As a little kid in the early 1980s, I remember watching the video for Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” for the first time, as I experienced the magic of cable television and MTV in my family’s first house. I could not look away from this man with the hairy chest, single hoop earring, and feathered hair. When I was around 11 or 12, my sister was in college and dated a guy who was a huge Prince fan. He let me listen to his records, including the B-sides and bootlegs, like “Girl,” “Erotic City,” and “17 Days.” I felt like I was a member of a club with select membership.
I’ve been fascinated with sex since an early age, and even as a child, I knew Prince was “nasty,” but it drew me to him even more. Prince built a reputation on his risqué songs, like “Head” with lyrics that said, “I know you’re good, girl/ I think you like to go down.” With songs like “Soft and Wet,” it’s easy to think that Prince only sees women as objects made for sexual pleasure, but looking further, his songs show women with the same sexual urges as men. Acts like Salt-N-Pepa and Madonna were equally important in showcasing women’s desires through song during my childhood, but Prince’s work resonated more with me. His music shaped my own sexuality because it helped me realize there are men who enjoy being submissive to women, that there are men who are willing to admit to helplessness during sex, and that being a woman who’s more sexually experienced than a man isn’t something to hide or being ashamed of.
His ’80s catalog, in particular, was a revelatory mix of sex, politics, and religion. He sang as a man unafraid of changing how society looked at masculinity, a man who enjoyed a more sexually experienced woman, and as a man willing to follow a woman’s lead.
“Darling Nikki,” from the 1984 Purple Rain soundtrack, details a one-night stand. It has all the markers to offend — a sex fiend of a woman masturbating in public who abandons her conquest after using him. On the surface, the song has much in common with 1982’s “Little Red Corvette,” another song about a one-night stand with a promiscuous woman. However, in “Little Red Corvette,” Prince’s persona warns the woman against her sexually adventurous lifestyle and attempts to “tame” her into monogamy. In “Darling Nikki,” the object of the woman’s affection has no problems with being used and ends the song begging for her to come back. Also, “Darling Nikki” was the catalyst for Tipper Gore, ex-wife of former Vice President Al Gore, to become co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, which led to “Parental Advisory” stickers on music deemed too explicit for children.
People frequently sing “Darling Nikki” to me because of my nickname (although I spell it differently) and love for Prince, but they don’t realize how empowering the song was for me once I became sexually active as a teenager. As I matured, I frequently warred with the idea of being a “good girl” who doesn’t talk about sex openly because it meant I was “easy” and yet wanting to express myself sexually in an open and honest way. I was warned that when women talk about sex, no matter how innocently, it makes people want to have sex with her, and that could have dangerous consequences. Even though “Darling Nikki” is told from the point of view of her conquest, I felt drawn to the woman in the title, bold and memorable. I wanted to be like her. I haven’t followed Darling Nikki’s exact footsteps, and my journey to realizing my full sexual self hasn’t always been straightforward, but I often think of her and the song when challenging myself sexually.
Beyond fast-paced rock and pop songs like “Darling Nikki,” “Little Red Corvette,” or even “Raspberry Beret,” where Prince sings about succumbing to the wiles of women more sexually experienced, he has more traditional R&B-like ballads, making sexual demands of his lovers for their mutual satisfaction. In “Do Me, Baby” from 1981’s Controversy and “Scandalous” from the 1989 Batman soundtrack, he asks to be touched and explored and lets the objects of his desire know that he’s at their mercy. Despite the persona’s obvious eagerness to make love, he lets his partners set the pace. In “Do Me, Baby,” he waits for his lover to lay him down, a sure sign of the other’s readiness. In “Scandalous,” Prince croons, “Anything’s acceptable / just ask me / and I’ll try it.” He’s willing to follow someone else’s lead. In these songs, Prince sings of his overwhelming desire for his partner but doesn’t rush the rendezvous. He encourages his lovers to lead, knowing that his being in a submissive position will be mutually beneficial.
When people jokingly wonder how a man who wears heels and makeup, challenging ideas of masculinity, is able to date so many women, I often think of songs like “Do Me, Baby” and “Scandalous.” He understands the need to give his partners room to take charge and how doing so doesn’t equal a threat to his manhood. On the album version of “Do Me, Baby,” Prince ends the song with his orgasm, begs his partner for help, and finally asks to be held. The vulnerability he displays perhaps answers the question of how this diminutive man in eyeliner and lace can be considered a ladies’ man. It set a high bar for me when it came to my own sexual partners. I expected my boyfriends to let me lead sometimes and to express neediness without shame. My disappointment was frequent, so I’d return to Prince’s music to daydream.
As much as Prince’s music gave me permission to accept my own sexual maturity, his discography is not without issue. Sometimes he is flat-out hypocritical and misogynistic. “Little Red Corvette” borders on what we’d now call slut-shaming. On stage, Prince frequently pairs women dancers together in sexual mimicry, and yet some of his lyrics scold women about being bisexual. On the 1979 self-titled album, the song “Bambi” attempts to convince a woman to abandon her female lover because “it’s better with a man.” Prince ends the song declaring, “Bambi, I know what U need / Bambi, maybe U need 2 bleed.” In the 1982 bootleg single “Xtraloveable,” Prince’s persona tries to seduce a woman by asking her if she wants to take a bath with him. He praises her because she doesn’t brag about her love life and doesn’t appear to be loose with her affections: “What I dig the most is the way that U keep your sugar in your hand / till I want it.” However, later he claims he’s “on the verge of rape” then: “I’m sorry / but I’m just gonna have 2 rape U / Now are U going to get in the tub / Or do I have 2 drag U?” Prince moves from seduction to rape, and it’s jarring. Here, his usual submissive role is gone and replaced with an overly aggressive one. One moment, the song’s persona is happy that his lover makes him wait, and the next he’s threatening rape because she doesn’t respond to his advances quickly enough.
Prince recently performed “Bambi” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with the all-female band he fronts, 3rdEyeGirl. He didn’t sing the final threat of violence, but the overall sexist sentiment of the song remained, especially considering the fact that Prince stood in front of an all-woman band. Perhaps Prince decided to play the song because it’s more rock than funk or R&B and showcases his rock guitar talents. It remains an odd song selection.
In 2013, Prince released “Extraloveable Reloaded,” with sanitized lyrics. The sugar in hand becomes a vague “it,” and any mention of rape is scrubbed. Since Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he’s become increasingly conservative, refusing to play most of his racier songs that cemented his place in pop culture. Recent music like “Da Bourgeoisie” returns to shaming a woman for her bisexuality, but “Breakfast Can Wait” hints that the old, raunchy Prince is still around.
Prince still has moments where he wags his finger at a woman because of her choices, but then I think of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” from the 1987 album Sign O’ the Times. It’s a song so important to me that I have a line of its lyrics tattooed around my left ankle. In it, Prince’s alter ego Camille sings in the perspective of a man who wonders if becoming a woman would lead to a closer relationship with his current female lover. Again, Prince disrupts heteronormative ideals of masculinity by being willing to change genders for more significant connection, the kind shared between women.
It’s hard to reconcile the Prince of gender-fluidity with the one who refuses to comment on same-sex marriage. I’ve overlooked his bouts of hypocrisy and sexism to concentrate on what I’ve learned from his music over the years. With his music, I gave myself permission to be bold and shameless in my desires. As a Southern woman, I’ve grown up dancing to a lot of music that directly contradicts my feminist beliefs, like bass and bounce. Lyrics demanding women to pop their pussies or guaranteeing material goods in exchange for satisfactory sex fly directly in the face of the idea that a woman is more than her body and sexuality. It’s not enough to shrug off the misogynistic verses simply because of a good beat. Not only did I give myself permission to speak freely about sex, I also had to allow myself to be a complex person who enjoys flawed artists and their art.
Prince’s early catalog taught me things about myself I wasn’t even aware I was learning at such a young age. When I made the decision to become sexually active as a teen, I imitated Prince’s moans and gasps from his songs as practice to make sure I would sound sexy in bed. To this day, you might catch me making sounds straight from “Do Me, Baby,” “Girl,” or “Vibrator,” a Vanity 6 song Prince wrote. That’s what was sexy to me — a man willing to vocalize pleasure and be vulnerable and so I sought to translate that into my own sex life. Despite his increasingly conservative beliefs and his occasionally sexist lyrics, Prince helped me achieve an honest and good sex life. For that, I’ll always be grateful.