In 1993, Prince decided to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol that was the combination of the symbols for male and female. He started writing “Slave” on his face as well, saying that being locked into a contract with his long-time label, Warner Bros., was limiting him artistically. That they also owned his master recordings meant that he couldn’t control his own iconic works. At that time, Prince was in a moribund period commercially. His “Purple Rain” movie and soundtrack were several years past and his eccentric behavior and reclusive nature made him somewhat of a musical joke. Where he and Madonna and Michael Jackson ruled the 80’s as dominant icons, in the 90’s each one of those artists began slow slides in commercial viability as they were cannibalized by the dominance of hip-hop. Jackson’s increasingly strange looks and behavior and numerous controversies derailed him, while Madonna was being eclipsed by 90’s hitmakers like Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey.
Fast forward to 2013. This weekend, Prince receives the coveted Billboard Music Awards Icon Award. He’ll perform as well, something the famously capricious artist does when and where he feels like it. Yet public perception of Prince has changed in decades past. Madonna, now in her 50’s, has conceded ground to the Pinks, Katy Perrys and Rihannas, as well as her clear successor/imitator Lady Gaga. Jackson, sadly is dead. But Prince, who celebrates his 55th birthday on June 7th has become one of music’s most beloved icons.
Though he hasn’t had a radio hit in years, his concerts sell out faster than just about any major artist any place in the world anytime he decides he wants to do one. He doesn’t have a Twitter, an Instagram or a Facebook page and some years back, he attempted to have some of his independently-run fan sites shut down. Unlike many of the current artists chasing fame and attention and exposing every detail of their personal lives to the world has little interest in you getting to know him better. Anything he needs to tell you, he’ll tell you through the music. He is not a big presence on YouTube (even though a search for him will turn up a plethora of rare clips) nor does he endorse any major product. But let him announce a concert, let him show up on an awards show and people, of all races, colors, backgrounds and ages, go crazy. If you don’t believe me, make sure you have The Billboard Awards turned on Sunday night at 8 p.m. and you’ll see it for yourself. When Prince presented the Record of The Year Grammy to Belgian-Australian artist Goyte (“Someone That I Used to Know” ) at this year’s awards, saying before he announced the winner that he “loved” the song, it was unclear whether Goyte was more overjoyed about the Grammy or that he got to get it from Prince.
Like actor Johnny Depp, Prince is viewed as doing things his way without bowing to commercial pressures. (Not that he has to, Prince is filthy rich off songwriting royalties alone.) Like Depp, he never compromises his art nor does he hide his eccentricity. There is a certain nostalgia factor, but Prince has fans that are well under the age of the 40 and up fans who remember his heyday.
Part of Prince’s vast appeal is that he’s embraced everyone in his music. Playing with perceptions about his sexuality, using androgyny to tease his audience while embracing a multi-generational, multi-racial audience thorough songs like “Controversy”” and “Uptown” has always has made his music accessible to a wide range of people. His honest, emotionally vulnerable songs about love, heartbreak and feeling like an outsider (as a short, Black, musical genius must have growing up in Minneapolis in the 70’s) means he touches everyone who has felt the same.
Prince has created timeless music in a variety of genres and done everything from love songs to anthemic classics like “Purple Rain.” He even flirted with rap in the New Power Generation days, touring with Doug E. Fresh, though that wasn’t his forte. He’s quietly co-signed younger artists like Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Cee-Lo, Jill Scott, the late Amy Winehouse and Jennifer Hudson by either performing with them or inviting them to open for or share a stage with him. When he does show his sense of humor (see: faces he made during Alicia Keys’ now famous pregnant BET Awards tribute performance) people laugh right along with him.
Sure, there are critics who feel his best days are past and he needs to ease up on the legal chokehold he has on his music. There’s a reason why you don’t see many Prince samples, if there are any at all. Now that he’s a Jehovah Witness, he’s given some truly bizarre interviews and is well-known for um, eccentric moments, like the story of his never to be completed film with writer/director Kevin Smith. (YouTube it.)
Yet for all his idiosyncrasies, Prince gets respect because he never skimps on what has defined him – his music. If you go to see him you’ll need comfortable shoes and a good babysitter because you won’t get home until dawn. You’ll see him play for 2 or more hours at the official show and if you can hang and you’re lucky, for hours more at the aftershow. You’ll get to see one of the true artistic geniuses of this or any musical time who is still at the peak of his craft who’s never sold or pimped himself out for commercial purposes. I