A Prince among women: Remembering the artist's celebration of what was possible
I was in high school when I first discovered Prince, who passed away Thursday at age 57. And by "discovered," I mean had the entire script of my provincial life rewritten after hearing just a few songs.
As a teenager raised by a conservative family in the evangelical South, I'd been taught certain truths about existence, about sex, about women and men, about God. And then I listened to the "1999" album and I watched "Purple Rain," and I realized those so-called truths weren't truths at all. They were options.
That was what Prince did. He embodied possibility. He erased boundaries. (He tipped Tipper Gore into lobbying for warning labels on music.) His very existence said to anyone who cared to listen: You can be anything, you can also be everything.
In his refusal to adhere to a genre of music, his co-opting of costume and drag, his goofing around with gender and the expectations placed on men and women, Prince acted as a beacon of strange and different in a landscape that traditionally favored the predictable and mundane. His rejection of any prescribed box -- "Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" -- was both revolutionary and comforting. As was his attitude toward women.
For a start, he made slut-shaming irrelevant. By inviting women to be sexual on their own terms, to play with camp, to wear lingerie and throw down insane guitar licks, the women in Prince's crew presented power in myriad forms, and showed they were in on the joke, beating sexist reductions to the punch and turning them on their ear musically and otherwise.
More critically, Prince was also the only musician then (and now, really) who legitimately elevated his female bandmates. He presented them as equals, not just props. Prince shared the stage, showcasing female virtuosity at every opportunity, not only at his concerts, but in his studios, films, videos.
He celebrated collaborators such as Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman -- who contributed to, among other hits, "Raspberry Beret," "When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy" -- and Shelia E., whose furious drumming seared into my brain more deeply than most images of my youth. So rare was it to see a woman on any stage actually playing an instrument, let alone soloing for 20 minutes on the drums while crowds of thousands screamed in appreciation.
Shelia E. also was Prince's musical director for several tours, a position of influence infrequently occupied by women, especially women touring with male artists. This was in the 1980s and early '90s, before any #girlsquads, when Melvoin and Coleman were being shrugged off as "pedigreed pop tarts" by the Los Angeles Times in a review that encouraged them to ditch the "highbrow blab" of their solo effort and, essentially, stay in their lanes.
That was what Prince did. He embodied possibility. He erased boundaries.Allison Glock
Prince was never about staying in your lane, the very concept anathema to him, and likely one reason he continued to employ and support strong, smart, unconventional women throughout his 38-year career. He befriended legendary badasses such as Madonna. He hired female sound engineers such as Susan Rogers. And in 2009, he called ballerina Misty Copeland, inviting her to dance for his "Crimson and Clover" video.
"It was really just, 'Be you, feel the music, just move,'" Copeland later said of the shoot, remarking that she was, "not used to that type of freedom." (The two would go on to perform together on his "Welcome 2 America" tour, after which Prince donated $250,000 to the American Ballet Theatre, of which Copeland is now principal dancer.)
This September, Prince granted a rare interview to Entertainment Weekly, during which he was asked about which musicians he was most enjoying now. Nine of the 10 artists he listed were women. Joni Mitchell. Erykah Badu, Beyonce, Tori Kelly. He called Janelle Monae "brilliant," speculating she "could run for president one day." He said of Esperanza Spalding, "I thought I could play bass until I met her." He called Mitchell "a genius, the way she paints a picture with just a few chords."
I showed the article to my 14-year-old daughter, who also plays drums. I didn't say how unusual it was for an elder statesman of any industry to list a majority of women as his inspirations. I didn't point out how diverse and wide-ranging his appreciation ran. I didn't note how he commented on their talents and their smarts, never once their looks.
I just let her read what Prince said, a young girl in the world, absorbing the possibilities.