| Arts & Culture
Music Prince Taught Me a Whole New Love Language
“Sign o’ the Times” is candy for a cute little he/they like me.
In 1982, three years before the RIAA would slap Parental Advisory labels on LPs, Prince made a song called “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” where he screams out: “Look here, Marsha, I’m not sayin’ this just to be nasty / I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth / Can you relate?” If you can imagine a slender man performing those lines in the most fashionable piece of purple, colonial chic, then you may also feel hopeful that you, too, despite the uncertain chemical mock-up of your own awkward body, can enjoy the riches of intimate bedroom liaisons.
That someone could be so poignantly unconcerned with the femininity of his own image and conjure such hedonistic prowess spoke to me deeply. I couldn’t produce a similar balance, for I was simply not as comfortable in my own manhood. Though I am scrawny like Prince was, I have never had the same machismo. Like many men who were raised in the presence of insufferable, rural, toxic masculinity, sex felt like a fleeting gift that I was supposed to harness when it appeared. After spending five years on hormones, I waited so long to escape from the side effects, the withdrawal when insurance wouldn’t cover refills, and the weight fluctuations. When I first met someone who wanted to make a town of pleasure atop a flaccid dorm-room air mattress, I couldn’t get enough.
There was a period, though, when I did fall into the foreword of sex like it was a performance, much like Prince. I’m not talking about foreplay, though. I’m talking about flirtation, eyes locking on eyes: the energy that renders our bodies into shapes of unrelenting, beautiful color. The preamble to tumbling into a bed made of neon. A necessary checkpoint before climax. At one point, before he was legally a symbol, Prince skipped that glow altogether and expedited the act of bodies touching other bodies. Things changed for him on Sign o’ the Times , when he became patient, fashioned himself into a James Brown resplendent, and wrote irresistible grooves that didn’t immediately transform into tangled sheets.
Things have changed for me too. I’m older now and much more concerned about the name attached to my body than the movements it makes. I took different pronouns for a test-drive and have since brought them home with me from the lot. My partner calls my hip scars hot from across the room; she sits in a rickety recliner and I fall into her lap like a bucket of stars. We kiss each other upside down and laugh the whole time. Maybe we go days without physical intimacy. An “I love you” registers a powerful warmth. When I learned that I was intersex, that I wasn’t entirely the boy my parents raised me to be, I felt like a shell, like something was wrong with me. I’ve written a lot about this, about having an XX sex chromosome disorder. Maybe it’s growing stale; maybe I’m stretching the source material too thin. In fact, I’m sure somebody believes that. But, truth be told, I am just making up for lost time, scaling back into my own past and unpacking parts of myself that I didn’t quite understand at the time.
Though I first started hormone therapy in 2013, it took years for it to fully assimilate into my bloodstream. The breasts I had carried around on my chest slowly shrank down, the hair across my body thickened and darkened, and my voice deepened. A few years later, when I was coming to terms with my own gender fluidity, I found myself missing the parts of me that testosterone eliminated. I was left with a terribly unsexy, pear-shaped torso on top of too-skinny legs, and a squared head and chubby cheeks I still carry. Stretch-mark scars turned purple over time, but they are now slowly fading into my skin.
I took different pronouns for a test-drive and have since brought them home with me from the lot.
Prince was the first person who taught me that it’s cool to fuck and that it’s cool to be feminine and that it’s cool to be a little ugly—as long as you carry yourself like you’re the hottest person in the room. Who he was bedding was often unclear, but that ambiguity was the point. His partners were beautiful and nameless and, by association, Prince was beautiful and nameless too. A similar free-ranging promiscuity simmered in my heart. When you struggle with bodily autonomy for years, there is something liberating about watching someone take the spectacle of their body and turn it into an art form. Prince notably, and confidently, bent with his own times. In a performance of “Housequake” at Paisley Park on New Year’s Eve in 1987, he gripped the mic stand like an erect cock and sashayed across the stage floor, gyrating his svelte hips under a mirage of pink lights. He opened the curtains on his wildest escapades and asked us to climax with him.
While conservatism in America was waging a war on musical language that pushed the envelope in 1985, Prince sang “I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine / She said how’d you like to waste some time” and “Come on and touch the place in me / That’s calling out your name” without worry. Of course, he would one day distance himself from those full-frontal proclamations hidden behind balmy language. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he reportedly kept a swear jar in his home. His newfound fundamentalism aligned with who his audience had grown into: People like my parents, who were abandoning their more reckless young adulthoods and retreating to the safety of professionalism. Their aversion to glamor manifested in forbidding me from wearing ripped jeans to school, or confiscating a concert T-shirt with a graphic of two ungendered mouths kissing.
When Sign o’ the Times came out on March 30, 1987, it was heralded as an instant classic. Spin called the songs “genius,” while the Chicago Sun-Times labeled it a “one-man show, a tour de force, and a confirmation that pop’s former prodigy has come of age.” Purple Rain was fully in Prince’s rearview. No longer was he interested in being a rock god wielding face-melting solos. You may have listened to Purple Rain at some point and believed nothing could ever be better than that. I was like you once too. I heard the octave cracks in the third verse of “Purple Rain” and felt the shivers down my spine and hoped they’d linger there forever. I watched him play it, “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star” in the pouring rain at Super Bowl XLI, and believed no moment could ever be so perfect. Purple Rain sounds like heaven if heaven were filled with leather jackets, red lipstick, and dive-bar musk. But it was Sign o’ the Times that truly changed me, and music, forever.
In 1980 and 1981, Dirty Mind and Controversy were Prince’s most affectatious chronicles of fucking. Seven years later, on Sign o’ the Times , he’d pivot to writing about people making love. After the carnal pleasures of his past, Prince was on the hunt for true romance, catalyzed by his ex-fiancée Susannah Melvoin dissolving their engagement in December 1986. I often find myself dabbling in the lechery of sexed-up anthems, but never after a breakup. There is a not-so-quiet beauty in wanting the entire world to bend to your own lust, but there’s something much more gravitational about being vulnerable in the face of a broken love life.
When Prince built Paisley Park—his very own Graceland—in 1987, he spent as many as fifteen hours a day making music. Where does a workaholic deeply in love with someone else and his own work turn once the legacy of being a sex god and an international lover no longer protects him from heartbreak? He makes the double album Sign o’ the Times , a grand exorcism of gender and sex in favor of wondrous gestures of small affections made by characters just like him, who are reimagining their own nature and putting their lives back together after a devastating romantic fallout.
Sign o’ the Times is a project about how intimacy can become revered in the wake of endings. In true Prince fashion, intimacy is not confined to the bounds of romance. Across sixteen songs, Prince masterfully channels James Brown, gospel hymns, jazz fusion, balladry, and messy dance-club grandeur. It’s never clear what team he’s playing for, and that is what makes the album’s world so magical. Anybody can slip themselves into anyplace across the record’s eighty-minute runtime. It opens with two people dreaming of a future (“Hurry before it’s too late / Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby / We’ll call him Nate . . . if it’s a boy”) and finishes with an ode to closeness (“Until the end of time / I’ll be there 4 U”). Not even six months removed from his breakup with Melvoin, the prospects of lifelong devotion were clearly on Prince’s mind.
It’s no secret that men are often embarrassing in their attempts to woo. Obsessed with sex like it’s some innate, primal force, the proverb of masculinity often relies on what happens in the bedroom. But I’m someone who has long enjoyed the pleasures of flirting. Have we forgotten how to be complex in our passionate extracurriculars?
I don’t know when I lost interest in the hackneyed banality of traditional love language, the idea that a man, or a masculine-presenting person, must be a guide in the bedroom. I imagine it probably happened in college, when I discovered the non–Top 40 songs of Prince’s catalog, where he was presenting himself as much more than a sex god. As a demisexual person, I have never been able to enjoy numerous sexual partnerships without commitment. I was much more entranced by the sort of thing Prince was doing: examining gender roles, dissecting what it might be like to embrace your own natural femininity behind closed doors, understanding the passions of the person you’re attracted to, falling in love, and later embellishing it on tape. Sign o’ the Times was written for us.
During this era, Prince didn’t ditch his boasts about the enchantment of intercourse; let’s make that clear. Mine through the album’s track list and you’ll find as many orgasms as ever. But, for the first time, he relishes the parts of the night that precede climax by removing gender roles in the bedroom. It’s no longer about boys and girls. It’s about energy, about confidence, about communication. It’s candy for a cute little he/they like me, and Sign o’ the Times is pure, magnetic, emotional foreplay that pairs genderless archetypes with the often-pigeonholed idea of love.
Prince was exploring what purging pronouns might look like and who gets what say in a relationship when the lines are blurred. When touring for the album, he dressed his most feminine, donning white feather coats, stalactites of gem earrings, and a yellow guitar that curled like a tongue. Take a song like “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” for example. Prince takes on the persona of “Camille,” his pitch-shifted, feminine alter ego, and considers the perspective of his lover with a newfound appreciation for her small details. “Baby, can I dress you? / I mean, help you pick out your clothes before we go out? / Listen, girl, I ain’t sayin’ you’re helpless / But sometime, sometime those are the things that being in love’s about,” he sings.
Sign o’ the Times is pure, magnetic, emotional foreplay that pairs genderless archetypes with the often-pigeonholed idea of love.
Sometimes I’m hesitant to walk around my house naked. But when I do, my partner greets me with a language of admiration and affectionate eyes. It is not an inherently sexual back-and-forth. Instead, it is a gesture of visibility, of appreciation. To have someone love you, or, more importantly, to have someone love each part of you and extend a physical reminder of it, is an indescribable kind of grace. If you have ever been in a position where someone has fallen out of love with the sight of you, then certainly you understand the ecstasy when that fondness returns.
As I get older, and slip further into the comfort of my own relationships, I frequently retreat to the safety of Sign o’ the Times . So often, I forget what it means to be romantic and what it means to extend compassionate gifts of immaterial gestures. Though I do my best to untether myself from the generational chains of bedroom masculinity, it helps that I have a partner who reminds me I can be whomever I desire to be in our most vulnerable palaces of pleasure.
Prince fucked whomever he pleased while carrying himself within an indelible sheen of eccentricity—all while wearing boas, debonair tuxes, and bouncy curls atop a winged horse. But he was just interested in what made his partners tick, what passions moved them across the same astral plane as him. I think about Prince at his absolute best, on Sign o’ the Times , and how the songs were a softer approach to the intimacy he’d so long cultivated in his music. For years, he unbuttoned his chiffon blouses until a mirage of chest hair met our gazes and sang stories about falling into bed with infinite partners, unlocking this ethereal, fantastical sort of pleasure in the process. And, as he so deftly did over the course of his career, Prince left the door cracked and asked us to find our euphoria too.
A year after Sign o’ the Times , Prince made Lovesexy , in which he described the title track as being about “the feeling you get when you fall in love . . . not with a boy or girl, but with the heavens above.” The act of closeness that Prince yearns for on Sign o’ the Times finds its proper conclusion in the near-seven-minute “Adore,” which remains his most beautiful song. He’s finally found his person and, in a mountain-moving falsetto, declares his love for them. “If God one day struck me blind / Your beauty I’d still see / Love is too weak to define / Just what you mean to me,” Prince croons. It’s here that he flaunts his riches, including his clothes made of “100 percent Italian silk” and “imported Egyptian lace.” But he returns to earth to mutter one final undeniable truth: “Nothin’ baby could compare / To your lovely face.”
Perhaps Prince was always a man of faith, merely fulfilling the part of an enigmatic star by momentarily pushing the boundaries of culture, but the earlier songs still mean something to me. I am no longer afraid of whether or not my body is one of unfixable oddness. I am the boyfriend and I am the girlfriend. The in-betweens of my personhood now extend beyond the gray area of intersexuality. Like Prince, I, too, can find euphoria in my own unconventional attractiveness and tumble into the arms of someone else who is beautiful. Like Prince proclaims on “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” I have often tried to imagine what silence looks like. Now, when I sit at a dinner table with my partner and we make love through the stillness of the air, it is then that I finally see its shape.