Little Princie Rogers Nelson. Is that what Warner Brothers was hoping for when they signed the teenage wunderkind out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1977? Were they hoping to capture the singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist lightning in a bottle that Motown had captured with Stevie Wonder a decade earlier? Possibly. Or possibly they wanted to sign a super-talent to cross over to a broad audience, make the cover of teeny-bopper magazines, and cause (record buying and concert attending) young girls and women to shell out hard-earned allowances, babysitting money, or paychecks.
Looking back at Prince’s first two Warner Brothers albums, it’s at times difficult to see where the artist would take his songwriting and, more notably, his image a mere two years later. Dressed like your average 1970s teen, Prince started as a shy yet confidently afroed kid out of Minneapolis destined for musical greatness. Then he morphed into the ultra-sexy, Farrah Fawcet feathered disco lover with a cross-over hit single (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”). Both of these looks were safe for the masses yet just appealing enough to garner the attention of the opposite sex.
The way he was photographed for his first two albums still implied innocence while providing a glimpse of the transgression to come. Prince sits naked on a couch, holding a strategically placed guitar on For You’s album sleeve. He is shirtless (maybe nude?) on the cover of Prince, huge doe eyes gazing back at you, hypnotically. Then you have the back cover of the album, which shows him in some unknown form of undress (if you ask his admirers, he’s likely nude), riding a Pegasus. Like some sort of mythical god of teenage hormones prepared to take you away to his kingdom of dance and music and sex and romance. These are all titillating images without being graphic or overt in their themes of sexuality and well-trodden marketing ploys for any prospective artist positioned to appeal to a younger audience. However, Prince always tilted a bit further lascivious over the spectrum’s wholesome side, and his first two albums are no exception.
The music contained within Prince’s first two albums follows this same dichotomy. For every innocent declaration of love (“I’m falling for you each and every day.” – “In Love”), there’s a more overt example of lustful expression (“You’re just as wet as the evening rain.” – “Soft & Wet”). Prince claims to be a virgin on “I’m Yours” (“never have I ever made love before”), but despite being a “very careful man,” he’s managed to impregnate his lover on “Baby.” “With You” is a sweet, chaste, lullaby while “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is the song that a horny, more experienced boy sings to his new girlfriend to assure her that she’ll be taken care of sexually and he’ll still get her home before curfew.
All of these personas, and versions of Prince, are likely what Warner Brothers was hoping to capitalize on when they signed him. Whether it was all part of a PR stunt or if Prince just wanted to keep the wunderkind shtick up a tad bit longer, he was even prone to fib about his age in interviews. He was claiming to be a couple of years younger than he really was. Why? Let’s imagine for a minute that you’re a 14-year-old girl, and you see Prince in all his feathered hair glory on American Bandstand. He intrigues you, and you’d like to know more about him. Would you be more interested in him if he was still a teenager like you? Would you be less interested in him if he was instead a 21-year-old man? I think the answer will vary depending on the person, but Prince was likely banking on the increased attention that goes along with being a Teen Heartthrob.
If he ever had any, Prince’s interest in being a Teen Heartthrob would be short-lived. Not long after his January 1980 American Bandstand performance, he would be recording songs that would end up on the game-changing Dirty Mind. Tracks like “Head” would find their way onto his live sets in early 1980, and Prince’s image would take a drastic and career-changing turn at this time. There was more at stake here than just a few thousand extra record sales. Freedom of expression. Freedom to make the music that he wanted. Once an artist is thrown into the Teen Heartthrob pit, it is tough to climb out. Prince knew this, and the choices he made over the next couple of years would be crucial to assuring his spot in the buzz bin, not the bargain bin, was secured.