In our last post, I invoked that reliable old standby of pornographic schlock, the Penthouse Forum letter, as a point of comparison for Prince’s early 1976 song “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” Since we’re treading in similar thematic waters today, I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about the roots of the porn aesthetic in Prince’s musical persona.
Cultural critic Touré has written convincingly about how Prince’s rise to infamy coincided with the mainstreaming of pornographic imagery in American society in the 1970s and 1980s (Touré 72). As we’ll see in the weeks and months to come, porn aesthetics figured heavily in Prince’s developing persona, from the Dirty Mind album to Vanity 6 to the Purple Rain film. But its influence also (allegedly) went back much earlier, to his childhood–the proverbial “origin myth.” There’s a recurring story of a nine- or ten-year-old Prince coming across his mother‘s collection of pornographic literature; in some versions, she left it out deliberately, in a kind of passive-aggressive effort to teach him about the “birds and the bees.” “I think there was some kind of plan to initiate me heavy and quick,” Prince recalled in a 1997 television interview with comedian Chris Rock, “so I was given Playboy magazines, and there was erotic literature laying around that was very easily picked up… it was pretty heavy at the time. I think it really affected my sexuality a great deal” (VH1 1997).
It certainly affected his songwriting. Like its contemporary “Don’t You Wanna Ride?”, “Rock Me, Lover” is thoroughly grounded in the conventions and preoccupations of teenage sexual fantasy. It differentiates itself, however, in a few key ways. First, if the former song takes after Jimi Hendrix, then the latter has more of a James Brown feel; the riff Prince scratches out on his acoustic guitar sounds very much of a piece with the syncopated rhythm work pioneered by Jimmy Nolen during his tenure with Brown’s band. This sort of “Funk 101” guitar would, of course, remain one of the principal tools in Prince’s musical arsenal. Second, and more intriguingly, while “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” is at its heart a lowest-common-denominator fantasy of domination, “Rock Me, Lover” finds Prince taking a step forward, toward the formulation of his own, uniquely submissive brand of seduction.
Touré writes that “Prince worships women so much that in his songs he usually gets turned out by them. His stories were less about ‘This is what I’ll do to you,’ than ‘This is what I want you to do to me’” (Touré 83). This is certainly the case with songs like the aforementioned “Little Red Corvette” and “Darling Nikki,” in which much of the erotic charge comes from Prince’s character being overwhelmed by a powerful, if not predatory woman. In “Don’t You Wanna Ride?”, as we observed last time, Prince won’t allow himself to be overwhelmed: he needs to take control of the song’s “foxy lady” and show her who’s in charge. But even the title of “Rock Me, Lover” demonstrates a more passive approach. This time around, Prince’s character stands in awe of the woman: in the song’s raunchiest line, “Lover, you sure know how to cream,” he even humbly gives her full responsibility for her orgasm.
Of course, this submissive approach is indebted to pornographic tropes, just as much as the dominant “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” Sadism and masochism have been the poles along which heteronormative porn aligns itself, practically since there was such a thing as heteronormative porn. But there’s something nevertheless appealing, if not outright radical, about a man so brazenly offering himself to a woman. Prince’s submissive seduction, Touré writes, “had a way of empowering the women he was speaking about, giving them agency and sexual force, rather than making [them] bodies or conquests” (Touré 83). This is something, quite frankly, that many of today’s wannabe R&B lotharios fail to recognize. Women have been hearing about what men are going to do to them and how long and how hard for years–long enough, certainly, to know that it’s usually an empty boast. Part of the appeal of Prince, for many women, was that he wasn’t afraid to let himself be the one who gets “rocked.”
None of which is to say that the issue of dominance was an entirely settled question for Prince in 1976. Indeed, he’d continue to wrestle with his obvious insecurities through much of his career, and a reactionary machismo would frequently rear its head in his lyrics; for every “Little Red Corvette” there’s a “Lady Cab Driver,” for every “Girl” there’s an “Irresistible Bitch.” But it’s telling that the Prince everyone seems to remember isn’t the spiteful, controlling little prick from the second act of Purple Rain, but the soft, beguiling, gender-fluid creature he portrayed in songs like “Do Me, Baby” and “Adore”: a figure whose immersion in the sex act was so complete, his (considerable) ego threatened to disappear entirely. “Rock Me, Lover” may not be a masterpiece on its own merits; but it’s still important, because it shows that even as a teenager, Prince was already learning how to let go.
10 replies on “Rock Me, Lover”
Zach, thanks for the blog, it’s wonderful. I’m really enjoying the way the chronology allows you to weave the biographical and musical together, and have to confess to being a little jealous of your project. I’m on the last leg of finishing my graduate studies but have been slowed up by pretty much only wanting to read and write about P since April. I’m not sure my committee would appreciate the digression in the final chapter 🙂
I’m also really enjoying your sensitivity to the complex gender issues, and just wanted to open up a question here the domination/submission dynamic, and the extent to which P’s performance of sexuality falls neatly in line with a porn aesthetic. There is certainly the tension between ‘reactionary machismo…controlling little prick’ and ‘beguiling gender fluid creature,’ and this applies also of course to the tension between his IRL treatment of women and his careful crafting of an image as the perfect lover. There are certain problems in that image itself, not least the extent to which is beholden to an excessively romantic idealization of sexual union (which is also, of course, at the same time, a good portion of its power, no one did god-in-sex as well as P)…but anyway, I guess I think it’s important to think about the extent to which the ‘perfect lover’ persona isn’t about masochism but about a total refusal of that dynamic. What the simultaneous embodiment of both masculinity and femininity opens up is the possibility of a fluid dynamic not structured around dominance and submission but mutuality, and its this which is both radical and so successfully seductive – which is why this is what we remember and cherish about him (and why we really want to brush the early version of extralovable under the carpet). In this respect, I don’t think the presentation of sex can be neatly aligned to a porn aesthetic (not that that’s not there also – there is little as porny as Vanity’s much recycled (and incredibly fake sounding) orgasm for e.g.), but I think neither the representation of masculine openness to mutuality, nor even the religiosity of sex is straightforwardly porny…and I’m pretty interested in whether the way P’s work ended up being historically submerged in general pornification was to some extent related to his later leeriness about it. Sure, that was also a JW thing…but the sexuality of the performance never really went away – in the last RS interview he mentions the fact that he knows that when he plays guitar it still looks and sounds like sex – so it seems there was an attempt to separate out the more pornified elements of the earlier work, and distance himself from them (the stage was, for example, still full of beautiful powerful looking women, but they were no longer dressed like playboy bunnies)…while still retaining what was and still most powerful and subversive about it.
Anyway, apologies for mini-essay. Like I said, I’d really rather be writing about P atm. Thanks again for your work, I look forward to what comes next.
Wow, you *are* in the last leg of your graduate studies! (I’m kidding…if you can’t tell I’m a former academic myself, game recognize game, etc.)
I actually agree with you entirely, and I think that definitely by Lovesexy–and even before that, with something like “If I Was Your Girlfriend”–Prince was successfully breaking out of that porny sadomasochistic dynamic. And even before then, the tension in his life and his work (as you suggest, there are a troubling number of allusions to rape around ’82-’83) is fascinating. I was thinking about Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse when I wrote this post, and probably should have broken it back out for some relevant quotes… I’m sure I’ll incorporate it at some point later, because I think Prince at his best came pretty damn close to her ideal of sexual union without domination (she would probably disagree, but you know).
What’s your graduate work in?
Ha yes, it tends to promote a kind of diversionary obsessive insanity, which P seems to be the recipient of…but, to be honest I tend towards crazy rambling sentences on the best of days. 🙂
So, I work in feminist metaphysics, and more specifically on what the critique of patriarchal metaphysics/concepts of sovereign self-identity have to tell us about sexual politics. Hence the fixation on Prince (as well as the general funky genius, the being a conduit for something not entirely earthy (something posted on the org described it as ‘messianic ejaculate,’ that thing) oh, and the stupid levels of beauty (we’ll draw a veil over Rave Un2 and that blue suit)). Anyway, if you’re interested there’s one paper representing the current work out there. It’s a reading of Intercourse and Anders Breivik. Not as weird as it sounds. Really. https://www.academia.edu/4021322/On_the_Possibility_of_Penetrable_Being
Also, I wrote a piece on the submission/domination thing in P’s work, and its relation to the many water references/his embrace of the feminine. And yes, I’d say If I Was Your Girlfriend is pretty much the place where that impulse finds its earliest most complete expression, although it’s there as you suggest in for e.g. Do Me Baby, especially the live performances, and also the Benefit performance of Electric Intercourse, which still pretty much blows my head off. http://www.popmatters.com/feature/water-baby-a-eulogy-for-our-departed-prince/
The tension between this and other aspects of his work and life is indeed fascinating. Someone with such manifest control issues was never likely to be able to deliver on that promise…but the fact he had access to such vulnerability in his work that he seems never to have been able to fully live is one of the things I find so compelling, like the fact that someone who couldn’t let go in life was able to give themselves over so completely in performance. Anyway, I’ll go before another mini-essay turns into an essay proper. I thought writing that piece would lay my grief and need to analyze it to rest. Not even close.
Oh word. that was you? I read that piece when it came out–really, really good stuff (and I’ll probably read it again when it’s time to return to subjects of gender fluidity, etc.). I did an M.A. in media studies and was working on an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in literature and history before I decided to jump ship a couple years ago. I still miss research, though, so this blog has been a nice outlet. My specialization was never in gender studies, but when I taught discourse I’d usually do a lecture on gender identity built entirely on Prince’s videos. I don’t know if my students enjoyed it, per se, but they indulged me.
Anyway, hope you continue to read, as I will definitely be returning to these themes as we go. And if you’re still wanting to write about Prince after your dissertation and need an outlet, I’d be happy to put something up as a guest post.
I kind of wish I’d been in that lecture.
I’ll definitely keep reading, it’s shaping up to be a great piece of work, and I imagine some more mini-essay comments might pop up before long. I very much doubt I’ll be done with thinking about P in the near future, so I may well take you up on your offer when I’m done. Thank you. Half a chapter and a conclusion to go…
All best with words going forward. It’ll be quite a ride 🙂
Typo to fix: for every “Little Red Corvette” there’s a “Lady Cab Driver,” for every “Girl” there’s an “Irresistable Bitch.” => Irresistible
And another one: This sort of “Funk 101” guitar would, of course, remain one of the principle tools in Prince’s musical arsenal. => principal
(Feel free to delete these comments once the typos are fixed! I cannot find an email address to contact you anywhere. :-))