When Prince Rogers Nelson died at the age of 57 on April 21, 2016, it sent shockwaves around the world. Tributes from fans flooded social media, vigils sprang up across the US, and key landmarks, including the Lowry Bridge in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, turned purple to mark his passing. Yet the end of Prince's earthly existence by no means marks the end of his enduring musical and artistic impact.
The legacies of beloved artists have long transcended their lifetimes. Socially, politically, sexually, and ideologically speaking, Prince is no exception. A remarkably productive and always cryptic figure, he continues to incite fascination from beyond the grave. However, his most incendiary and relevant album has yet to be released.
Pop has long been a rich space for subverting gendered stereotypes and Prince consistently challenged the rigidity of binary gender roles. At once hyper-masculine and delicately feminine, he cuts a distinctive and enigmatic figure within queer pop history.
Now, a cancelled 1987 album that explores all these elements is finally about to see the light of day and is expected to be released later in 2023.
The tracklist and songs that make up this lost release have been available in various guises for several decades, some existing on compilations, albums, and unofficial leaks. We have analysed all the available evidence and musical fragments ahead of their much anticipated reunion to present the most accurate picture possible of this elusive work.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to introduce Camille.
By 1986 Prince was already cemented as a potent force in popular music. After the success of the Purple Rain movie 18 months earlier and a slew of successful mould-breaking singles under his belt, including When Doves Cry, Let's Go Crazy, Raspberry Beret, and Kiss, Prince returned to the recording studio with his sound engineer Susan Rogers to embark on a new project.
It revolved around one core concept that Prince wanted to explore: his voice. Through processing his vocals in the studio, Prince and Rogers were able to increase the pitch of his voice so it no longer sounded what we might call "male". The process was actually the same as on the "Chipmunk" records of the late 1950s, but done to a much more subtle degree. This more "feminine" or "female" voice was christened Camille by Prince and became the centre of his new project.
By November 1986, the whole album (also called Camille) was finalised and a few vinyl demos were pressed in preparation for release the following year. Controversially, Prince decided to attribute the whole album to Camille rather than himself, and his name would not appear on the packaging. But, for reasons that are not known, the release was cancelled - most likely because the record label baulked at the idea of a Prince-less Prince album. Camille lived on for a short time beyond the cancelled release, with three tracks repurposed for the legendary Sign 'O' The Times, specifically If I Was Your Girlfriend, Housequake, and Strange Relationship. After this, Camille was never heard from again.
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In the intervening years, rumours, fan theories, album sleeve notes, tour programmes, and biographies have all hinted at the possible Camille album. But it was not until Prince's former production manager Karen Krattinger offered one of the demo copies of the album at an auction in 2016 that the record was confirmed as actually "real". Now, seven years later, Jack White's Third Man Records has reached an agreement with Prince's estate to release the full album.
The story of Camille fits into the wider narrative and rediscovery of the hidden histories of queer and trans people, mapping the blank spaces where they were erased from history. Many examples spring to mind, but perhaps soul singer Jackie Shane's slow rediscovery over the past decade is a perfect example of the treasure trove of music and figures that have been obscured from music history. When shared, these histories can empower marginalised groups within broader society. Imagine the potential impact had Camille been released and received as a queer persona in 1987. What would have happened if "His Royal Badness" had been "Her" four decades ago?
In many ways it is futile to speculate around lost impact. Yet it is worth reflecting on what it would have meant to have an artist of colour - who was also a bastion of male sexuality - playing with gender, femininity and sexuality. Would it have pushed further aspects of queerness into popular culture? After all, Prince was a mainstream megastar, selling millions upon millions of records throughout the 1980s.
Conversely, imagine pop without the gender-bending and provocatively queer moments that we now hold up as legendary. What would our history be if we lost David Bowie and Mick Ronson's shocking "oral guitar solo", the winking audacity of the I Want to Break Free video, Frankie telling us to "relax", or Lil Nas X offering the devil a lapdance? Camille should have been among this list of cultural touchstone moments that make up our collective conception of popular music.
Several highly-acclaimed recent television series' have also focused on queer history at a time contemporaneous with Camille's original planned release date. Russell T Davies' mini-drama It's A Sin focused on the lives of young queer Brits during the AIDS epidemic that decimated the community. Equally lauded was FX's Pose, which explored the lives of LGBTQ+ people of colour in the New York ballroom scene of the 1980s. The resurgence and reinsertion of the ballroom scene documentary Paris Is Burning (filmed again in the mid-late 1980s) into public consciousness points to a wide and continued fascination with this period of queer history.
Among today's so-called "culture wars", the denigration of the trans community, and the recent rise in homophobic and queerphobic hate, a celebration of the diversity of gender performances is surely as welcome as ever. In recent years the unique perspectives of queer, trans and non-binary artists have been praised by popular music fans and pundits alike. Sophie, Mikki Blanco, Kim Petras, Julianna Huxtable, Anohni, Honey Dijon, Arca, and many more have greatly increased the audibility of queer voices for the broader pop music fan base.
So with Camille finally about to "come out" (in every sense of the phrase), it seems like the right time to ask what impact she might have had in 1987, how she was created, and why now is the perfect moment for her debut.
I Wanna Be Your Lover
Prince was sexy. Not necessarily just as an object of desire, but his persona, music, lyrics, dance moves, album covers, and public image oozed sex, ambiguous sexuality, and overt sensuality. He was a cheeky champion of all things kinky. The lyrics to Darling Nikki, Get Off, Soft and Wet, Head, and Dirty Mind, among others, should be enough to convince you of his sexual credentials.
Prince's particular form of musical sexuality was unique and often hard to define. His approach to sex, in general public consciousness, was masculine, straight, tough, and naughty. But it could also be feminine, queer, tender and spiritually chaste. Wesley Morris sums up this sexual ambiguity perfectly in his New York Times piece, saying that the focus of Prince's sexual orientation was always oriented towards "you" - that is, the listener.
Here we are of course conflating aspects of gender, sexuality, and sex. But with Prince, it's hard to untangle those elements. Prince was at his most interesting and successful when he wrapped himself in ambiguity and androgyny. The opening lines to I Would Die 4 U specifically tell us this:
He left us other clues about the way he viewed race, sex and sexuality in tracks like Controversy, where he played with the media's portrayal of celebrity.
Of course, he wasn't the first to play with these ideas. Western popular music has a rich history of genderplay. Cast your mind back to the decadence of glam rock, the unabashed sweaty sexiness of disco, or the glittery flamboyance of the New Romantics. A degree of dandyism has long allowed the male rock star to challenge the codes of reserved, stoic, western masculinity. The term "dandy" in this case refers to those lavishly dressed, ostentatiously extravagant male artists of the latter half of the 20th century. Rock stars like Marc Almond, David Bowie and Mick Jagger used elaborate fashion and exaggerated movements to free themselves of conservative expectations around how men "should" behave.
Yet, Prince's androgyny always felt different. As author Sasha Geffen wrote, it went beyond costume, it was "a part of who he was, reflected not only in his clothes but in his voice, mannerisms and presence". He often played with a hypersexual mode of masculine musicality, as documented by songs like Erotic City, while his visual persona could easily be described as "soft" or "pretty", as he appears on the cover of his eponymous album. So Prince's ambiguity is entangled within his entire persona. Nowhere is this clearer than on this currently unreleased gem.
If Prince is hard to pigeonhole, then Camille proves even more elusive.
The Camille persona did not just arrive fully formed. Rogers was instrumental in bringing Camille to life. As Prince's sound engineer for Purple Rain and Sign 'O' The Times, she facilitated his performances and helped craft his most seminal albums. She has described Camille as a figure "who might have been male, might have been female, it wasn't really clear - might have been kind of ghostly, might have been kind of humanoid".
However, the technology used to create Camille's voice from that of Prince was rudimentary. In 1986, "realistic" male-to-female voice modification in a recording studio was not possible, and still poses challenges for technology companies today. But the limitations of the technology are one of the most revealing aspects of Camille.
A study from the Journal of Voice illustrates that voices that are manipulated in this way are perceived as "non-male". The study also points to the "gender ambiguity" of a voice treated similarly to Camille. There are several studies that present similar findings. In essence, this research shows that altering the voice can have an impact on how we perceive someone's gender. But more importantly, the processing of Prince/Camille's voice is done to a degree that defies the gender binary.
It's not just the pitch of Camille's voice that sheds light on her possible persona. On the track Good Love we can hear Camille offering us a half-spoken/half-sung vocal mimicking the "valley girl" delivery made famous in the teen classic Clueless. By using elements of the stereotypical creaky-voiced "vocal fry", Camille is telling us to what tribe she might belong. Plus, the squeals of girlish delight we hear throughout the song point to something other than the machismo one might expect from a 1980s male sex symbol.
If, as originally intended, we didn't know that this album was produced by Prince, we might have a very different perspective on the singer. In essence, there is evidence to say that Camille might be best perceived female, or possibly as queer or trans - at least in terms of her voice. Yet, her voice and delivery aren't our only clues to her identity. It can also be found in what she says.
Camille comes out
If I Was Your Girlfriend is one of the songs which survived and made it on to Sign 'O' The Times, and in some early releases is even credited to Camille. The song is perhaps where the combination of lyrics and artificial vocal manipulation are most striking. Opening with six bars of falsetto sighs and screams, the song introduces us to a more vulnerable Camille. This vulnerability soon gives way to something more urgent.
The meaning of "girlfriend" is as ambiguous as we have come to expect from Prince. The opening verses describe our narrator and the addressee doing arguably platonic activities, like choosing outfits and swapping stories about those who have wronged them. It is not long, however, until Camille sings of the sexual gratification that might result from such closeness and promises of long baths and kisses "down there, where it counts" soon follow.
The shifting perspectives of the narrator make it difficult to work out who is being addressed and who does the addressing in this song. Camille makes reference early on to having been the former "man" of the person she sings to and suggestions of children occur in the spoken section. Yet her pleas to girlfriend status make up the majority of the song. All elements are sung in Camille's distinctive timbre. Jumping between male and female signifiers throughout, Camille could be said to occupy an ambiguous space here, leaving us little in the way of explanation.
The track might be presenting Camille as a transgender persona. Alternatively, there is an argument to be made that Prince is simply asking the object of his affections for the kind of emotional intimacy common in close female friendships. Yet, the hypersexual male rock star making such a plea is striking, particularly in combination with the vocal manipulation. Perhaps Prince is challenging the tough, promiscuous persona that might be expected of the rock god?
On the track's original B-side, Shockadelica, we find Camille in a less melancholic mood. As on If I Was Your Girlfriend, the identity of our narrator is not immediately apparent. Prince sings about Camille, but in her voice. Is Prince talking about this mysterious, bewitching woman, or is Camille singing in the third person, as befits a diva?
Either way, Shockadelica is an unapologetic celebration of Camille and her allure:
Where If I Was Your Girlfriend challenged gendered stereotypes through its emotional openness, Shockadelica is a paean to female sexuality. This is a woman who is fully aware of her appeal and in total control of it, rendering her admirer completely helpless.
Feel U Up would also find its home as a B-side, in this case for 1989's Partyman. Feel U Up is classic Prince hedonism. Camille urges the object of her affections to enjoy the moment - any subsequent relationship, however fleeting, is not of concern here. Camille prioritises the other person's pleasure in this song, encapsulating Morris' points about Prince's focus on "you" with lyrics like: "I ain't looking for a one night stand, I only wanna feel you up."
In this collection of songs, Camille is a fully fleshed-out character. She contains multitudes in her desires and her insecurities, and her complexities are consistent with the complexities in all of us.
You may have noticed us refer to Camille as she/her and this is quite deliberate. In the lyrics there are scant references to pronouns, but when they are used she is consistently referred to as "she" or "that girl", or directly by name. Although she is female on this album, she is referred to as the "boy named Camille" in the LoveSexy tourbook (and in French, the name is unisex). There is also evidence to suggest that aspects of Camille were inspired by Herculine Adelaïde Barbin, a 19th-century French intersex person who identified as female. Due to the imminent release of the album in which Camille seems to be tangibly female, we call her "she" in this context, with the caveat that she appears more fluid in other instances.
The deeper into this album we have gone, the more apparent Camille's separation from Prince has become. We think it is fair to say that Prince never thought of Camille as some form of fleeting sonic drag. Rather, Camille is an entire alter ego, or a new frontier for Prince to explore.
With Camille, we can hear Prince parsing experiences of sex and the sexual between his own experience and that of his female alter ego. Prince is interested in all things erotic, and that extends as far as donning a female or queer persona to allow a full range of experiences. Camille tells us so on Feel U Up: "I don't really want to be your man, I only want to feel you up."
And Camille seems to spark a broader fascination for Prince, particularly concerning the idea of two opposites or binaries existing together. In 1986 it was Camille and the exploration of the male and female. A few years later, he'd don a superhero and supervillain costume simultaneously (divided down the middle, of course) and call himself Gemini for the soundtrack album for 1989's Batman. You can even see Gemini in the Bat Dance video. Writer Lucas Cava offers a fascinating deep dive into the dual personalities and interwoven origin stories of Gemini and Camille, guiding us through their development in videos, songs, films and extracts from tour programmes.
It isn't coincidental that Prince wanted to explore these binaries between man and woman, evil and good. An interest in dichotomies seems to have been a theme in Prince's life and career. His patented Minneapolis sound is a blend of working-class white rock and queer Black disco. Life and death crops up regularly in Prince's lyrics. Even his Dandyish fashion draws together elements of masculine and feminine together.
Whereas Prince and Camille played with the dichotomies of male and female, Prince's contemporaries explored the spaces in-between and along the spectrum of gender. Bowie was at various points dandy-ish (look at the Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World album covers), a glittery bisexual alien (the Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust personas), and an emblem of sneering masculinity (The Thin White Duke). Boy George and Annie Lennox proudly danced in the middle, gazing out at you from the cover of Newsweek. Grace Jones' statuesque coolness defied conventions of demure femininity, while Sylvester's brand of queer joy flew in the face of stoic masculinity.
Taking a more aggressive tone, the heavy metal fraternity (see Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe) of the 1980s applied makeup and Lycra in an attempt to shock crowds, parents and topple the status quo. The earlier Rolling Stones attempt at provoking audiences with similar drag appears (retrospectively at least) more Monty Python than scandalising, more churchgoing Sunday best than skintight spandex.
Prince and Camille sit apart from these artists. They don't revel in the innumerable gradations along the spectrum of gender and they certainly do not mock any interpretation thereof. Rather, they represent the polar positions, singing back and forth to one another across the expanse.
A sign of the times
In the process of listening to and revisiting the songs made for the album, we have found ourselves running in circles trying to define this mysterious and intriguing persona. Each time one of us thought we had found a definition we could pin down, it would slip from our grasp on a second listen. In light of this, we decided that it would be more valuable to celebrate her ambiguity and ask what the release of the album means now, rather than trying to pigeonhole or categorise her.
Freed from her four decades in the vault, Camille will finally be allowed to come out. The question now is how and where to situate Camille within a queer pop history. Will she be lauded as an important lost voice in music history, or cast aside as a novelty for Prince completists?
Camille's long absence leaves us only able to speculate on the impact she might have had. Had the Camille album been released as planned, could she have contributed to the wider representation of queer artists earlier in our pop culture past? What kind of ruminations around gender could she have provoked in the public consciousness? What would a Camille tour have looked like? There are surely queer elements that might have become part of broader public discourse, at least among Prince's established fanbase, as a consequence of Camille's presence.
The history of androgyny and genderplay in pop is a rich one, but Camille embodies something that eludes neat compartmentalisation. While we can't know for sure what kind of impact Camille would have had at her inception, she belongs to a vibrant hidden history of queer artists. Personally speaking, we like the fact that Camille is so challenging to define. She brings ambiguity, playfulness, and queerness to bear in a way that few artists ever explore. That androgyny and otherness is, to us, where her real power and contribution comes from.
It is fair to say that Camille would not have been a cure-all for queer rights and discrimination and we must be careful not to overestimate her impact. She would not have been the straw that broke the camel's back, ushering in a new age of fraternal love, but she may have added another high-profile voice to the growing number of queer artists presenting important and publicly relevant work.
We can only hypothesise what she would have meant to listeners in 1987. However, that doesn't negate or diminish her contribution and importance to audiences today, particularly audiences who may see themselves reflected in her enigmatic sensuality.
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Authors: Liam Maloney - Programme Leader for Music & Sound Recording, University of York | Alice Masterson - Visiting Music Lecturer, University of York