As rough a year as 2016 has been in terms of losses within the entertainment industry, it still hurts when time claims another cultural icon. And this one really, really hurts.
Prince Rogers Nelson was already legendary by the mid-eighties, one of a handful of figures that helped define the decade for those of us growing up in the era. If Whitney was the girl-next-door and Madonna our cool imaginary big sister, if Michael was our impish alter-ego and Bowie the sexy bad boy we’d never admit crushing on, Prince was the older, wiser cousin who wouldn’t shy away from honesty in the face of those troubling questions that kids of a certain age always come across. He’d been there, and told us all about it in winking detail. I think an entire generation probably got a course in human sexuality from the man and his music.
The world, or at least some parts of it, was not ready for Prince. The soundtrack of his semi-autobiographical movie Purple Rain featured a little song called “Darling Nikki” that single-handedly spawned the PMRC, Parental Advisory stickers, and the political relevancy of Tipper Gore. (I wonder how many disgruntled Prince fans wouldn’t vote for her husband because of her.) There were many other songs and artists that Tipper & Co. found just as offensive, but Prince was the most publicized, his music sitting at the number one position on the PMRC’s infamous, so-called “Filthy Fifteen” list. Prince never personally weighed in on the censorship debate, choosing to stay increasingly out of the spotlight.
His next film, the undeservedly underrated Under the Cherry Moon, was critically panned and failed to garner much notice at the box office, but its soundtrack album, titled Parade, performed well and produced the hit song “Kiss”. Prince’s live performances became a rarity, but he continued making trendsetting music for the rest of his life. He penned or cowrote songs for many other artists, often under pseudonyms, including the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Sinéad O’Connor (“Nothing Compares 2 U”), Stevie Nicks (“Stand Back”), and Cyndi Lauper (“When You Were Mine”). A dynamic multi-instrumentalist and prolific songwriter, he is widely considered to be the forefather of the “Minneapolis Sound” and helped to break many other important acts such as the Time, Sheila E, and Vanity. His influence is still apparent in pop and R&B music today, and his Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007, in a downpour fitting for “Purple Rain”, is appreciated as one of the best ever.
Though notoriously private, Prince was nonetheless outspoken about what he perceived as the very flawed nature of the recording industry, famously butting heads with the Warner Brothers label and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol to stymie their efforts to promote him. Over the years he presided over several different backing bands as his sound evolved, including the Revolution and the New Power Generation.
The thing which stands out to me most about Prince, his music and his life, is the sense of unflinching honesty it evokes. He sugar coated nothing and was always true to his own artistry. It’s a rare thing, almost impossible to find in today’s corporate, fill-in-the-blanks music business. There will never be another. Good night, sweet Prince.