interviewers about being biracial. In 1981, he told Nelson George, then a reporter for Record World, that his mother was white, and told Bill Adler, who was writing about him for Rolling Stone, that he was the “son of a half-black father and an Italian mother.” Prince pushed this further along by casting a white woman to play his mother in Purple Rain. (Despite lingering rumors, Prince is not mixed: Both of his parents were black.)

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He said he was biracial because he knew that being perceived as mixed would open his possibilities and keep him from being forced into the Black music box. Was this a sort of passing? Perhaps. Prince was passing as biracial for the same reason some blacks have, throughout history, passed for white: to attempt to sidestep racism and access the benefits of white-skin privilege or at least to acquire more freedom and power over his destiny that often springs from white-skin privilege. But it was passing as mixed, and in doing so, Prince worked within the new multicultural openness of the age, and thrived.

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