Sub-Cult

Why Prince's Sign o' the Times Deserves More Attention

With the recent death of pop icon Prince, Nathan Rabin looks back at an oft overlooked concert film directed by him and based on one of his greatest albums.

by | April 26, 2016 | Comments

Sign-o-the-Times-Title-Card

 

We tend to publicly mourn dead celebrities in a fairly specific way these days. For writers, the death of a major artist is immediately followed by feverish pitching of think pieces, as ink-stained wretches scramble to say something profound about the legend who just passed before their colleagues can beat them to it.

In turn, readers are flooded with odes to the latest celebrity whose passing shocked and saddened us, as well as television and live tributes and reverent covers by artists who were all deeply, if conveniently, influenced by whoever just passed. There’s something wonderfully cathartic about being able to share your grief with the world, in realizing that you’re not alone in having been profoundly touched by a great artist. It makes the awfulness and terrible finality of death seem a little less oppressive.

In that vein, when an iconic musician dies, Facebook and other forms of social media are transformed instantly into places of mourning and remembrance, as fans fill their walls with videos of the dearly departed at the height of their powers. Thanks to Youtube, seemingly the whole of pop music is forever at our fingertips, just waiting to be rediscovered at the right moment and shared with like-minded fans.

I write “seemingly” because Prince’s astonishingly vast and important discography and videography is not available on Youtube. If you see a Prince video on Youtube, that’s only because his lawyers haven’t gotten around to having it taken down yet. But it goes beyond that: a lot of great work he did is perversely, frustratingly unavailable, including his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, which astonishingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United States and can only be seen illegally.

Prince was so staggeringly, inconceivably brilliant at so many things in his lifetime that it almost felt like being a genius bored him, and just to make life interesting, he constantly had to sabotage himself professionally. He always seemed willing — even eager — to seek out the weird and defiantly non-commercial.

For example, when Prince made Sign o’ the Times, he had long since established himself as one of pop’s greatest hit-makers, with monster hits the world never tires of hearing. But if fans come to Sign o’ the Times to hear the smashes from top-selling albums like Purple Rain and 1999, they’ll have to settle for two minutes or so of “Little Red Corvette” (as a medley with Sign o’ the Times’ “Housequake”), because otherwise the Prince-directed concert film excludes almost all of the hits he was known for in favor of deep cuts from Sign o’ the Times the album.

Prince-Singing

For all of his fabled otherworldliness, Prince was at heart a soul singer.

Like so much of Prince’s life and work, Sign o’ the Times is intoxicatingly odd and unexpected. It was billed as a Prince solo album following the dissolution of the Revolution. On that album, Prince played pretty much all the instruments on all the songs (with the exception of the saxophone). Yet in the film based on Sign o’ the Times, a gracious, supremely confident, and unexpectedly and endearingly goofy Prince is continually ceding the spotlight to individual band members so that, for example, the drummer, the bassist, and back-up singer all get extended solos.

Prince clearly envisioned the film as a star-making vehicle for a dancer named Cat Glover. She’s perpetually at the center of the action, and the star of weird little sketch-like interludes that thread through the film. Yes, I suppose you could say that Prince was a real Cat fancier, but despite his best efforts, he failed to make Cat happen, even on the level of lesser proteges like Carmen Electra.

Sign o’ the Times opens with its title track and the album’s first single, a message song so preposterously over the top in its depiction of a grim world that it borders on self-parody. It’s a song that exaggerates the social ills of the time into a feverish comic book depiction of the world as a nightmarish hellscape of endless suffering. In other words, it’s a bit of an odd choice to kick off an energetic concert film, but then the film is full of odd choices that are also oddly inspired.

Watching Sign o’ The Times in the shadow of Prince’s unexpected death, I was reminded throughout of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, which similarly captured one of the most important artists of the 20th century both at the peak of his creative powers and in a fascinating state of transition. Prince and Bowie combined the cerebral, aesthetic genius necessary to think up a persona as powerful, enduring, and enigmatic as Ziggy Stardust or Purple Rain-era Prince with the sweaty, primal sexual rock and roll charisma necessary to pull it off.

For all of his fabled otherworldliness, Prince was at heart a soul singer, and a great soul singer has a connection to his audience that goes beyond sex, beyond adulation, beyond appreciation. For Prince and others like him, music isn’t just the perfect sonic backdrop for sex and a source of infinite fashion: live performance is sex. Here he wields his guitar as a potent weapon of both aggression and seduction.

Prince didn’t reduce women to sex objects, though. He held sex — and women and female sexuality — in such high regard that he elevated the beautiful women he was understandably obsessed with to angelic beings of divine sexuality. Besides, Prince would never ask one of his proteges to wear anything more sexually provocative than he himself would wear.

Prince-Girlfriend1

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is at once philosophical and emotional, a dissertation on the fluidity of gender cunningly Trojan-horsed as a great R&B song.

Like Michael Jackson, his biggest rival, Prince inhabited a world beyond race, beyond gender, beyond sexuality, beyond black music, beyond pop music. But he was just as interested in inhabiting a space between gender, between race, between sexuality, between black music and pop music.

On that note, Prince’s performance here of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” feels like one of the most seminal performances of his career. It’s a quietly audacious, even revolutionary song (and single) where Prince contemplates an emotional intimacy that exists only between women and ponders whether this intimacy might be more powerful than sexual intimacy. Prince isn’t just interested in women’s bodies, he was interested in their minds as well, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is at once philosophical and emotional, a dissertation on the fluidity of gender cunningly Trojan-horsed as a great R&B song.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is all about exploring and challenging the barriers between man and woman, platonic love and sex, heterosexuality and everything else. Prince is baring his soul in a way he does throughout Sign o’ the Times, the album and movie. He runs the gamut of emotions here, from the grim blues of the title track to the ebullient optimism of “Play In The Sunshine” to the playful sensuality of “Hot Thing” and “U Got The Look” and finally, the brooding, purposeful evangelizing of “The Cross.”

With Sign o’ the Times, Prince struck a perfect balance between the demands of being a major rock star and the dictates of his complicated muse. Sign o’ the Times was a creative apex, but the seeds of Prince’s long commercial and creative slide were already planted. Sign o’ the Times is almost too much of a good thing — it’s more Prince than even some of his most ardent fans can handle — but it’s grounded in the undeniable pop genius of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “U Got The Look,” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.” Prince’s subsequent albums would be, if anything, even more sprawling and messy and outsized than Sign o’ the Times, but the hits stopped coming early in the 1990s and never returned, and Prince found himself performing for an increasingly small and devoted cult.

Like Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Sign o’ The Times ends not with a song so much as a statement as bold and profound now as it was at the time of its release. Bowie’s concert film ended with “Rock and Roll Suicide” and its iconic, desperate, yearning cry of “You’re not alone!” He found transcendence and salvation in the secular churches of sex and rock and roll. Similarly, Prince didn’t just know a little something about sex and rock and roll; he knew everything about them.

But for Prince, the church of rock and roll and the divine ecstasy of sex could never compare to spiritual salvation. For Prince, everything came down to Jesus. At the core of his being wasn’t nihilism or decadence or hedonism but a fierce spirituality and unshakable faith that informed everything he did. He was the sexiest man alive for decades running, but that intense sensuality coexisted with an equally intense spirituality.

Prince ends Sign o’ the Times with “The Cross,” a powerfully direct expression of his Christian faith that implores listeners and fans and acolytes and worshippers (of both Prince and Jesus) not to die without knowing Jesus’ salvation. It’s a song with one eye on a corrupt materialistic world full of sin and the other on the promise of Jesus’ return, and with it the redemption of all mankind.

Prince-Cross

He was the sexiest man alive for decades running, but that intense sensuality coexisted with an equally intense spirituality.

Sign o’ The Times begins with a bluesy dirge of weary social protest, but closes with a hypnotically intimate appeal to accept Jesus as your lord and savior before the ultimate spiritual reckoning of death. In between, it’s one hell of a party, albeit one that finds one of the greatest hitmakers of the 1980s perversely choosing not to play his most popular songs in favor of letting some deep album cuts really breathe. Among the film’s many strange qualities is one of patience; Prince takes his time with these songs, confident in his ability to control his audience even with lesser-known material.

In other words, it’s a Prince kind of shindig, mystifying and magical and wonderfully befuddling all at the same time. While still in his twenties, Prince Rogers Nelson knew exactly who he was and his final message here is the same message he was promoting at the time of his death. His peculiar, personal Christianity will be his legacy as much as the incredible songs he wrote and the unforgettable shows he played.

This otherworldly genius wanted us to accept Christ as our lord and savior, as he had. He explicitly devoted the last song of his greatest movie based on his greatest album to making sure we’re good with God before we meet Her. I take comfort in knowing that Prince was at peace with the lord when She called him home, possibly because heaven was getting just too goddamned boring, and She needed to call up another of Her personal favorites to make it more interesting.


Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 85 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanrabin

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