When news broke that Prince had died at the age of 57, it was hard not to think of his massive musical influence on generations of rock, hip-hop, R&B and dance artists. It was also hard not to think of sex. No artist of his era — or any since — so comprehensively staked out the sensual and carnal landscape that Prince did. For him, sex was no laughing matter, but he tackled it with a light touch. In an era in which Reagan’s America was growing more conservative and AIDS was soon to become a national epidemic, Prince talked openly about sex so that the rest of us could, too. Thanks in major part to his influence, topics once considered taboo are now what we just call being honest.
Raised Protestant — Seventh-day Adventist, to be exact — the man born Prince Rogers Nelson was already flashing glimpses of the randy horndog he would become on his 1978 debut For You. The song “Soft and Wet” kicked off with the lines, “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane/that I wanna lose in you/Baby, can you stand the pain.” He was 20 years old.
But it wasn’t until his third album, the 1980 breakthrough Dirty Mind, that Prince started mapping out his turf. If his earlier records had flaunted his sexuality — 1979’s Prince featured him shirtless on the cover — Dirty Mind officially began the hedonistic, party-until-the-apocalypse vibe that was one of the hallmarks of his ’80s work. The provocation started with the album cover — Prince wearing just a jacket, bandana and bikini briefs — and continued inside with songs like “Head” (about something fun to do with the bride as you’re taking her to her wedding) and “Sister” (about something messed-up to do with your sister when no one’s around). As Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau famously declared in his glowing review at the time, Prince’s sexual potency and assured cocksmanship were so impressive, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”
But Dirty Mind’s more salacious moments somehow sat comfortably side-by-side with melancholy ballads such as “Gotta Broken Heart Again” and “When You Were Mine” — although, admittedly, the latter track does contain the kinky image of a nonchalant Prince sharing a bed with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and her other fella. Three years before Madonna arrived on the scene, Prince was singing about relationships in a franker, more all-encompassing manner than was typical for pop radio. Sure, that made him “racy,” but it also made him hilarious — this odd-dressing, diminutive artist with the unmistakable falsetto talking about his sexual misadventures with a liberating candor. Whether or not they were autobiographical, his songs spoke to humanity’s awkward, all-too-human mating rituals. Prince once told a reporter that when he played Dirty Mind for his dad, “He [told me], ‘You’re swearing on the record. Why do you have to do that?’ And I said, ‘Because I swear.’”
But the swearing was never for cheap effect and neither was the sex talk. Prince delivered gigantic hits with sensual undercurrents — whether it was “Little Red Corvette” or “Kiss” or “U Got the Look” (and that’s when he wasn’t driving the clubs wild with underground smashes like “Erotic City,” with its steamy talk of “creamy thighs” and “making love ’til cherry’s gone”). But unlike so many artists of his time, he never quite came across as a creep: The women in his songs were objects of endless fascination, beyond the bedroom, and he prized an equal partner — most memorably in “Kiss,” when he declared that “Women, not girls/rule my world … Act your age, mama/not your shoe size.”
While sex was often on his mind, so were curiosity, admiration and love — and when things didn’t work out (as they often don’t), he’d pour the disappointment into songs that were remarkably generous, lacking any sort of vindictiveness. In “When Doves Cry,” a relationship’s failure is as much his fault as his partner’s. On Sign O’ the Times, tracks like “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Strange Relationship” wrestle with love affairs that simply cannot last, no matter how hard both partners try. In the former, Prince is so desperate he imagines what it would be like if he was his lover’s platonic female friend, able to share a closeness with her he couldn’t previously.. And “Strange Relationship” hinges on a fraught, confessional chorus: “Baby, I just can’t stand to see you happy/More than that, I hate to see you sad.” Screwing is tangled up in these tales, but so is just being a screw-up.
At the same time, his religious upbringing and spiritual side often infiltrated his music. Sign O’ the Times featured a stark song about the Resurrection called “The Cross.” In the late ’80s, he made a dark, sexual record called The Black Album and then decided to shelve it, instead putting out Lovesexy, an album in which spirituality, positivity and carnality coexist — albeit with a cover that once again depicted Prince in his full nude glory.
This tension between the divine and the desire ran throughout his music, particularly in the way that party anthems like “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” created a dancefloor release feel similar to sexual climax — notice how they both felt comparable to Doomsday. A man known for closing his album liner notes with the iconic salute, “May U live 2 see the dawn,” Prince seemed profoundly aware of how precious life could be, no wonder that he considered sex the most important a topic for a pop song. For him, it was a part of life, and life needed to be celebrated.
He would embrace that frankness not just in his music, but also in his appearance. In the ’80s, he paraded around in high heels during shows, wearing outfits that dared to erase the line between what we considered ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. He was the girliest rock star of his time, and his voracious sexual appetite was such that he didn’t mind fucking with your preconceived notions of what a man was “supposed” to look like. (Prince teasingly sang on 1981’s “Controversy,” “I just can’t believe all the things people say … Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?”) At the 1991 MTV Music Video Awards, he staged a fake orgy, delivering his mondo-horny hit “Gett Off” wearing pants with two perfectly shaped holes in the buttocks–causing a stir every time he’d turn away from the audience.
Whether “provocative” or “controversial,” it was also a bloody relief for a culture in which sex still felt taboo, sinful, destructive. In horror movies, it was the sexually active teens who would get killed first, and sexual indiscretion could get you hacked to pieces in thrillers such as Fatal Attraction. Prince was not immune to the sweeping terror of AIDS — “Sign O’ the Times” opens with the line “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name” — but he always believed that sex and love should flourish, even in frightening times. “My songs are more about love than they are about sex,” he said to Rolling Stone early in his career. “I don’t consider myself a great poet … I just know I’m here to say what’s on my mind, and I’m in a position where I can do that.”
But the truth is, all of Prince’s music — sacred or profane — was about achieving spiritual bliss. Even when Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in his final years — changing some of the lines in “Purple Rain” in concert to implore his audience to pick up their Bibles — he remained sex-positive. In 2013, he released “Breakfast in Bed,” a sultry track about preferring his lover to any grits and gravy. (And, proving that the artist hadn’t lost his impish sense of humor, the single’s cover featured Dave Chappelle dressed as Prince from the infamous Charlie Murphy sketch off Chappelle’s Show.)
When news of Prince’s death broke, plenty took to social media to pay their respects. And an unsurprising amount of these mourners eulogized the Purple One using his opening lines from “Let’s Go Crazy”: “Dearly beloved/We are gathered here today/To get through this thing called life.” Prince says these lines like he’s preaching from the pulpit, accentuated by the song’s gospel-organ keyboards. For an artist so associated with sex, it is striking that his fans chose to remember him for this uplifting, life-affirming prayer.