Prince’s “Starfish and Coffee” — An Analysis
An Analysis :
NOTE: For those unfamiliar with the song, it might help to first read the lyrics below first.
I had listened to this seemingly simplistic and whimsical song for years without truly deciphering its meaning. Then one day, as a sophomore in college, I was sitting in my dorm room feeling forlorn and misunderstood because my off-center views infuriated everyone. My beliefs on relationships, race, sex, the Divine, and everything seemed to be just left of mainstream.
Then, the underlying message of the song crystallized for me and I was caught up in a swooning epiphany that still dazzles me to this day.
At that moment — With the Sign of the Times album playing casually in the background, “Starfish and Coffee” — with it’s jarring alarm bell – needled into my thoughts and gave me understanding of what Prince meant by saying if you set your mind “free” maybe you’d understand.
Something unlocked and I felt a kinship to Cynthia Rose in the song.
I understood the song was about mental imprisonment, the inability to recognize that things can be done outside the boundaries of society, history, tradition and religion… and that that is okay.
* THE ALARM : The song begins with an alarm bell (both to symbolize the school setting and to wake up our sleeping consciousness, or unfree minds).
* THE SETTING: The setting is school– an institution known for its regiment and structure. School is a metaphor for all that is structured and habitual (which isn’t necessarily bad) in this world. Notice that things are so structured, kids line up at a specific time (7:45 a.m.) and they have to be in rigid lines.
* THE PEOPLE: As the kids, all ordinary (which again isn’t bad), take their set places in line. Cynthia Rose, who dresses and eats unconventionally, does too. She’s not a conformist, however. And if she’s gotta stand in line, she’s gonna stand at the very back. She’s smiling because she knows this secret. Sure, she’s a creature of habit too (she eats the same thing for breakfast daily and she favors a specific number). So, the song isn’t bashing habit or tradition per se. It’s bashing the inability of society to understand that a whole alternate reality… a whole alternative set of possible traditions … exists out there that can still make us happy even if it defies and destroys what we think is appropriate, sane or acceptable:
Take Cyndy’s breakfast: Starfish & Coffee, Maple Syrup & Jam, Butterscotch Clouds, a Tangerine. A side order of Ham. Have your ever had starfish and coffee for breakfast? It might actually be delicious, but the accepted reality is that the two are from two entirely different contexts and it would never occur to us to put the two together.
It would oppose some strange cognitive law so subtle we aren’t even really conscious about having or following it.
Similarly, we would never confuse the contexts of candy and climatology to partake of butterscotch clouds. We would never eat two condiments (maple syrup and jam) together with nothing to spread it on. And while we’d probably have ham for breakfast, we’d not couple it with a tangerine. Prince’s hidden meaning is not in the individual items, but in the unexpected pairing that unfree minds would never consider.
Cynthia combines the unexpected, and people become suspicious…
*THE SUSPICION: Everyone thinks Cynthia is just pretending to be different, perhaps going against the grain for attention and shock value (you true divergents know what I’m talking about). I mean everyone is thinking why wear a pretty dress with socks and not hosiery… why wear socks that don’t match… they think she’s deliberately dissenting.
* THE TEST: So the narrator, thinking Cynthia is pretending, steals her “lunchbox” to look into her most private and locked chambers (where she’d not have need to lie and pretend). He thinks he’ll find the mate to the socks and have reassurance that Cynthia is as “ordinary” unremarkable and unoriginal as the rest of the robotic zombies who accept all protocol, and that she is just feigning uniqueness, feigning an untrapped self.
Instead of finding a hoax, however, he finds inside the very things Cynthia talks about experiencing. Cynthia is not rebelling for rebellion’s sake. She just naturally has an alternate eye into reality. The culprits are genuinely shocked and scared that one cries and the other almost dies.
This suggests that “normal” people don’t resist the alternative consciously; they really do not believe it exists naturally. They think wherever it arises, it is faked (and even evil!) … because hasn’t history already shown us the way to be?
It really doesn’t occur to them to follow “in”stinct to a never-before-tried way.
(Reminds me of when Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” invited his date out for a handful of caramels instead of the traditional cup of coffee. He said coffee is as arbitrary as caramels. However, How many would think of that? In the most basic ways, our unfree minds are no longer sensitive to things outside of tradition or history… so sad for those who are naturally predisposed to alternatives. If you’re naturally thinking in line with convention, fine. That’s not bad… just follow your own lunchbox, if you can find it and see its contents for real)
*THE NAME: Cynthia Rose seems to be a play on words. Prince is known to do this type of thing, for instance with “Annie Christian” or “Anna Stesia.” The root of the first name sounds like “sin”– sort of underscoring how everyone views those who are different to be sort of bad, wayward or not good.
However, Cynthia “rose.” She was happy on a daily basis. So what, life had lines…. she wasn’t angry or trying to disrupt the lines. She was true to herself inside of a conformist society. And she didn’t beat everyone else over the head with her alternate philosophies. She subtly shared by putting tokens (smiley faces) on the side of school walls (bending the very things imprisoning her to her own style). Prince tells her to “go on!” to continue being Cynthia and rising no matter what the status quo is.
* This song freed me so much. Because if I got a great revelation from God and felt it was as orgasmic as the best sex, I didn’t feel wrong or dirty. Who said the divine only existed inside the context of church and organized religion, inside hymns and Bibles. What if my journal was my Bible and my experiences as instuctive to me as Job’s was to him. Who said I had to follow established schools of thought in sex, in religion, in profession, in anything. So, I try to do what is instinctive or natural for me (I think rebelling for rebellion’s sake is weak) I just struggle to make sure what’s in my lunchbox matches what I give and show to the world, like Cynthia.
As I age, I find this is easier said than done, but it’s important never to give up to struggle to be authentic.
Isn’t it kind of scary how much we humans, with the highest minds on earth, blindly accept protocol from how to dress to what to eat to how to perceive the Divine.
I confess, externally I’m pretty conservative, especially with dress (that’s my businesslike Capricorn Ascendent at work). If you met me, your first thought might be that I’m very mainstream. But you would be wrong. I’m cool with that. I actually love that because it keeps my secret rebel nature private for me to share only with those I trust, those in my kindred coven.
My divergence is cerebral, it’s a function of the thought realm.
* What Prince has said: Of course, Prince isn’t advocating eating Starfish with tangerines and coffee (are they even edible?). The whole song is a metaphor. Some, however, wish to believe it’s just about a mentally disabled girl that Susannah Melvoin told Prince she went to school with. But I believe the girl was just an impetus. The song is about so much more.
I remember on the now-defunct Love4oneanother website, someone asked Prince what “Starfish and Coffee” was about… they asked if Cynthia Rose was mentally disabled. He responded. “She’s mentally alternative.” Ahh…. get it??
But this song will be debated to the end of time. All I know is that whenever I clash with the world, I turn on Starfish and Coffee and regain my courage to be free.
(Blog originally posted 10/6/2008)
© 2008 – 2013, Synthia L. Rose. All rights reserved.
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