I was listening to His Royal Princeliness the other day and reflecting upon the fact (anecdotal, it’s true, but borne out by years of experience and, as any of my girlfriends can tell you, I have made an exhaustive multi-decade study of white male culture and habits) that straight white boys almost universally don’t like Prince, or rather they display a kind of embarrassed squeamishness about his music, as if listening to it will magically paint them with the broad brush of Biracial Metrosexuality and Possible Gayness (despite His Purpleness’s having addressed the issue of sexuality in “Uptown,” and despite his legendary success with the ladies).

As I’ve already addressed in these pages, white males like, or pretend to like, Joni Mitchell, and if you can explain why, I’d be delighted to send you a lifetime supply of ear plugs. And white males like Elvis Costello, which is something I’ve also never understood, because to me Elvis Costello is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of music: the best thing about him is his titles. Seriously. This Side of Paradise, for example. The Beautiful and Damned. These titles have an evocative elegance that’s impossible to top, and Elvis Costello’s jauntily ironic Brutal Youth and My Aim is True do the same thing for pop music. Unfortunately, none of the works in question really lives up to the title (call me a Philistine, but I agree with Fitzgerald: “I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.” After all, who reads novels or listens to pop music for realism? Especially the realism of the overprivileged, disaffected, callow white male? Don’t we have enough of that in life?). But still, in my day there always seemed to be legions of straight white males who loved Elvis Costello in the same way that eighteen-year-old lesbians loved Ani Difranco. I think of Elvis Costello as the everyman for the American college male. Of course I’m dating myself, and maybe now James Blunt is the everyman.

But anyway, somehow it’s cool for your average twenty- to thirty-something straight white male (you know, those people who still get paid more than the rest of us) to like Elvis Costello, but it’s not cool for him to like The Artist. The Artist is somehow too swishy, too funky, too flirty, too damned good-looking, and what’s up with that falsetto, anyway? In fact, the only way to make Prince palatable to Joe Quarterback Punk is to cover his songs; when I met my husband, he owned only one album of Prince’s music, a covers album by Yo La Tengo’s bassist called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?, which makes it OK to appreciate Prince’s songwriting, just not his eyeliner (it’s worthy of note that Dump, a.k.a. James McNew, is “pasty, overweight, and …not really unhandsome,” according to Flak Magazine, and it’s my theory that McNew’s dumpiness cancels out the frightening prettiness of Prince).

Of course, since he married me, K. has become the proud joint owner of many of Prince’s fine works, including the original motion picture soundtrack cassette (yeah, mofos!) of Purple Rain (recently named “Best Soundtrack Ever” by the editors of Vanity Fair) and the three cd-set Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides, which has kept me company on many a long drive. But he still displays a marked squeamishness when it comes to actually listening to them. He agrees with me when I claim that Prince is a musical genius, one of the few true polymaths to hit pop music in the last fifty years, a person of astonishing talent, skill, and inspiration. And yet when it comes time to press ‘play’ he hems and haws and usually mutters something like “can’t we listen to someone kind of scrubby and lopsided, like Thom Yorke, or paunchy and dumpy, like Mark Kozelek?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music of Red House Painters or Radiohead. It’s pleasant and pretty and really, really white: comfortingly undanceable and whinily eloquent on the subject of self-image and personal experience, those luxuries of the middle class. But even die-hard Radiohead fans (e.g. my husband) concede that Prince has the superior musicianship. And yet he remains conspicuously absent from their record collections. Why?

I think the answer is simple: Prince fucks with Joe Quarterback’s idea of masculinity. For one thing, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t have to write songs about his self-image, which is unfathomable to your average white college boy in baggy jeans. Prince needs no baggy jeans. And it’s not just that he’s too pretty; he can also dance! His music is way too funky and way too flagrantly wanton. And not only that, he wears makeup and girly clothes, custom-tailored to his tiny frame, and the overall effect is a kind of feline sexiness reminiscent of a pin-up calendar. But Prince’s discomfiting habit of transcending stereotype doesn’t end there; he also happens to swear like a mofo (or he did, before Jehovah came on the scene), attract all the ladies like sugar water in an ant colony, and be the biracial product of a black father and a white mother (one of the deepest insecurities of white America), and if you think the average white American male is comfortable with the idea of a delicately fairylike mulatto in tights stealing all the women, well, you’re more of an optimist than I.

In fact, I’ve only had one white American male friend who was an avid Prince fan, and he finally came out of the closet.

So, for example, when Radiohead offers In Rainbows for download, these average white American males and the women they influence think this is a radical new idea, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Pete Doherty wears eyeliner and acts debauched, they think he’s rakish, charming, and inventive, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Britney address issues of her media image in overproduced, ghostwritten neo-hip-hop songs, everyone, even Ken Tucker, thinks she’s being trenchant and ironic, even though Prince did that years ago too (only without the “ghostwritten” and “overproduced” parts).

It’s like when my colleague asked me if I thought Barack Obama had a chance, and I said “that would be awfully nice; maybe in fifty years.” There’s a huge part of America that just isn’t ready for a biracial black man. But for the rest of us — everyone who’s not Joe Quarterback — Prince continues to reign.

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