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“Walk Don’t Walk”: Prince and Emerson

Prince evokes American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Douglas Rasmussen
On Prince’s album “Diamonds and Pearls” (1991) the song “Walk Don’t Walk” continues Prince’s theme of personal empowerment and nonconformity that was heard in previous songs like “Uptown” and “Starfish and Coffee.” As such it is possible to interpret Prince through a similar lens as philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a particular favorite of mine.

Prince Evokes Emerson

“Walk Don’t Walk” continues with Prince’s usual themes of freedom and individuality, not just in a ‘Princely’ fashion, but in a way that can be interpreted through the philosophical lens of American enlightenment philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). It seems like an odd pairing, as Emerson was a nineteenth-century philosopher and at one time an ordained minister and not known to have rocked out in glitter, purple coats, and make-up, but he was known for his unconventional views and belief in nonconformity against societal expectations. Emerson advocated for individuality to the point where, despite being a Christian himself, he often spoke out against religious orthodoxy and organized religion as a detriment to the spiritual nature of our character. The essay “Self-Reliance” provides an interesting synthesis of these views, and correlates with the themes later explored by Prince in “Walk Don’t Walk.”

Written in 1841, “Self-Reliance” places an emphasis on the individual in opposition to societal expectations. In this essay Emerson advocates for nonconformity, considering social institutions as being obsolete anchors keeping humanity rooted in one place and time. Emerson didn’t believe in being chained to previous notions in regards to ethics, especially as they were often mandated by small-minded government bureaucrats or preachers reciting from a prescribed text and offering no wisdom or insight into God from their own conceptions.

The philosophy of the essay is encapsulated by the very poetic, almost musically lyrical sentence, “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The only path to happiness and true greatness in an individual is to have the strength of character to follow your own path and not concede to the institutional structures that weigh a person down. For Emerson, it’s the personal responsibility of the individual to live up to their own unique potential and not act like “invalids in a protected corner, cowards fleeing before a revolution.” Hyperbolic language aside, this appeal to strive for nonconformity against the social pressures of society is an important philosophical message shared both by Emerson and Prince.

For Emerson, a person’s path is clear: “Whoso would be a man, must also be a nonconformist,” which is a theme Prince would echo a great deal later with songs like “Uptown.”

— Douglas Rasmussen

For Emerson, a person’s path is clear: “Whoso would be a man, must also be a nonconformist,” which is a theme Prince would echo a great deal later with songs like “Uptown.” Emerson is declaring that in order to achieve any sort of greatness, moral goodness, or even just happiness, an individual must actively strive against the confines of a repressive society. Emerson equates this nonconformity as a moral imperative, arguing that the sacredness of traditions doesn’t matter if a person lives wholly within themselves. For Emerson, and indeed Prince, individuality is the only true path to change, not policies by governments. Nothing is sacred to Emerson, but the “integrity of your own mind.” It’s only in the free expression of the individual that they can attain spiritual independence. In Emerson’s view only a nonconformist can be closer to God.

Emerson is quite clear in his condemnation of the social and moral institutions that govern society and the conduct of humanity. In his estimation, they’re obstructions to the innate goodness of an individual. In Emerson’s estimation society never advances on its own and the collective nature of society discourages the creative and unique individual with banal social customs and edicts passed down by the conspirators of history. As Emerson writes, “Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” A person who isn’t willing to risk everything and oppose societal conventions and social norms can’t hope to achieve much in life or affect positive social change in any meaningful way. It is certainly an idea you can not only hear in Prince’s music, but judge based on how he conducted his affairs with the music industry and he always pushed forward in bold new directions, regardless of public discourse or music industry executives.

Essentially Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is the nineteenth-century equivalent of espousing rock n’ roll rebellion. Emerson’s plea of individuality and nonconformity against the stifling hordes of society is an idea familiar to many artists, and many writers and poets were inspired by Emerson (Emily Dickinson and Henry James, to name only two examples), just as Prince likely inspires many artists to follow their own muse. It’s not difficult to extrapolate a similar philosophy from Emerson’s notion of an independent selfhood with the music and creative expression of artists like Prince. Emerson even declares that he’s going to “speak the rude truth in all ways.” Speaking the ‘rude truth’ sounds quintessentially rock n’ roll! Emerson even declares that moral goodness “must have some edge to it,—else it is none.” Prince, then, can be considered to speak the rude truth as he uses rock music as a platform to express a desire for the freedom of self-expression to bring about positive social change in society. For someone to speak (or sing) the rude truth poses a risk, but only truth that does pose a risk can be considered to be of true value to the progression of society.

The systems of power and our social and moral institutions, as Emerson has observed, almost never have our best interests at heart. This is discovered empirically in youth, before many young individuals are reading philosophers like Emerson and instead rely on music acts like Prince for help in shaping their world view.

Prince and Individuality

The Prince song “Walk Don’t Walk” has many themes which run parallel to Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance. The song begins with Prince telling the listener that unfortunately society expects you to “Walk on their side of the street / Don’t walk where it feels the best.” Emerson has a similarly oppressive view of society, proclaiming that “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” The inevitable consequence of always choosing to follow the path prescribed to you by society is that it doesn’t allow for personal freedom or self-expression or will do much to progress society as a whole. As Prince sings, there is an emphasis to “Don’t talk to strangers / Unless they walk the way you want them to,” meaning that differences and non-conformity are discouraged in both Emerson and Prince’s evaluation of society.

When Prince sings “Don’t talk if it’s against the rules” he is expressing an idea that appears in a number of his songs; that society is always telling people how to think, how to act, how to behave, even who to sleep with. The past and its adherence to traditions and dogmas is an anchor weighing humanity down, negatively impacting our ability to progress socially and culturally. Prince, of course, was known for always moving forward, never looking back, and forging radical new paths regardless of consequences. As anyone who reads the history of Prince can attest to, it’s much more difficult to forge your own path in the world than to comply with authority.

According to Prince (and Emerson), autonomy can only come from within, and only by refusing to adhere to society’s imposed structures can humanity alleviate our misery and suffering. Prince advocates to “Go on and walk on any side you like.” This is also one of the most difficult processes to undergo, for as Emerson notes, “The virtue most in request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.” On the whole, society seems overly concerned with maintaining the status quo, even if that status quo is harmful and destructive to the creative potential of a person.

The sun will shine upon u one day
If u’re always walkin’ your way

Walk Don’t Walk (1991) — Prince

Prince expresses a similar view as Emerson when he sings from his experience, “The sun will shine on you one day / If you’re always walking your own way.” This idea, which forms one of the central tenets of Prince’s music from the 1980s and all throughout his career, forms a creative path of the individual. The only way to make any progress, to be content and happy, or at least personally fulfilled, is to ignore the harmful edicts enforced upon an individual by rigid hierarchies and to embrace non-conformity as a necessary aspect of positive social change. If we, as the listeners, follow our own paths, be good to one another and respectful of our different perspectives then that can only make the world a better place.

I think Emerson said it best when he wrote, with a quote that sounds like it could have come from Prince himself (and certainly embodies Prince’s musical and personal philosophy): “Insist on yourself; never imitate.”

— Douglas Rasmussen
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About the author

Douglas Rasmussen

Douglas Rasmussen was born on the Canadian prairies, but his maternal grandfather originally was born in Prince's home state of Minnesota.

He has a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan where he majored in American Literature and Film Studies and wrote his thesis on the AMC TV series Breaking Bad. He has published articles on Canadian History and Virginia Woolf, and has chapters in upcoming collections of critical essays on various Film Studies topics to be published in 2020. Discussing film is his first love, but any time he has a chance to discuss Prince, David Bowie, or Tom Waits, he is more than happy to do so.

You can follow him at @grumpybookgeek on Twitter.

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