So, in the end, was Prince Rogers Nelson a hero of the Sexual Revolution or someone who, as he grew more mature, was a heretic who -- in the name of a controversial faith -- rejected many of the sexy doctrines he previously celebrated?
I'm not sure that there's a definitive answer to that, especially when talking about someone as complex as Prince (or TAPKAP). But I do think that it was crucial for journalists to let their readers know that this was an important question to ask.
In the first stories about the artist's death, the emphasis was totally on Prince the gender-blurring hedonist. But as the day went on, a few counter themes began to emerge.
You could see the struggle (and that's kind of a compliment) most clearly in The Washington Post, where the first news reports about Prince were baptized in his sexy '80s glory, while a sidebar openly discussed changes linked to his decision to join the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In the final obit, the Post team hinted early and, at the very end, mentioned that many seemed afraid to mention. Here's the solid lede:
A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world’s most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition.
The obit hit all of the fine details of the sexy Prince, from erotic guitar eruptions to skimpy costumes. It was difficult, at times, to tell what was happening when, in terms of his music and stage personas. If he never stopped evolving, then it's crucial to be precise about the young prince vs. the mature Prince.
At the very end, the news story offered this:
Throughout much of the 1990s, Prince kept a low profile as he preferred to be identified by the visual symbol. He re-emerged in his 40s as something of a changed and chastened man, still musically energetic but seeking a kind of spiritual sustenance.
After years in which he gave the impression of being a hedonist, Prince said he had a spiritual rebirth. He stopped swearing, adopted a vegan diet and in 2001 became a Jehovah’s Witness. He also stopped performing some of his more sexually explicit songs, which to some observers was like novelist William Faulkner forsaking Mississippi as a theme.
“There’s certain songs I don’t play anymore, just like there’s certain words I don’t say anymore,” he said in 2004. “It’s not me anymore. Don’t follow me way back there. There’s no more envelope to push. I pushed it off the table. It’s on the floor. Let’s move forward now.”
It's understandable that journalists were slow to catch this part of the artist's evolution. After all, it's hard to celebrate a man who, in the end, was a bit of a heretic on the doctrines that define our age. You could see that in this crucial set of quotes:
“Today, the world lost a creative icon,” President Obama said in a statement, noting that “few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all.”
The president added: “‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said -- and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.”
And there is the final question: In the end, Prince appeared to think that life needed some rules, after all.
This leads me to the headline that inspired lots of email yesterday. I am referring to the Post sidebar -- which went online quite early -- with this headline: "Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage."
Yes, the headline fails to not that it's hard to call the Jehovah's Witnesses "conservative" Christians, in light of the fact that they are not Trinitarian, traditional Christians in the first place, with their denial of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.
Still this sidebar opened up all kinds of topics that seemed to be way to complicated for the primary coverage offered by other newsrooms. One key was this YouTube interview:
There's more. Did any of this material make it into the mainstream coverage in your local news outlets?
Then there was the time Prince came out against gay marriage. In a New Yorker profile in 2008, he slighted Republicans and Democrats — “neither of them is getting it right,” he said — but singled out same-sex marriage as part of the Democrats’ notion that “‘You can do whatever you want.”
“God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out,” he told the magazine. “He was, like, ‘Enough’.”
Perez Hilton later quoted “a Prince source” as denying the New Yorker depiction of the interview.
If the idea seems bonkers that the man who shrieked with unbridled sexual energy in the intro of “When Doves Cry” is actually a prude, well, maybe it’s not.
“Prince intended sexuality to be linked to the worship of God, and he filled his music with classic Christian messages,” the author Touré wrote in 2013 in “I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon,” “meaning Prince was sexual but, ultimately, very conservative.”
Believe it or not, the main story in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune -- the major news force in Prince territory -- settled for this summary on these matters:
Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 and on at least one occasion went proselytizing door-to-door in an Eden Prairie neighborhood. He toned down the sexuality of his albums and concerts in the ensuing decade, when his recording career faded considerably.
So where does the story go from here?
The New York Times website, as of this morning, has added a sidebar on discussions of the cause of death.
While Prince had struggled, in recent weeks, with that he called the flu, there are plenty of sources on the internet that are going much further than that. In particular, it will be interesting to see if -- in real coverage, with facts and attributions -- there is any kind of link between his health and Jehovah's Witness doctrines that affect medical coverage, such as their refusal to accept blood transfusions.
The Times simply noted:
“Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”
That was Prince’s reassurance to fans gathered for a dance party on Saturday night at his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, Minn., after reports that he had suffered a health scare during a flight on Friday.
This famously private performer warned the hometown crowd not to always trust the media. A representative had insisted for weeks that it was only the flu.
Days later, Prince was dead at 57, discovered not breathing after an emergency call at 9:43 a.m. on Thursday in an elevator at Paisley Park, which houses his estate and studio. While no cause of death has been given, Jason Kamerud, the chief deputy for the Carver County Sheriff’s office, said the local medical examiner would conduct an autopsy. Results are typically not available for a few days, he said.
If you want online speculation, here is a Heavy.com round-up of that.
Stay tuned. And please leave URLs in the comments pages, if there is coverage that does an excellent job of combining matters of sexuality and the beliefs that defined Prince as he matured.
And here is one final guitar solo for the ages.