I first fell for Prince in 1982. I was in middle school, and Prince was an audiovisual gateway to a number of fascinating worlds I was very ready to explore. In the early '80s, Prince was primarily a critics' darling, and his music brought the first correlation between my developing taste and music criticism.
I'd spent my preteen years listening to kids' music and/or the stuff of critics' disdain—the Carpenters, the Grease and The Sound of Music soundtracks, REO Speedwagon, music onto which little to no thoughtful ink was spilled at the time. But Prince came with an ever-growing world of supplementary materials, and beyond the cheap thrill of critical validation was the deep thrill of reading smart people eloquently describe why they love something you also love. In 1982, reading about Prince meant reading about Dirty Mind, Controversy, and the just-released 1999, and getting to know that music amid often contradictory written accounts of what Prince's lust-drunk, multiracial, gender-bending, sex-as-religion musical pastiche added up to was revelatory, giving me a lifelong love of the buzz that can arise between a work of art and good writing about that work of art.
Prince's artistic badassery during the early '80s can't be overstated. To understand the depth and breadth of it, you need to remember the particulars of the musical landscape as the '70s turned into the '80s—specifically, the odious backlash gathered under the banner "Disco sucks," which provided a convenient if lazy way for white pop, rock, and country music fans to rebel against the reign of disco during the (admittedly oppressive) Saturday Night Fever era. It also encouraged some truly ugly behavior. As Robert Christgau wrote about the militant disco-sucks watchdogs in his essay for the 1978 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, "These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar—hell, the first lilt—as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has 'gone disco'... They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music... One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation."
Along with latent racism, the anti-disco backlash was propelled by explicit homophobia, the belief that dance music was "faggy," with all these factors feeding into the awesomeness of Prince's artistic flowering. Faced with the task of making records doomed to be judged by some as music for blacks and fags, Prince stripped his black self down to a G-string, slapped on some ladies' stockings and a trench coat, and got to work making dance music even rock fans couldn't deny. That Prince's fagginess proved to be just a pose (dude is a total pussyhound) didn't dilute its significance, and watching Prince openly embody queerness meant the world to the pre-out me.
Prince's work soon took him into the stratosphere—at one point in 1984, he had the number-one single, album, and movie in the United States—and this week it brings him to the Tacoma Dome for a stadium show that, in lieu of a new album to promote, can only be a celebration of his career-long excellence. In 2004, I saw Prince perform at KeyArena, and even with product to promote—the more- wonderful-than-you-remember Musicology—the majority of the show was devoted to the Great Prince Songbook, with the man and a killer band (including Maceo Parker himself) blasting through two hours of thrilling live music. In this age of canned-and-choreographed stadium shows, Prince has wisely fixated on his amazing musicianship, and he puts on a live show like no one else. If you are a Prince fan who is not impecunious, you should just go to this show.
For now, I'm stuck in 1982 and the final new world Prince opened for me. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, where Caucasians are the minority. Down the street lived a large Mexican American family packed with super-cool teenagers who might've found much to criticize about the pudgy, faggy, and pubescent me if they ever deigned to notice I was alive. Everything changed in the late autumn of '82, when the two key brothers of the family saw me walking home from the record store with a vinyl copy of 1999. At the time of its release, 1999 was a big crazy dance statement—a double album of only 11 songs, each of which was essentially presented in an extended 12-inch mix. The following year would see 1999's prime cuts pared down to radio edits that would make Prince a superstar, but what the brothers and I bonded over were the original full mixes, one of which would devour the better half of a side. (Look it up, young'uns.) I loaned them my copy of 1999, they loaned me their copy of Controversy, and an entirely Prince-based friendship was born. The rest of the world joined us in 1983 and '84, with "Little Red Corvette" and Purple Rain, as Prince built bridges in all directions, simultaneously appealing to fans of R&B, pop, rock, and new wave. But at the beginning, the cool brothers were my only Princely commiseraters, and we helped each other better understand ourselves and the music. I held forth on the significance of 1999's four-and-a-half-star rating in Rolling Stone; they explained what the line about "fucking the taste out of someone's mouth" meant.