Prince—the enigmatic, androgynous, sexy genius

Mandi Goodier

Prince was a one-of-a-kind. He shrouded himself in mystery, oozed sex, and he may well be the most prolific songwriter of all time. As we mourn his death we take a look at what made him so fascinating, and fantastic.

The unknowable

Young Prince
Prince photographed aged 17 by Robert Whitman in his home state of Minnesota in 1977. Image via Jason Weinberger

Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, Prince took an interest in music from an early age, writing his first song, "Funk Machine" on his father's piano at the age of seven. But much of his personal life is shrouded in mystery, as Prince set about to make himself an enigmatic, androgynous, sexual, musical genius. 

At the age of 17, Prince was snapped up by a management company that would land him his first record deal. At the age of 21, he was briefly interviewed on American Bandstand by Dick Clark, but His Purpleness proved to be a tricky character—Clark claimed he was the most difficult artist he had ever encountered.

When asked how many instruments he played, Prince replied "thousands"; when asked how many years he'd been playing, he merely held up four fingers. 

Prince gives four fingers on American Bandstand
Appearing on American Bandstand. Image via Pinterest

Perhaps there was a hint of immaturity there, perhaps his shyness came across as arrogance, but it was an interview tactic that Prince would stick to throughout his career; reluctant to give any information about his personal life, only responding to questions about the music.

What he created an air of mystery about himself. His talent was blatant and as a performer he captivated; but who was this tiny, sensual man? 

The myth of the artist was perpetuated by the man himself; blurring his own life story with fiction in the classic cult film Purple Rain. 

It was revealed in early 2016 that Prince was writing a memoir, but with his untimely death, it may remain unfinished leaving the mystery intact.

 

 

The unpredictable

Prince and the love symbol guitar
During his Super Bowl XLI Half-Time show in 2007. Image via CBS News

Being enigmatic came hand in hand with an unpredictable nature. Being such a prolific songwriter, Prince was bound to have a mixed bag of material. Even the greatest fans have to admit that the quality of his material had a tendency to fluctuate. 

Prince's decisions often baffled his peers. Many albums that collaborators considered brilliant, undeniable hits were shelved and confined to The Vault, a space in his Paisley Park studio. Another area of his life hidden away and a place of mythical status in the eyes of his fans. 

In 1993, he changed his name to a symbol. The symbol itself represented Prince's iconic androgynous sexuality, a combination of the male (♂) and female (♀) symbol, but the move proved to be a little bothersome.

How was the press to refer to the unpronounceable symbol? The solution was a bit of a mouthful: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.

Prince Slave
Photographed during his very public fight with Warner Bros in 1993. Image via Holy Taco

But there was logic to this particular move. At the time, Prince was in the midst of a legal battle with Warner Bros over artistic and financial control. His unpredictable nature proved an asset in making negotiations difficult for the record label. Of the name change, Prince said the following:

"The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros…"

So that would also explain appearing in public with 'SLAVE' scrawled across his right cheek.

 

 

The sexual

Prince on a bed
Photographed in the 1980s, on the verge of fame. Image via Hollywood Reporter

Before Prince could strike a chord on his guitar, audiences were captivated by his strange appearance. His small frame, flawless skin, strong jawline, tall hair, eccentric and occasionally tight clothing—his purple aura was dripping with sensuality. But it didn't stop there.

The amorphous performer was sex to the core: the way he moved, the way he played guitar, the way he sang, and his nasty lyrics. 

Unlike similarly androgynous icon David Bowie, Prince's sexuality was never in doubt. You only need to listen to his lyrics to become a little hot under the collar.

 Prince does the splits
An energetic stage presence, Prince was known for doing the splits while performing. Image via Pinterest

From the off, Prince was writing viscerally sexual music; confronting taboo subjects, and certainly not afraid to let women know what he wanted to do to them.

Importantly for music, he broke boundaries with the way he wrote about women. Far from merely objectifying women, he portrayed them with the same sexual desires as men—something his female peers were also doing in this era.

He sang of being submissive ("Scandalous"), of women with more experience than him ("Raspberry Beret"), it was a sexually liberating to hear a man sing of such things and no doubt cemented his appeal.

 

 

The genius

Prince third eye
Presenting at the American Music Awards in 2015. Image via K104

Going back to his early interview with Dick Clark, Prince had responded with "thousands" when asked how many instruments he played on the album For You. Although it wasn't quite thousands, Prince did play 27 instruments on that album (29 if you include hand claps and finger snaps). 

His musical ability spanned R&B, rock, funk, and pop and spawned some 39 studio albums—and there are rumours of tens, perhaps hundreds more hidden away in The Vault. There are few artists as prolific and diverse as Prince. 

Although this official back catalogue itself contains hundreds of songs, one cannot forget that he wrote under many pseudonyms for other artists. Notable tracks include Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You", The Bangles' "Manic Monday", Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and Alicia Keys' "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore".

Estimates of the amount of songs written and released by Prince and/or other artists, range from 500 to well over 1,000. Although Prince only had one UK number one chart hit under his own name, 1994's "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World".

Prince was found dead at his Paisley Park studio on 21 April. If the rumours of The Vault are true, it won't be the last we've heard of him.