As we continue to reflect over the death of Whitney Houston, it’s important to remember the time period when she emerged. The 1980s was not only a period when technology began to take over the music industry in the form of drum machines, synthesizers and sampling keyboards; but also a time of cultural conservatism. The baby-boomer generation of the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed broad yet waning influence in pop culture. We like to remember that electronic music, hip-hop and post-punk (which evolved into indie-rock) came of age back then. But we often forget that those new and exciting sounds were far removed from the corporate rock and adult contemporary mainstream.
The world of black music was no different. The charts were mostly dominated by artists who launched their careers during the 1960s. The music they produced was often incredible – indeed, this era is celebrated as the heyday of “boogie funk” and “post-disco,” a brief oasis for musicians increasingly threatened by the insurgent hip-hop horde. But it could also be very bland and safe. Much like their white counterparts, older black music fans were retreating to the safe comforts of the quiet storm, a programming term for classic soul, smooth jazz, and lots of ballads. (Nelson George writes lucidly about this period in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues.)
Black artists trying to break their audience’s stupor had an additional problem; the music industry in the 1980s was extremely segregated. We’ve all heard the story of how Columbia Records forced MTV to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” because the channel rarely programmed black songs in heavy rotation. Between 1981 and 1985, only three black artists reached number one on the album charts: Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie. In 1981 and 1982, there were none. Pop radio was even worse: Only four songs by black artists reached number one during those two years. This is why Jackson is viewed as a pioneer. After black artists were consigned to the margins following the demise of disco, the groundbreaking popularity of Thriller made the industry recognize them again. But don’t assume that Jackson, Houston, and others were underground or alternative. Inexplicably, and even with major labels supporting them with vast financial resources, they often had trouble gaining wide acceptance.
As a result, Jackson, Prince and others who managed to break through the glass ceiling were called “crossover” stars, because they managed to cross over to the mainstream (re: white) audience. (Of course, this assumes that white people usually didn’t listen to black music, which is another falsehood.) They appealed to fans of hard rock (Tina Turner, Prince), adult contemporary (Anita Baker) and/or that strange mix of synthesized dance music that typified 80s pop (the Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston). This list covers black artists who earned platinum or better sales between 1981 and 1986. (The sole outlier is the electro-funk band Midnight Star, which earned double-platinum with No Parking on the Dance Floor despite no pop radio support.)
Luckily, this “crossover” nonsense began to end when a generation of younger artists finally took over the pop charts in the late 1980s. They were led by artists like Janet Jackson, perhaps the last of the era to be saddled with the condescending “crossover” label. Appropriately, her breakthrough album was called Control.
If you are of a certain age – don’t worry, you don’t have to tell us – and grew up in California, then you may remember the time when lowriders roamed the urban streets, blasting chunky bass out of their massive stereo speakers. And in the early 80s, just before the likes of Rodney O & DJ Cooley and Too Short became the soundtrack of choice for West Coast car freaks, the sounds pouring out of these would-be mobile discos was “Atomic Dog” funk. Noise pollution meant nothing to the players rattling nearby apartment windows with Zapp, Mtume, Midnight Star, the Gap Band, the S.O.S. Band, and other synthesized delights. It was annoying: I like Prince as much as the next person, but I got pretty sick of hearing “Erotic City” several times a day, and always cranked up to 11. Now, with those years thankfully past, they’re just pleasant memories.
In 2013, I compiled a package for Rhapsody on Prince’s 80s oeuvre. Unfortunately, that material is difficult to access online now — not least because he removed his catalog from all streaming services except for TIDAL, so my reviews attached to those albums disappeared as well — so I’m reposting it here in honor of the late funk genius.
This spotlight only covers Prince’s 1980s recordings because, well, it’s nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful – until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6’s 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.
Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well because Prince’s reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself – including the double-album 1999 — each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically-hailed work like Sign O’ The Times; and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely-bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album, has been called the most bootlegged-album of all time. Throughout this period, Prince wrote hits for himself, like “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”; and for others, including Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” and Stevie Nicks’ “Stand Back.”
With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heel boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award’s winner, into an effusive speech of praise while Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.
Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described “Horny Toad,” but we’re all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that’s why his music seems so taboo – and yes, making songs about incest (“Sister”) and masturbation (“Darling Nikki”) don’t help. Ditties about fucking are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.