Stuck, Ch. 16. Who We’re Not: Prince, “Purple Rain”

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

by Akim Reinhardt

Image result for cold war cultureMost people associate the Cold War with several decades of intense political and economic competition between the United States and Soviet Union. A constant back and forth punctuated by dramatic moments such as the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the arms race, the space race, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon’s visit to China, the Olympic boycotts, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and eventually the collapse of the Soviet system.

But on the home front, the Cold War was often less about politics and economics and more about culture and society. It was a time of Us vs. Them, of Right vs. Wrong. Certain cows were sacred, others were evil, and woe be unto those who milked the wrong teat. The Cold War was about American society demanding conformity, and persecuting those who did not play along.

The Second Red Scare (ca. 1947–57) was the most dramatic example of persecuting non-conformists. People were hauled in front of Congress and, on national television, subjected to reputation-destroying and career-ending interrogations. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts weren’t just about politics; they also disciplined the society and put dissenters on notice: get in line, or at least shut up, or face dire consequences. And the popular culture followed suit.

Americans reacted strongly to the dominant good guys/bad guys narrative. Fears of a possible World War III and accompanying nuclear holocaust were widespread. The culture was soaked through with an Us vs. Them mentality, with a heavy emphasis on choosing up sides. It could be seen in everything from the ubiquitous white hat/black hat Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s to the Rock vs. Disco antagonism of the 1970s. Everyone had to be on the right side. Picking the wrong side marked you as the enemy. And refusing to pick a side at all? That was so strange as to almost be incomprehensible.

This rigid sense of right and wrong fostered an overwhelming pressure to conform. You were either with us or you were against us, and if you were against us, there was hell to pay. It was important to fit in. Outliers risked facing vitriolic and at times even violent condemnations.

In a practical sense, it was not an easy time to be an LGBT person. Or a leftist. Or a nerd or a geek. Or a vegetarian. Or not from here. Or anyone else who did not easily mesh with the dominant social and cultural norms. In America’s Cold War culture, being different often meant being ostracized and isolated. For teenagers, this could be very difficult.

Since the emergence of modern adolescence about a hundred years ago, teens have often struggled to “find themselves” and fit in as their bodies awkwardly sputter through puberty’s changes, and their insular social groups and pop culture fetishes morph at a dizzying pace. However, for many people during the Cold War, those mundane travails were compounded. The cruelties and group-think typical in teenage sub-cultures were exacerbated by a larger American culture that acutely marginalized and ridiculed “others.”

I pondered this when Prince died and “Purple Rain” got stuck in my head for two weeks. Upon his passing, there was an outpouring of grief, which reminded me of the public mourning for a very different artist just three months earlier: David Bowie.

Image result for david bowie and princeDavid Bowie was a white Englishman. Prince was a black American. Bowie was deeply rooted in the riffs, the major/minor chords, and the melody of rock-n-roll. Prince was grounded in the syncopated rhythms and complex arrangements of funk and R&B.

Prince’s and Bowie’s careers did indeed overlap to a degree. Their biggest selling albums, Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Prince’s Purple Rain, were released within a year of each other. But of course Let’s Dance was Bowie’s capstone in many ways, his big pop breakthrough after 15 years of churning out music, whereas Purple Rain came fairly early in Prince’s career, establishing him as an international pop icon for decades to come. So despite the kissin’ cousins chronology of their most successful albums, the respective heydays of David Bowie and Prince were largely separated by about a decade. Nor surprise since Prince was ten years younger than Bowie.

Despite all these differences, however, their deaths produced similar strains of public grief in the press and on social media. In particular, many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers (i.e. children of the Cold War) unburdened themselves, confessing how one or the other artist had profoundly affected them during their formative years. And this heartfelt influence, many said, came not just from Bowie’s and Prince’s music, but especially from their artistic personae.

In an era of conformity, David Bowie and Prince, each in their own way, made a spectacle of celebrating the Other. Because while their music was typically in line with popular motifs, both men publicly stylized themselves in ways that overtly challenged America’s staid social categories.

With an art school background and a flair for the theatrical, Bowie spent years bouncing from character to character. Space traveler Ziggy Stardust, lightening bolt clad Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the quixotic Pierrot were among the many characters he trotted out on album covers, on stage, and later in videos. They usually featured elaborate makeup, and gender-bending was a consistent theme.

Prince also bent the gender spectrum with his more modest but still obvious makeup, his penchant for high heels, and his coquettish sexuality. Unlike Bowie, he also directly challenged American racial norms.

Bowie might at any moment have been from another planet, but he was always white, and so were the vast majority of his fans. Bowie’s 1970s rock n roll was very typical of the black-influenced music that white people played and listened to, as was his 1980s snyth-pop.

However, as a light skinned African American hailing from the decidedly not-very-black state of Minnesota, Prince had the capacity to, and often did, glide back and forth between what Americans understood as “white” and “black” cultural expressions.

Prince mostly offered up dance music with strong elements of funk and R&B, which Americans understand as black. However, the multi-instrumentalist defied racialized musical categories by wielding an electric guitar, an instrument which at the time was largely seen as the crotch surrogate of straight, white, male rockers.

And so Prince could consciously challenge America’s white/black dynamic by offering up a bouncy R&B/dance/pop tune like “Let’s Go Crazy” and then finish it off with the kind of wicked, standalone, cock strut guitar solo that even the dumbest, whitest, chest-thumping metal head high schooler had to acknowledge as seriously rockin’.

David Bowie was a chameleon, a shape shifter moving from one odd, marginal persona to another. Prince was a garish, swirling vessel, a purple pixie through which various gender and racial elements seamlessly and confidently flowed.

Prince and David Bowie, each in their own way, offered a model or even a lifeline for people who faced showers of criticism and mockery while struggling to fit in; or who dreaded fitting in and were isolated because of it; or who fit in only out of fear, while dreaming of ways to break free. These two musicians represented not just the rebel who raged against the mainstream, but also the misfit grateful for a cozy niche, and the free spirit who happily moved beyond expectations, carelessly leaving them behind for something truer amid the make believe and theatricality.

That is why, I believe, the public mourning of David Bowie and Prince, two very different artists, was so similar in certain ways. It was common gratitude for artistic courage during an era when “different” was often equated with “bad.”

Contrasting this was the public reaction to the death of Eagles lead man Glen Frey, whose demise came after Bowie’s and before Prince’s.

Frey, along with Don Henley, was a lead singer/songwriter for the Eagles, one of the most successful bands in the history of recorded music. Indeed, their relative success is almost identical to Prince’s and David Bowie’s: all three acts sold somewhere in the vicinity of 150 million albums.

Yet, I didn’t see anyone write an essay, post a social media comment, or make any other public expression of their deep gratitude for the vital role Glenn Frey or the Eagles played in helping them cope during their formative years. Indeed, when Frey died a few days after Bowie, it almost seemed like no one really gave a shit by comparison. Of course fans publicly mourned the loss of a musical icon. But they didn’t seem to owe Frey a debt of personal gratitude the way Bowie’s and Prince’s fans did, confessing especial connections to gutsy artists who spoke to them when it really mattered.

This observation is not a commentary on the Eagles’ music. Many people love it. I have no real problem with it, although it’s severely overplayed and I don’t need to ever hear any of it again. But whether your favorite band, or you hate ‘em like the Dude getting kicked out of a cab in The Big Lebowski, the Eagles did not go against the grain in any way. They rode the grain. They were exactly who they were supposed to be: white guys in denim. Shit, they called themselves The Eagles for chrissake.

Image result for the eagles denim
The Eagles

You never knew what interesting person David Bowie or Prince might be sexually experimenting with. The Eagles fucked groupies.

The Eagles were a bunch of straight white guys who wreaked of dumb, accessible masculinity. But that’s not really the issue. After all, Bowie was white. It’s that at any given moment during their career, the Eagles’ music represented the ethos of fitting in.

When they first broke big in the early 1970s, emerging out of southern California’s soft rock, singer/songwriter scene, the Eagles were southern California soft rock, singer/songwriters (think “Take it Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling”). In the mid-70s, when rural country/Southern rock themes were big, they did that (think “Desperado,” “Tequilla Sunrise,” and “Already Gone.”). And in the late 1970s, when arena rock was the thing, they kicked out their folk/country guitarist, brought in certified rocker Joe Walsh, and rocked stadiums with their rockin’ rockety rock (think “Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” and “Heartache Tonight”).

After the Eagles broke up in 1980, Glenn Frey and Don Henley went their separate ways, each churning out shitty snyth pop singles emblematic of that era. Frey in particular was entrenched in the pop culture moment, writing crap in the vein of Miami Vice (“Smuggler’s Blues”) and misusing alto saxophones (“The Heat Is On”).

And when Frey and Henley finally patched up their differences and reunited the Eagles in 1994, they exemplified the hot trend of 1970s bands getting back together to soak their Baby Boomer fans with outrageous ticket prices.

In other words, Glenn Frey and the Eagles wrote some damned good music and were at least as popular as David Bowie and Prince, if not more so, but they were always exactly what they were supposed to be. They didn’t challenge the “normal” gender, sexual, or racial categories of a conformist culture. They didn’t help people on the fringes get through the tough times of adolescence. They helped people get drunk, snort coke, have sex, wear blue jeans, and rock on! Which is admirable in some way. But it just doesn’t make a damned bit of difference.

The Eagles mattered because they made music. David Bowie and Prince mattered not only because they made music, but because during an era when it was very difficult to be “uncool,” they showed young people that it was not only okay to be different, but it could actually be interesting, a sign of personal and artistic integrity, and even a lot of fun. That you weren’t a loser because you didn’t like the Eagles or wear the standard issue fashion or talk or look or feel like you were supposed to. That even if you were different, you still mattered. And that’s why they mattered.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com

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