Imagining What Silence Looks Like: Prince & Queering of the Popular Love Song

nb: This essay originally appeared in the 2013 issue of Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts, Literature and Social Commentary, with the unwieldy title, “’Those Are the Things That Being in Love’s About’: Prince’s ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’ and the Queering of the Popular Love Song.”  It was one of my first print publications. Ever since Prince’s tragic passing last year, I have been wanting to write something about his genius and influence, but have found it impossible to start—whether I adopt a critical lens or a personal one, my thoughts and feelings have felt inexpressible when not redundant. As such, now that the rights to it have returned to me, I have decided to return to this essay instead and revise it some. It was easier for me to revisit and re-think something I wrote when I thought we had decades left with the mercurial and mysterious one-time wunderkind, than to try to express something in the context of such a stunning loss.

nb (2): Unlike most posts about songs on The Middle Spaces, I was unable to link to an online video version of the song, thanks to Prince and Warner Bros’s over-protective stance on copyright. So, while less convenient than normal, you will have to pull out your copy of Sign o’ the Times and give the song a listen or two before and/or during your read of this. Maybe use a nice set of headphones. If you don’t own a copy of Sign o’ the Times, that is your shame, and you should correct this oversight immediately; that is more important than this essay, and frankly more important than most of the petty shit you have on your to-do list today.

Leaving aside the breakout popularity of 1984’s Purple Rain, Prince’s 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times is considered by many hardcore fans and music critics alike to be his best work. The album is built around the notion that less is more. In sticking to the stock sounds that came with his Fairlight CMI digital sampler and his generous use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine, Prince demonstrated what he could achieve using the same tool as lesser musicians. The dark, sometimes even muddy, sound of the recording and the minimalist instrumentation on most of the tracks reveal the strength of Prince’s songwriting, and his creativity, his willingness to bend and distort expectations with a lyrical and sonic playfulness that challenges the listener to think beyond the obvious gender stereotypes inherent in most popular love songs.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is the quintessential example of this playfulness, and I’d argue the best song on an album of stand-out tracks. Its approach to the “take me back” pop love song complicates the construction of gender roles common to such songs and connects gender confusion to an attitude that makes the song’s speaker worthy of being taken back. The second song on the third side of the vinyl (or the second disc on the CD version), “If I Was Your Girlfriend” opens with a sample of orchestral strings warming up, establishing a sharp contrast from the song to come (what is likely the most stripped down and muddy track of the record), and separating it from the over-the-top pop-punch of a competitive duet with Sheena Easton, the Top 40 “U Got The Look.” A street vendor’s voice is capped with a sample of a church organ playing a snippet of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), foreshadowing the conciliatory tone that Prince will adopt in singing this plea to a former lover, and that is at odds with the idea of “Boy versus girl in the World Series of Love.”  This conciliatory tone brings the lovers’ roles into an ambiguous space that uses stereotypical positions as guideposts to offer something different from, and more intricate than, our socialized gender standards.

It may be important to note that in this song Prince’s voice is pitched up a bit in a way that is associated with his Camille persona (and Camille is credited with the vocal in the Sign of the Times liner notes).  This makes sense given that “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was originally part of an album to be named Camille, that was eventually subsumed into the original Crystal Ball project that would evolve into Sign o’ the Times when Warner Bros nixed the triple-album conceit as a hard sell. Camille was originally intended to not feature Prince’s name on it at all, but to have all the music credited to the Camille persona, an alias encompassing his dark feminine (or at the very least, androgynous) aspect. The notion of the split identity is one Prince played with for the scrapped album, and for a film idea that never materialized in which he’d play two roles, one of which would be “the evil Camille,” that Fight Club-style, would end up being the same person (Hahn 111).  You can also see this idea take shape in the Prince comic book story “Alter Ego,” from 1991, though in that the villainous persona is called “Spooky Electric,” a devil-like character referenced on 1988’s LoveSexy. Camille’s “evilness” is, however, a matter of perspective given Prince’s well-known inner turmoil over his carnality and his more pious ideals (the latter of which seemed to influence the last 15 years of his career). The alter ego is something of a confused figure, what with Prince’s penchant to re-invent and re-envision his own mythos, but certainly represents the pull of his androgynous sex-positive tendencies, that become conflated with untamed desire, but also echo those moments when Prince might sing—as in 1992’s “Arrogance”—“Make [a man] man enough to admit he’s 50-50 girl.” If Camille is “evil,” it is only because the queer space the role inhabits defies the over-simplified gender dichotomy of love and sex.

The story in this Prince comic book also explores the notion of Prince having multiple identities.

Returning to the song, in the opening lyric the singer asks—”If I was your girlfriend would you remember? / And tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man?”—immediately creating a distinction between the role of boyfriend and “girlfriend” as it is used to refer to homosocial female friendships. He is also complicating that distinction by adding a sexual component to that “girlfriend” relationship through the very desire the song is expressing—reconciliation with a lover. The song’s conceit is taking advantage of the tensions inherent to the boyfriend/girlfriend dichotomy and, not only the different ways the words are used, but also how “girl/boy” and “friend” are joined to establish something different from generic friendship through the role of gender in its manifestation. His equating of “girlfriend” and “best friend” in the second part of the first verse suggests a level of intimacy absent from typical girlfriend/boyfriend relationships, and allowing the beloved to say the things left when the singer “was [their] man.” Prince’s play with these tensions asserts a kind of pansexuality that enfolds the surface understanding of the song—an understanding which is emblematic of stereotypical male desire to seduce his lady— into a broader context.

As the song continues, Prince uses a myriad of vocal overdubs that double and/or echo words or phrases for emphasis. These voices—some of which were a happy accident caused by an engineering mistake (Hahn 110)—are bizarre in pitch and tone, sometimes a higher harmony, sometimes a very low one, sometimes both, broken into a staccato, low in the mix, slowed down as to be warped, presenting varied depth that is juxtaposed to the simplicity of the instrumentation. Listen in the second verse to: “If I was your one and only friend, / Would you run to me / If somebody hurt ya, / Even if that somebody / Was me?” and hear how the other voices move in around Prince’s plea. The weird effect is sonically queer, serving to convey a simultaneity of desire that escapes easy categorization. On the surface, the lyrics are directed toward offering a new form of intimacy, but underlying voices, pitched down and delivered in a menacing staccato do not let the listener forget that masculine desire and sexual interest fuel the song despite its attempts to offer something different.

The differentiation the song offers is not without its problems. The lyrics’ characterization of friendship between women could easily be read as quite superficial—helping her pick out her clothes, or “go[ing] to a movie and cry[ing] together”—but these positive homosocial bonding activities are just the kind that stereotypical notions of relationships keep from being reciprocal across gender. In the lines, “Baby, can I dress ya? / I mean, help you pick out your clothes / Before we go out?” there is tension between a controlling aggressive masculine force and what he is portraying as a gentler, helpful feminine force. The lines that follow, “I ain’t sayin’ ya helpless, / But sometimes those are the things that being in love’s about,” mitigate that undercurrent of sexual desire that keeps slipping to the front of the song, by calling to platonic homosocial  experience.

This willingness to play the feminine role also potentially obfuscates the gender of the beloved. Is the song’s speaker singing to a man or a woman? The heteronormative assumption—despite or because of the question in the song’s title—is that it is a woman because a man is doing the singing, but can we be sure?  Not even the fact that he addresses the beloved as “girl” later in the song makes it necessarily clear, given the colloquial language attributable to gay life. The ambiguity of such language is productive in reading this song as queering the normative modes of romantic love to open a space not limited by gendered positions.

The song’s tensions slowly build. The warbling synth of the song’s coda rises and falls like a muted orgasmic echo as Prince speaks directly to whom the song addresses. The lyrics ride that tension of the girl/boy-friend relationship: “Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you want to undress?” questions the level of intimacy in various kinds of relationships. “We don’t have to make children to make love / and we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm,” addresses the ambiguity most directly, referring on one level to the potential consequences of straight sex (pregnancy) and the range of possibilities lovers have to pleasure each other, while simultaneously, widening those possibilities, explaining that the reproductive function of sex is not what defines it as “love.”

The poster insert for original vinyl copies of Prince’s 1981 album, Controversy. Yeah, I have one. . . What of it?

I love how coarse Prince can be, how he mixes profane and divine in a lot of his work. He isn’t afraid to be nasty, and he gets progressively nastier in the song as he further subverts the expected relationship dynamic to put himself in the traditionally submissive role while simultaneously keeping that dark, aggressive—perhaps obsessive— undertone: “You could do it because I’m your friend. I’d do it for you. / Of course I’d get naked in front of you. / (And when I’m naked what should I do?)” The playfulness of it becomes cajoling: “How can I make you see that it’s cool? / Can’t you just trust me?” (the suggestion here being she has reasons based on her treatment while they were a couple to not trust him). “Oh, yeah I think so. . .” is delivered with a cadence that implies he is answering to something the beloved said in response to “If I was your girlfriend you could [just trust him].” It could be the beloved is not buying it, but the momentary slip into a smarmy attitude betrays his unvanquished male entitlement.

When the warbling synth begins its final rise in pitch, Prince begins to talk/sing faster, further developing the intimacy he desires. After asking what gets his lover off, he adds, “Would you let me kiss you there? You know, down there where it counts. . .? / I’ll do it so good I swear I’ll drink every ounce.” Drink every ounce? While this could be a literal be a reference to cunnilingus, he is playing with those sexual roles and identities again, moving up and down a freaky continuum. “Drinking every ounce” is something a boyfriend might expect a girlfriend to do, and now that he is in the role of “girlfriend” he needs to learn to submit to her desires. Again, the undermining of heteronormativity in the song puts so-called “straight sex” into the ambiguous realm where queer sex already exists, where lovers have to adopt, reject and subvert socialized roles to pleasure each other and share sexual intimacies.

At song’s end, the orgasmic release narrows down to just the soft, almost heartbeat-like, drum machine as Prince sings, “And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long and together we’ll stare into silence / and then we’ll try to imagine what it looks like.” The idea of visualizing silence may seem on the surface to be a bit of Prince’s occasional pseudo-meaningful lyricism, but in light of the farrago of gendered experience explored in the song, considering the meaning of this silence is an important takeaway. Not only does “silence” play on the taboo nature of the song’s homoerotic overtones, but it also describes a space free of the fixed identities that come along with gender labels. Shared silence is the intimate space where lovers needn’t worry about fulfilling the expectations of girlfriends or boyfriends, of men or women or other, but can simply be together.

“Yeah, we’ll try to imagine. . .” The final lyric is left open and unfinished, and with a final fading hand-clap, the song disintegrates into the opening descending tom-tom drums of the next track, “Strange Relationship.”  Given the confusion and competing desires present in the singer’s plea, the song’s ending suggests that the reconciliation being sought comes ultimately not from the spoken offer to be something different, but from freedom from having to be something specific to fulfill a particular socially-determined role. “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” by lyrically queering these roles over a minimalist soundscape, provides an open field which allows the listener to identify more broadly with the song’s speaker. Whereas many popular love songs serve to reinforce unrealistically rigid ideas of gender, Prince’s questions entertain the possibility of being free to alternately fulfill the specific forms of intimacy the beloved may desire.


Sources:

Hahn, Alex. Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince. Billboard Books. 2003.

One thought on “Imagining What Silence Looks Like: Prince & Queering of the Popular Love Song

  1. Pingback: Gender Policing “This Woman’s Work” | The Middle Spaces

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