Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

Prince of a Man Had Right Message For #MeToo Times

His music was about asking for permission, navigating consent and not being afraid to appear vulnerable.

By Dorothy Woodend 23 Jan 2018 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Sometimes a song is like a magic key. A key that opens a box inside your head that holds weird old memories and random caches of stuff you’d forgotten all about.

Click goes the key …. And SPLOOSH! Your synapses turn on like a water cannon, hurtling you back 30 odd years to your teenage self, dancing around the living room, maniacally chanting, “Body Don’t Wanna Quit, Gotta Get Another Hit!” while your mother yells, “Turn that shit off!”

This happened me the other day when my teenage son started playing Prince’s legendary double album 1999. The aforementioned line is from a lesser-known song called “All the Critics Love You In New York.”

An overwhelming sense of time and place re-opened, and I was reminded of a period when sex was mysterious, and hilarious, and somewhat hysteria-inducing. I also have renewed sympathy for my mother. (But more on that later.)

This purplish re-visitation comes at an interesting time. Talking to your kids about sex has never been easy and it is especially complicated at the moment, but curiously enough, Prince has offered a way forward.

Prince’s music has been on nonstop repeat in our house for many months now. I’m not exactly sure how this happened. Except that every summer when my sister and I make the drive home to the Kootenays, we bring along an old plastic bag full of road-trip CDs. We sing the entire 10-hour drive, while my son sits in the back seat, his hand over his eyes, wishing he were somewhere else. But in the midst of his mother and aunt yodelling along to Purple Rain, some germ of musical affection must have snuck through and taken hold.

Musical obsessions run in the family.

Long before Prince came on the scene, music was my first introduction to romance, love, and yes, sex. Our childhood record collection consisted of fat black discs, passed down from the previous generations (musicals like My Fair Lady, South Pacific and West Side Story) or ’60s hand-me-downs like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or The Doors’s Morrison Hotel.

In addition to the record player, which held pride of place, our playroom was littered with half-naked Barbies and G.I. Joe dolls. We’d inherited the action figures from a friend, who’d moved to Vancouver and bequeathed us his massive collection on the solemn promise we wouldn’t lose anything. A promise that lasted maybe 2.5 hours — tops. All the tiny canteens and mess kits, with eensy-weensy forks and knives vanished into oblivion, and Joe himself was reduced to wearing only his skivvies, in his role as male consort to the Queen Barbies and their rapacious desire for cigarettes and sex. I’m not exactly certain how the two things became conjoined in our young minds, but when you don’t have any real information, you simply make stuff up. So it was with the mysteries of adult courtship. The Barbies’ greatest pleasure in life was smoking, going on dates and complaining about men. All of this action was set to a pretty benign soundtrack of show tunes and hippy music.

But that all changed when KISS’s Love Gun came on the scene. It was a present from the guy who would become our stepdad. He probably didn’t have the faintest clue what he was getting into and just bought the first thing that came to hand.

To say we were obsessed with the album is like saying the Black Plague was a pesky medical condition. The thing invaded our young brains like an atom bomb, it consumed us to the point where the adults in the room had to call a moratorium after we’d played the record approximately 500,000 times in a row. It changed the Barbies’ behaviour as well, as they became KISS love slaves almost immediately while G.I. Joe sulked in the corner.

I clearly remember the moment when our parents tried to tell us, with admirable restraint, “You know… These songs are all about sex.” A revelation we denied with near-Stalinist conviction: “NO! That’s gross!” Surely, there was some other explanation for the term “Love Gun” or lyrics such as, “Put your hand in my pocket and grab on to my rocket.” But this resistance paled in the face of repeat listening. Even giant armoured codpieces couldn’t hide the truth. There be penises under them thar things!

All of which brings me to some hard facts.

Your parents had to talk to you about sex despite shrieking entreaties to be “Please stop! Please shut up!” or just a long sustained scream “AHHHHHHHH!!!” Now it’s your turn sucker, and how would you like to address it in this era of affirmative consent, #MeToo and sex panics?

I never expected Prince to be of help in this regard, but that’s how it worked out. And in all honesty, I cannot think of another artist who wrote about sex with such humour, intensity, emotion, danger and fun, sometimes all within the same song. Ergo, his music is a good way to introduce your own kids to the fury of issues foaming and flooding throughout the media, all with some shattering guitar licks and snappy song writing.

Aside from a few notable exceptions, many of Prince’s songs are about asking for permission, navigating consent, and not being afraid to appear vulnerable or needy — all presented with a good dose of self-awareness and deep respect for women. Even the briefest perusal of lyrics reveals an ongoing quest to open channels of communication, prior to doing anything else.

To wit: “Oh, darlin' if you're free for a couple of hours. If you ain't busy for the next seven years?”

Or this:

“If I Was Girlfriend,” is essentially one long plea for intimacy: “Would you let me wash your hair? Could I make you breakfast sometime? Well then, could we just hang out? I mean go to a movie and cry together?”

Also, there is nothing wrong with a cheerfully filthy ode to sexual reciprocity.

In the face of problematic male posturing, especially in hip hop culture, it is refreshing to revisit songs about pining, unrequited love, sadness and loss, along with the occasional perky ode to masturbation.

A recent Guardian article maintained that a sea change is currently underway, with women and queer artists all writing music that offers a different way of conceiving of desire and consent. This is heartening stuff. But I would argue that Prince was there first, dressed in panties and thigh-high stockings while doing the splits as he sang about complex and complicated feelings.

In this aspect, the Purple One has been something of a spiritual guide. And as a parent, I need all the help I can get. It is tricky enough talking about relatively clinical things like contraception and sexual health. But to be blunt, talking about desire and pleasure is one of the hardest things to do with anyone, much less your kids. Even in the annals of sex education, it has proven bizarrely difficult. So, if even the professionals are having a hard time, you have to take it easy on yourself.

But… if not now, when?

Strangely enough, the outing of bad behaviour among the rich and the powerful has opened the conversation in fascinating new ways. As many thoughtful folk have noted, what appears naturalized, innate and organic can suddenly shift, almost overnight. We’re all going through it at the moment as the duelling op-eds make clear. Have we gone too far or do we still have a long way to go?

The meteoric popularity of The New Yorker short story Cat Person proved a shock to some and a revelation to many. But there is a reason it is still sitting at the very top of the list on the New Yorker site. Reading that story provided a moment of almost piercing recognition. I know I am not alone is this experience, practically every woman I know could relate to the weird expectations, shitty disappointment and awful sex that the story depicted. As a young woman, and even a slightly older woman, you end up in the middle of situations because you don’t quite know what else to do and no one has prepared you with the tools to navigate your way out.

But what if there was a different way?

A recent piece from writer and cultural theorist Laurie Penny outlined all of the ups and downs, ins and outs, and potential paths towards a better, more pleasurable and inclusive world.

This all sounds great, but it’s not as easy as simply deciding to change your mind. This stuff goes so deep, occasionally it feels almost cellular. As my sister pointed out, all those boys and young men who were raised by feminist mothers don’t seem to have fully ingested the idea of liberation and equality. How do you account for the fact that parents aren’t always able to pass along lessons of tolerance and acceptance? In making your own parenting decisions, you often run face first into your own preconceived ideas, especially when it comes to men and women.

I certainly never wanted to listen to my parents about anything and I would gladly have chewed off my own arm rather than give up the music I loved, as problematic as some it was. I am embarrassed to admit it, but even now, a quasi-insane, hysterical giddiness comes flooding back at the sexism contained in terrible KISS songs. I’m not sure what to think about that except that humans are complicated and contradictory, and if you tell them to do one thing, often they will do entirely the opposite.

As journalists, academics, cultural theorists, and celebrities grapple with the question of where do we go now, talking to your kids in this moment of seismic change can feel a little overwhelming. But it also feels like we are on the verge of something great, something huge.

As Ms. Penny eloquently states in her essay: “But the rolling crisis of toxic masculinity does not just kill the mood, it kills human beings. It ruins lives. It is a species-level disaster that causes trauma on a scale most of our tiny minds cannot stretch to comprehend. And it can’t go on like this. There is a bigger and scarier social and sexual revolution on its way…”

In this, the reintroduction of Prince has come at a moment when it is most needed and necessary, when men and women are trying to find a way forward together (hopefully). It’s opened up a way to have a conversation about these issues and still dance around the living room at the same time.

Every revolution needs a good soundtrack after all.  [Tyee]

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