The death of Prince has set a lot of middle-aged people to reminiscing about their teen years and a lot of younger people to wondering who this guy was whose death got so much attention. I’m one of the older set. As an entertainer, Prince was hugely popular with millions of us. Among his fans were a lot of kids like me, white evangelical Christians, and, oh, did our parents wring their hands and pull out their hair over it.
We made their parents’ angst over Elvis and the Beatles look mild. While Prince’s music and concerts represented part of the fun times of our youth, he also contributed to cultural decline, there is no getting around that. I was bothered by Prince’s dirty lyrics and persona, but being a teenager and not as serious about my faith as I was to become later in life, I let him slide.
Since his death I’ve spent time pondering his incredible talent, cultural influence, and most importantly beliefs about faith and the afterlife that he referred to often in his lyrics and public comments. I cannot claim any special knowledge, but I can say at a minimum that the artist deserves to be considered as more than simply a pop icon.
To say simply that he was “debauched and awful” or “he was a great pop entertainer” is not sufficient: that can be said about thousands of entertainers over the last 40 years. Their shallow lives and products pale in comparison to his, as does their apparent lack of knowledge of religion and serious things like life after death. In short, an examination of Prince’s life should provoke introspection for his fans.
Prince’s Undeniable Talent
Prince was one of the most talented popular musicians ever to have lived. He taught himself to play just about every instrument he wanted to use—and he used many. He played them all on his albums, each part, each instrument, and on songs he wrote. His albums were concept albums meant to explore themes: from beginning to end, they are all Prince.
He got started in earnest at the age of 17 and was one of the first artists and certainly the youngest to win significant control of his work from studios. He wrote so much music that there are thousands of unreleased songs and recordings in his vault at Paisley Park in Minnesota. He helped numerous artists over the years, and his appreciation for many genres of music meant he was an ideal producer for a variety of styles and tastes.
As a fan myself, I was surprised at how many popular songs he had written for others, sometimes giving them away. Many also don’t know what a superb guitar player he was, how he could stand with some of the greatest rock musicians across two generations and play with them and beyond them in their own styles—take a look at his performance at the 2004 Rock Music Hall of Fame’s celebration of George Harrison’s birthday.
I noted this talent when I attended his Controversy and Purple Rain concerts at the Memphis Coliseum. When some of my friends would wonder why I liked this James Brown/Little Richard wannabe, one reason was simply that I was a kid drawn to R&B music, but another was how impressed I was with his ability to play the guitar in a classic rock fashion even as he sported a pompadour and outrageous costumes and sang in falsetto.
He never stopped creating, adapting, and marketing his brand and producing in his unique fashion. While he could be reclusive and downright weird, for almost 40 years he remained a part of pop culture in music but also on television and in films, with an appeal across many demographics.
As his career rolled on, his audience diversified rapidly, especially with the Purple Rain album and film, and more and more people commented on his wide-ranging musical talents, not least his guitar playing. My guess is that for years Prince’s following has been about as diverse as that of any pop artist who has ever lived.
Witness the respectful tributes that have been pouring in from all sectors of the music industry. YouTube is full of them, and there are numerous news reports of artists of all genres performing impromptu tributes to him at their concerts around the world in the days following his death.
Compare him to Michael Jackson. I’m a fan of Michael, but there is no comparison in my mind between the two on talent. Prince had more talent, and in more areas, than any pop star, ever. His appeal, which in some sectors was offered grudgingly, became and stayed very broad.
Prince’s Undeniable Cultural Influence
One can praise Prince’s talent and broad appeal, but that is not the whole story of his influence. Much of that influence is terrible where morality is concerned. Until later in his career, he was often, in a word, nasty. Using sexual images, innuendo, blatant obscene references, and gender-bending costumes, he promoted hedonism.
He broke a lot of barriers, and it is probably fair to say he helped hasten the music industry toward moral decline. Much of the stuff he produced that wasn’t played on the airwaves in the 1980s is as raunchy as what we decry now in popular music. Filth is not novel to rap.
He exhibited most of this behavior early in his career, and as he aged and his place secured in the entertainment world, we saw less of this. Eventually, he stopped cursing and encouraged others to do likewise. I’m not saying he became a choirboy, but gone was the Prince of the early 1980s.
It’s not easy to know whether his risqué persona was all just a marketing stunt (I doubt that), or simply the fact that aging makes most people less risqué in public, or because of his maturing and deepening religious beliefs. I think the strongest argument is for the last one: Prince became more serious about his religious beliefs and probably considered what kind of influence he was having on culture.
Prince’s Religious Beliefs
Those religious beliefs as much as his talent make Prince stand apart from other pop culture icons. It is what makes his career and persona worth considering: that is, his regular, religiously informed, and public probing of the meaning of life. You can’t miss it if you are more than a surface fan.
Prince the person, what his soul was all about, mystifies me. Out of the same mind and mouth came scripture and accurate renderings of basic Christian truth along with pure filth—usually in the same song! As a youth raised in the church, I cringed when he did this, and hoped my parents wouldn’t hear what was coming out of my boom box; as a grown man and Christian for decades I’m disgusted by it, and saddened.
I have no firm idea what he truly believed about the permanent things and the great questions we all have to contemplate: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? What is my proper relationship to God, to others, and to the created order? I do think he tried to answer some of these in his music, and perhaps his embrace of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was an attempt at that also.
But throughout his career, juxtaposed with the raunchiness, he demonstrated a concern for these questions, most poignantly in the song “The Cross” that leads off with these lyrics: “Black day, stormy night; No love, no hope in sight; Don’t cry, he is coming; Don’t die without knowing the cross.” I don’t know if Prince was a Christian, and I know plenty of people think it is ridiculous to even speculate: of course he’s not, they say. I wish I could know.
Perhaps the most instructive insight I’ve heard about Prince on these matters is from his first lead guitarist, Dez Dickerson, who is now head of a social media marketing firm in Nashville. I met Dickerson once and witnessed firsthand the reality of his own Christian conversion, so his thoughts on Prince are well worth considering.
In Touré’s biography of Prince, Dickerson tells the author, “There’s maybe three Prince personas. One of them is a very calculated marketing mind. That’s where the ‘embodying pure sex’ thing comes from. Another of them is ‘I’m gonna be the baddest musician there ever was.’ And then there’s the guy who really is thoughtful and introspective and holds religious considerations close to his heart and ponders those questions sincerely and genuinely and deeply. And those are the three guys who, over the years, have vied for the microphone.”
Dickerson has given many interviews since Prince died, and notes that he and Prince did not stay in regular contact but never completely lost touch over the years. He reports that just three weeks before Prince died he called Dickerson just to talk. Dickerson won’t divulge the content, but you get the hint that it was like previous conversations: deep and personal, and I’d guess about religion.
What Prince really believed goes to the grave with him; what he did in life is recorded and easily accessed. There is, for all to see, incredible talent that garnered him broad, massive, and long-lasting appeal. There is also a negative influence on public morals via the entertainment media that took over our society as he rose to fame. Finally, there are the lyrics and the public comments about faith, the afterlife, Christ, and the Creator that we can each try to interpret.
Perhaps there is no more than what Dickerson has said to give us a clue: he was divided, confused, maybe even tormented by what he knew was true and wanted to live by but could not, for whatever reasons he and many people have for not submitting to the truth. In any event, the artist and the man are worth considering for all who take seriously the requirement to examine our lives.