Prince Gave Himself to His Art and Gave Us a Musical Standard
Note: This essay was originally published on April 21, 2016
I’ve never imagined that Prince wouldn’t be here.
That’s a silly thing to say—but it’s the truth. Even as other musical icons of my lifetime like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were suddenly no longer among the living, I just never believed that Prince would ever be…that. When Prince dies, I thought, he’ll be pushing 90 and on a stage with his guitar—like Chuck Berry.
Even as I write this, I can’t really fathom what has happened.
This man is music. This man is everything. The world’s greatest musician and the greatest recording artist of all time—and he’s dead?
Prince’s music became a major part of my life much later than Jackson’s or Houston’s. As a kid, I knew Prince’s big hits but he was too weird and way too “nasty” for my parents to ever let me hear an album or anything beyond the songs all over the radio. Other stars made music that was more universal and squeaky-clean, I wasn’t yet old enough to fully appreciate the Purple One’s dirty mind.
No, Prince burned himself into my cerebral cortex when I was in high school. I bought the Purple Rain soundtrack album—which was about ten years old by that point—as I was exploring classic albums from different periods and realized I hadn’t delved deeper into Prince. I listened to Purple Rain every day and subsequently bought his double disc Hits set, as well. Suddenly, I was obsessed with Prince’s music and persona. I started sifting through friends’ collections and reading any interview I could find. His live performances became must-see TV and I was constantly searching through his abundance of bootlegs, b-sides and other rarities.
No one shaped my idea of what an artist should be more than Prince. He was the standard against every music I’d ever loved was measured. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, but Prince was more prolific and creatively fearless. The Beatles revolutionized music, but they never delivered albums as seamless and flawless as Dirty Mind or 1999. And Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest gifts we’ve ever known—but he wasn’t able to sustain a level of creative restlessness later into his career like Prince had. I love them all. None of them are what Prince is to me.
From Purple Rain, I was led to 1999, then Sign O’ the Times, then Parade and Around the World In A Day. Prince’s 80s run of albums is one of music’s most staggering; he was releasing projects almost every six months and never showed the slightest bit of redundancy and never pandered to his audience. He became a pop megastar in 84 on the back of …Rain, but as soon as he reached that level, he began to challenge his fanbase. He never once recorded Purple Rain 2. Prince’s muse was his own creativity—not his audience’s adoration.
And, as a fan, I loved him for that.
Prince challenged you to follow where he was going; and if you didn’t like it, he seemed okay with that. Perhaps you’d understand it better later. Perhaps you’d be more into his next album. Either way, it wasn’t ever going to make Prince beg for you to love him.
He battled with Warner Bros for control of his music and endured mocking and dismissals as his commercial standing suffered in the mid-90s because of changing times, industry struggles and his own quirks. But he never stopped delivering inspired music, from The Gold Experience to Emancipation and Crystal Ball. Records that are deemed afterthoughts like Come are still as engaging as the best stuff from contemporaneous artists and his detours are what make his immense catalog so fascinating.
And onstage, Prince was musicianship personified. He’d fiercely lay down a guitar solo, slide over to his piano for a beautiful ballad, show off with some bass licks—and never look like he was breaking a sweat. It was a joy to behold and you understood that music was what drove him more than anything in this world. More than money. More than sex. More than fame.
Prince was the epitome of artistry and entertainment. He put on a great show onstage and made compelling records; all the while pushing himself and the listener. He could do everything. He was what I believed all artists should strive to be. I hope more than anything, that he remains the standard for which any popular musician strives.
Prince was music.
And it feels like music just died today.