Today marks the 7th anniversary of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as Prince, The Artist, or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. To commemorate this day, I wanted to express my appreciation for him as a musician, songwriter, performer, and businessperson. In a field where success is often achieved by conforming, Prince was always the opposite, even from a young age. He was his own person, his own artist, and he guarded that independence, sometimes to the detriment of his career, but still he became one of the most successful pop stars of his generation. What makes Prince even more interesting is that being a pop star and having all that success wasn’t even the most interesting thing about him. When I think of Prince, I don’t think about his popular success. I think about how he did what he did and how little was known about the depth of his talent.
I’ve had this argument more than once, and it always goes the same way, especially if the person I’m arguing with is younger than I am. It goes like this: “Who’s better, Prince or Michael Jackson?” My answer is always Prince. And that’s no slight to Michael. In 1982, there was no bigger musical idol for me than Michael Jackson. I owned Thriller on every medium possible: LP, cassette, and 8-track. I wore that thing out. I used to go across the street to watch MTV (they had cable and we didn’t yet) at the appointed times the full-length video for Thriller was going to play. Michael Jackson was a force on his own, but Prince was something else. When Prince signed his first record contract with Warner Brothers, he somehow convinced Warners to allow him to be the producer of his first 3 records and retain his publishing. To be clear, this was not a typical arrangement, especially for a 19-year-old. That’s akin to a baseball player being called up from the minor leagues and becoming player/manager of the whole team.
Prince’s first LP, For You, came out and had some moderate success, but his second album, Prince, released in 1979, contained the hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which sold over a million copies. On these records, Prince played 27 instruments, recorded them himself, acted as producer, and wrote all the songs. As a 19 or 20-year-old, to me, this is Mozart-level genius. He’s obviously a savant, but to be that accomplished at so much at such an early age still sounds like a fairy tale to me. And this was when there were no computers to help make bad playing sound good. You couldn’t use ProTools to lock the drums to the grid. It was all the player for better or worse.
Prince was still 2 full album releases away from the record that would put him into the cultural zeitgeist: 1999, the title song, a synth-laden dance track that just happened to have lyrics musing over the threat of nuclear proliferation, was my introduction to Prince. There was something about that song that felt dangerous, and that became the differentiating factor for me between Prince and Michael Jackson. For all of Michael’s gifts, he was still a pop star. There wasn’t much danger about him.
But to an 11-year-old from West Virginia who already didn’t fit in, didn’t have very many friends, and who wanted to be a rock star even at that age, Prince was an outsider. My love for Prince was my first foray into going against the accepted social norm, even if it is mortifying to think of now. I bought 1999 and listened to it until I knew every part of every song. One day at the mall, I saw a Purple t-shirt hanging in the Record Bar, and I had to have it. It had the album artwork on the front and the lyrics to the title song on the back. I wore it to school and thought I might be expelled. But I wasn’t. Eventually, I found a pair of purple polyester casual slacks at the Hills department store, and the outfit was complete. Purple t-shirt with a collared shirt underneath — hey, it was the 80s — and the purple slacks. For shoes, I wore the black penny loafers I got when Michael was my guy. If you weren’t alive in the 80s and of school age, you can’t appreciate how bizarre this outfit was. In a world of cliques that adhered to very strict rules about hairstyles, polo shirts, and other fashion directives, wearing that purple outfit was to permanently ostracize myself forever from the lunch tables of the popular clique.
This is an aspect of Prince and his career that not many think about. He was a rebel. He flaunted his sexuality and wouldn’t do things the way they were supposed to be done, and he became wildly successful doing it. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, Prince imprinted some of that onto me, and probably a lot of other middle-class kids who didn’t have access to the less socially acceptable punk bands of the time, although their time would come for me.
Prince was a gift we never fully understood, a generational talent popular at a time when surface-level flash was more the currency than leading with your musical gifts. But he did flash better than anyone as well. It’s only been since he died that I started to really think about the impact he’s had on me over the years and what he meant to our culture even if most of us had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. We’ll never see another like him, but at least we had him for a little while.