Prince and patriarchy

miles davis - prince

Prince’s push-pull interactions with Miles Davis in his 1987 Sign o’ the times tour were emblematic of two interrelated tensions in his career.

One is the question of how wind and brass instruments fit into Prince’s music. His decision to give horns a central place in his 1980s and 1990s bands showed the same curious ambivalence as his relationship to Davis.

The second tension that Prince’s onstage interaction with Davis demonstrated is the issue of patriarchy. Prince spent the 1980s playing the part of the androgynous sexual imp, the 1990s found him engaging the exaggerated machismo of hip hop, and by the 2000s he was sporting natty suits, openly exploring jazz, and avoiding any discussion of queer identity.

These two spheres, the biographical and the musical—Prince’s fraught relationships with masculinity and with the musical styles of his father’s generation—all came together in the bell of Miles Davis’s trumpet. Prince used horns to act out two conflicts at the same time: They enacted the tension between the musical past and the present, and they served symbolically to resolve a conflict between two different versions of traditional masculinity—one violent and hypersexual, the other restrained and mature. Prince was ultimately using his horn section as a tool to leverage his own position in the black musical patriarchy.

This according to “Prince, Miles, and Maceo: Horns, masculinity, and the anxiety of influence” by Griffin Mead Woodworth (Black music research journal XXXIII/2 [fall 2013] pp. 117–150. This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, Prince and Miles in 1987.

BONUS: Wishing for more? Here’s the full concert.

1 Comment

Filed under Popular music

One response to “Prince and patriarchy

  1. Griffin Woodworth

    Thanks very much for featuring my article!
    -Griffin W.

    Liked by 1 person

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