In A Special Sky: How Prince Escaped From Time

Brian Phillips on the transcendence of Prince

I'm interested in the question of Prince and genre because I'm interested in the question of Prince and time, and I'm interested in the question of Prince and time because I do not know how he did it, this beautiful, strange, sultry, shining thing that he did. It has to do with time, I think. There was always something -- and this may sound like a small point, but I think it means a lot -- chronologically off about him.

Look at the cover of his second album, Prince, which was released in 1979. Prince is standing against a pale blue backdrop, shirtless and vulnerable, with a sprinkle of chest hair showing under his collarbone. His expression is open and serious. His only defenses are a closely shaved mustache and this gorgeous, enveloping cloud of feathered hair. The image says: "Enough pretending." It says: "I've been through some things, and I know what matters now; what I'm giving you now is just me." Prince looks about 33. He's actually 21.

Now look at the cover of his single "Stare," from last year. Prince is wearing some kind of glorious mystical hoodie, woven with a black-and-white geometrical design. He's staring intensely off to one side. His hood is raised. He resembles a nun from the year 3709. His cheeks are a little thinner than in the earlier image, and his eyes are a little harder. But he's in his mid-fifties here, in what would turn out to be the very last year of his life. And he looks … about 33.

What's interesting about the similarity of these photos is not just that Prince was visually ageless, although he often appeared to be just that. What's interesting is that this outward agelessness seemed to have a deeper resonance in his art. It told a story that you also heard in the music. His entire career seemed to stand somehow askew of chronology, as if he only partially occupied the flow of time, or occupied it at a special diagonal.

That self-titled album, for instance. How is it possible that Prince, who felt essential to the present moment until literally yesterday, who never stopped seeming, in some fundamental way, brand new -- how is it possible that Prince put out a record in 1979? Grandmaster Flash released his first single in 1979. R.E.M. hadn't formed yet in 1979. John Lennon released his last record in 1980. And Prince wasn't even Prince's first album!

As a young man, he radiated a supernatural maturity; as an older man, he possessed a supernatural youth. In between, he lived a life that seemed to have infinite room -- room to saturate the culture and room to vanish, room to stage intractable avant-cool experiments in audience alienation and room to overload pleasure centers until the whole planet got up and fucking danced. Paisley Park, like God's house in the Bible, contained many mansions. You could never consult basic historical reference points and say where Prince was in his musical arc, could never impose a three-act structure on his life or convert his art into simple nostalgia. The hedonistic apocalypse of "1999" felt as thrillingly world-shattering in 1999 as it did in 1982, when it first appeared. So when was he at the beginning of his career, when was he at the end? Quick, without checking, what year did "Kiss" come out? You could have said 1983 or you could have said 1996, and if you didn't remember having heard it for years, you could have said 2014, too. (It was 1986.)

The beauty of Prince’s dislocation from normal temporality was that he managed to fully embody his era while seeming almost magically free of its constraints. Like David Bowie, to whom he'll be endlessly compared in the next few weeks, Prince seemed to inhabit a dimension of his own devising. But where Bowie's freedom was secured by a careful edge of aloofness, that faint hint of a smirk that told you he'd already solved the game (and knew you'd love him for solving it), Prince could at times be startlingly exposed. Bowie was always disappearing into himself, always singing "give me your hands" from a stage where the hands couldn't reach him. Prince, no matter how many layers of sunglasses and scarves and purple smoke and glinting wings he hid himself behind, often seemed as naked as he looked on his eponymous album cover.

This is who I am, his music seemed to say. You can touch me.

His songs were open to the moment even as they transcended the moment. Moments flooded into them, and so they pulled off a reversal of position that's unlike anything else I can think of in popular music. Prince contained 1984. 1984 didn't contain Prince. I don't know how he did that. Right now, as I write this, I am listening to "Kiss," and I am crying, and I don't know.

That feeling of not knowing is why I think I still believe in the power of art to transport us beyond all the categories to which we sometimes want to reduce it. I can frame Prince in terms of race, in terms of politics, in terms of economics, in terms of trends in media, in terms of the history of sexuality — and thinking in terms of all those things can be useful and illuminating and important. All those things made contributions to who Prince was (and vice versa, which is another reason I still believe in art). But when a song hits you the right way, it doesn't feel analytically finite. Maybe that's just brain chemistry, I don't know. It feels like a miracle.

I can't explain the miracle, and I don't want to try. But I've been thinking that part of what made Prince's temporal magic trick possible — one of the tools he used to achieve it — was his embrace of so many different genres. In many ways, he came along at the perfect moment for a voraciously curious, illimitable genius. And OK, yes, probably any moment could be the right one for someone with that kind of galaxy-bending talent at his command, but some moments are more promising than others.

Take this one. Rock music still seemed capable of producing great art; in the late 1970s, mainstream (white) culture would have instinctively seen rock as the popular genre most likely to produce great art. Pop was undergoing an exuberant explosion, dance music seemed full of possibility, and R&B and funk were -- if not on rock's monocultural prestige-pedestal -- at least felt, even by white audiences and critics, to be exciting and important. (Those moments when white audiences decide not to scorn the black music where real innovation is happening: historically fertile periods in the history of pop aesthetics.) Looking back over the last 60, 70 years — back to, say, bebop -- has there ever been a moment when more genres seemed to hold more potential all at once?

And Prince loved all of them. Not only loved, but mastered. He fused them all together, in a way that made the past and the future and the weird future-past that is the present warp into each other and chime off each other in unforeseen ways. In his hands, you're dislocated from time, because there's so much time in the music. "Purple Rain" is a gospel song and is classic rock and is '80s synth-pop and is the choir of robot-druids ushering in the Violet Ocean Age. "Kiss" is just — God, how could anything so defiantly, movingly human sound so post-human at the same time? Because genre clash sounds like the future, but genres are ultimately archives of human experience. (Also because his voice is just rad as fuck on this song.) "Act your age, not your shoe size," he sings. But Prince's age was an unpronounceable symbol, just like his name used to be.

I don't know. Maybe this is all kind of abstruse. But right now, his death feels as unbound from time as the rest of his life. He was 57, which is incredible in two directions. How was he already 57? How was he only 57? He died absurdly young after a career that lasted an outrageously long time and included an incredible abundance, and how can we resolve that paradox, except through the songs? When great artists go, we always say they'll live forever. What I'm trying to say here is that Prince was maybe the first great artist to start living forever even before he died.


VMAs 2017