Lexicon Valley

The Surreal, Dionysian Poetry of Prince’s Lyrics

Prince performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Sept. 22, 2012, in Las Vegas.

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” wrote Walter Pater, and Prince’s lyrics are as hot and dreamlike and weird as his sound. Saturated in color, wild with bizarre imagery, they overload the senses and short-circuit the brain. Rolling Stone described the Purple One’s aesthetic as “sensual anarchy,” a phrase that helps capture the intoxicating drive of his poetry. (What if not poetry would you call these lines from “Raspberry Beret”: “Now, overcast days never turned me on/ But something about the clouds and her mixed.”) Prince told us to move and dance and fuck our way to utopia, to grind “until the castle started spinning/ or maybe it was just my brain.”

He was our Dionysus, and his lyrics were full of beasts. “You’re just as soft as a lion tamed,” he crooned. “Take me to the place where your horses run free,” he begged. And he saw in color: red corvettes, pink cashmere, purple rain, purple everything. Prince understood T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, the concrete object that stands for a chaotic, vibrant mass of emotions. “She wore a raspberry beret,” he sang, and once it was worn he didn’t say much more.

Pop songs aren’t often surrealist paintings, but Prince knew how to create a hallucinatory scene. His lyrics invite you into an altered state of consciousness: “Dream if you can a courtyard.” “I was dreaming when I wrote this.” Consider that courtyard for a second, “an ocean of violets in bloom,” in which “animals strike curious poses.” Even before the doves start shedding human tears, you’re on a rocket ship to the Martian version of Versailles. Or recall the strange, apocalyptic opening of “1999”: “When I woke up this mornin’/ Coulda sworn it was judgment day/ The sky was all purple/ There were people running everywhere.” 

Fleeing in terror, or running free like the horses? In a Prince song, despite the freaky, out-of-this-world scenery, God “only [wants] U 2 have some fun.” Or he “only wants to see you/ laughing in the purple rain,” giving in to the moment as liquid color pours down, dissolving the borders between two bodies or two souls. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that transcendent artistic experiences have similar neurological effects to magic mushrooms: They turn off the part of the brain that distinguishes between you and not-you. It’s an effect Prince seemed to be going for with his lyrics, which envelop your senses so completely that you get gloriously lost. In fact, for His Purpleness, wanting and getting lost are almost the same thing. “Hey lover,” he murmurs, “I’ve got a sugarcane that I want to lose in you.” 

Of course, not every Prince lyric sounds like a line from a religious text by an ancient lunar civilization. He’s got the ambling blue-collar poeticism of Bob Dylan to draw on when he needs it:

I was working part time in a five-and-dime
My boss was Mr. McGee
He told me several times that he didn’t like my kind
Cause I was a bit too leisurely

That “leisurely” is genius. Perfectly unexpected, a little erudite, a little nonchalant. The speaker doesn’t belong at a five-and-dime store, and he knows it, and he doesn’t mind that we or Mr. McGee know it. Maybe Prince was just working part time on our small pedestrian planet, weaving verbal phantasmagorias that unmade gender and musical tradition, waiting for his moment to tear off into the stars.  

Read more from Slate on Prince.