Prince's Strange Relationship with Parody (and Weird Al) Detailed in Excerpt From Ben Greenman's 'Dig If U Will The Picture' [Exclusive]
"I bought 1999 when I was 13, I think, and now I’m a thousand years old, so that’s like 987 of 1000 years, which is almost 99 percent of my life."
Don't envy the scribe that attempts to capture, even in small part, the afterglow of an icon. Unless the scribe is Ben Greenman and the icon is Prince, of course. Your seething jealousy is necessary and proper in that case.
As the editor of pages dedicated to the personal musing (and rambling) of music pioneers, Greenman had the rare and distinct honor of sifting through thoughts and notes and rants on uncommon lives and legacies. He helped Questlove condense 40-some years of music nerddom into Mo Meta Blues, The Roots drummer's critically-adored memoir, decoded George Clinton's funk fairytales in the legend's Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You? memoir and sat with The Beach Boys' leading voice and principal creative force, Brian Wilson, to capture his ruminations in I Am Brian Wilson. All published within the last two years, Greenman's been one of the leading pens in pulling impossibly folklorish tales from the weathered, weird and eccentric minds of musicians, bringing them order, structure and color.
With his latest project, Dig If U Will The Picture, it's his own mind and memories that need be sorted as a lifelong soldier in the Paisley Army. And that's a pretty reasonable approach given the undertaking at hand. When it comes to Prince, an entire planet of exceptionalism and wisdom vanished from the cosmos. Instead of a chronology or biography or even musicological analysis, Greenman "wanted to write a book about my 35-year love affair with the music, the myth, and the persona," he proclaimed via email.
In The Purple One's passing, many questions remained unanswered: who the estate would tap with no will in place, how the equally mythical vault recordings would be overseen, when and how his PK dependency surfaced. Some of these are integral to the preservation of the Minneapolis empire, others not as much. For Greenman, it offered the opportunity to "play out various theories about how he dealt with sex, sexuality, gender, and voice," curbing curiosities in pursuit of a more comprehensive understanding of the man few would (or could) lock eyes with.
This is a phenomenon of which Prince's contemporaries were made painfully aware, both in celebration, or in today's case, parody, of the reigning pop giant. Greenman has shared an exclusive excerpt from his new book with us ahead of its official April 11th release, detailing the late icon's award show protocol with the king of sonic satire, Weird Al Yankovic. Throughout Prince's indomitable mid-eighties stretch, Yankovic was known for his own string of hits, most notably, his hallmark recalibration of two Michael Jackson hits, "Bad" and "Beat It." When it came time to warp the purple canon, Prince wasn't compliant, surprising absolutely no one. But the measures taken to ensure Yankovic didn't so much as glance in Prince's direction during an American Music Awards ceremony were next-level petty. And hilarious.
Read up on Prince's strange relationship with parody in an exclusive clip from Dig If U Will The Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince on the next page and pre-order your copy of the book on Amazon today.
Prince and Weird Al
Sometimes, the best way to understand art is to look at parody. Weird Al Yankovic spent decades taking on (and taking off) top pop stars, from Queen to Coolio, but his most memorable target was Michael Jackson. Yankovic’s lampoons of some of Jackson’s most canonical songs (he reworked “Beat It” as “Eat It” and “Bad” as “Fat”) were not only funny but genuinely analytical. They illuminated some of the main characteristics of Jackson’s work—the showmanship, the sound effects, the peculiar mix of triumphalism and victimhood; Jackson’s songs, in both their expertise and their excesses, are better understood because of Weird Al. In the eighties, when Prince was at the height of his fame, the Weird Al treatment seemed inevitable. Even Weird Al thought it was. But each time he approached Prince with a parody idea, Prince declined. Weird Al has gone on the record regarding his desire to rewrite “Let’s Go Crazy” using the plot of The Beverly Hillbillies (the idea later morphed into his massively successful parody of Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing”) or create a bargain-retail promotional spot called “$19.99.” Fans obsessed with both artists (a narrow but vocal Venn diagram overlap) have also proposed a post–snowball fight lament called “When Gloves Dry” and a slightly risqué Marcel Marceau satire called “Dirty Mime.” I personally roughed out a song called “Bris” (“I just want your extra skin in this . . .”) and started to write Weird Al a letter.
When Weird Al couldn’t get permission for an idea, he recorded what he called a “style parody,” an approximate send-up that appropriated an artist’s mannerisms (his Beach Boys takeoff “Pancreas” is perhaps the best example). His Prince style parody “Traffic Jam” was indistinct to a fault. Weird Al had more luck on the video front: “UHF,” the title song for his first movie, mocked a number of popular MTV clips, from Guns N’ Roses’s “Paradise City” to George Michael’s “Faith.” “When Doves Cry” took it on the chin, for a few seconds, as Weird Al coyly stood from a bath.
Prince never came around to Weird Al; he was too obsessed with controlling the movement of his work through the world. Instead, he went the other way, as Weird Al explained in a 2006 interview with Wired:
One of the oddest things to ever happen between me and Prince was the year that he and I were at the American Music Awards at the same time. Apparently I was going to be sitting in the same row as Prince that year and I got a telegram—and I wasn’t the only one—from Prince’s management company saying that I was not to establish eye contact with him during the show. I just couldn’t even believe it. So immediately I sent back a telegram saying that he shouldn’t be establishing eye contact with me either.
In addition to rejecting Weird Al’s overtures, Prince disliked Mad magazine’s 1985 parody, “A Fairy Tale We’d Like to See,” in which a princess kissed a frog and Prince, in full Purple Rain regalia, appeared. The caricature was slightly grotesque, in the way that many caricatures of Prince were at the time—he looked excessively oily.
Prince eventually loosened up: in the late nineties, he performed a version of “Raspberry Beret” titled “Raspberry Sorbet” with the Muppets. In 2004, Chappelle’s Show—a sketch-comedy television program starring the comedian Dave Chappelle—aired a skit in which Charlie Murphy (Eddie Murphy’s brother and a writer on the show) remembered playing basketball against Prince at Paisley Park. Chappelle, a solid six feet tall, played Prince, all ruffled shirts, come-hither expressions, and soft cooing—except on the basketball court, where he turned mad killer. Maybe Prince was older and more mellow. Maybe he was in a better mood, career-wise; he was in the midst of a comeback thanks to Musicology. Whatever the reason, Prince accepted the good-natured mockery, to the point where he used a picture of Chappelle in his Prince getup as the cover of the 2014 single “Breakfast Can Wait.”
In retrospect, there was only one strong parody of Prince’s sound, and it wasn’t intended as a parody at all, and it hit the charts. In Flint, Michigan, five hours east of Minneapolis, an R&B group called Ready for the World cut a record for MCA in 1985. Their first two singles, “Tonight” and “Deep Inside Your Love,” made a little noise on the charts. Their third, “Oh Sheila,” made much more. Released in August 1985, it was top ten by September and number one by October, helped along by the fact that many people thought it was a Prince song. And why not? It had the same falsetto vocals. The beat was reminiscent of (and, as it turned out, derived from) “Lady Cab Driver.” And the Sheila in the title had to be Sheila E, right? I remember standing in a record store in Miami early the next year and listening to an extended argument between a woman and a man over “Oh Sheila.” “It is a Prince song,” the man said. “He’s using that other band name just to prove that he can. You see that short guy in the cover photo? That’s him in disguise.”
“That guy’s not short,” the woman said. “He’s just sitting down. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’ll see,” the man said, ominously and senselessly.