by Neil H. Buchanan
I am currently in Australia, about to begin what amounts to a speaking tour of universities here and in New Zealand. Because I have been immersing myself in policy wonkery to prepare for those talks, I need a change of pace, so I thought that I might step outside of my comfort zone of writing about economics, law, and politics -- though only for a day. Instead, I will indulge in a bit of nostalgia mixed with amateur musical/cultural appreciation.
The death of Prince two weeks ago turned out to be a much larger cultural milestone than one might have predicted. Although it turns out that he was still active professionally, Prince had in many ways receded from public view for quite some time. Even so, discussion of his life, career, and death have lasted longer than the usual amount of time dedicated to musical greats who pass away, exceeding even that for David Bowie earlier in the year.
Because I spend a fairly large amount of time with people in their mid-20's -- my daughters, my research assistants, and almost all of my students being between 23 and 26 -- I had an opportunity to ask some of them what they knew about Prince. Based on the extensive media coverage of his death, I thought that perhaps he had been better known among current twenty-somethings than I might have suspected. Based on a tiny sample size, however, it turns out that Prince was just another older-generation rocker who had one or two songs that they recognized. (Even upon prompting, I could not invoke more than a flicker of recognition for various songs that I would have thought were still familiar. Other than "Little Red Corvette" and "1999," Prince might as well have been Frankie Valli or Three Dog Night.)
This, of course, reinforced my awareness of how old I have become. Not surprising, really. But given how great Prince was, it is at least nice to see that his death is introducing a new generation of potential fans to his music.
In discussing Prince's career with my younger daughter, I was struck by a comparison that she raised: Was Prince considered better or worse than Michael Jackson? Interestingly, despite the King of Pop having died six years ago, it turns out that his tabloid-heavy personal life is well known. Whatever young people might know about Jackson's music, they apparently know about the allegations of child sexual abuse, his physical transformation, and all the rest. That this is part of his legacy is neither good nor bad, I suppose, but I was surprised that those non-music-related matters are what has lingered in the cultural ether.
But the question as posed to me was about musicianship, and an assessment of the two stars relative to each other. Thinking about the comparison was interesting especially because the two musicians were less than three months apart in age -- and both were less than a year old when I was born. Their careers, therefore, were at their peak when I was in college and into my twenties, precisely the years when music had the biggest impact on my life.
Who was better? The answer in my mind was easy. Despite Jackson's advantage in
record sales and his impact on popular culture (moon-walking and all that), I have always strongly
preferred Prince. Not even close. This is not to argue that there is a way to assess these things objectively, of course. But even while Jackson was in his most productive years, his biggest hits left me cold. I might simply be quirky. After all, I also was completely unaware that Madonna (who is two weeks older than Michael Jackson) had become a megastar until I found out that she was headlining Live Aid in 1985. When the 2004 movie "13 Going on 30" included a key scene in which everyone in the room could replicate Jackson's dance in the "Thriller" video move for move, my response was, "Huh?"
In part, this is simply a matter of how much one likes pop music in its pure pop form, as opposed to being a rock-and-roller. Jackson's hits with his brothers in the 1960's are classics, but they come close to being bubble-gum music, and even his most memorable hits in his early adulthood were firmly rooted in the safe zone for commercial music. That makes for a lot of record sales, but for someone like me who likes a bit of experimentation and edge, there was not much to be excited about.
Prince, by contrast, was not just an experimenter extraordinaire, but he was a musician's musician. One of the many recent tributes to Prince in The New York Times describes the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, in which Prince was invited to join an all-star band performing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," in tribute to posthumous inductee George Harrison. Watch the video. Watch it again. It is astonishing. The virtuoso guitar work mixes with understated showmanship ("understated" not being a word that I would expect to write in a description of Prince) to electrify not only the audience but his fellow rock stars. The Times article, moreover, makes it clear that Prince was a student of music, and despite his ego, he was generous in his appreciation of others' work. (He was also generous in writing songs for other artists to record, e.g., "I Feel for You" for Chaka Khan and "Manic Monday" for the Bangles.) [Correction: I am now informed that Prince wrote and recorded "I Feel For You" for his 1979 self-titled album and that Chaka Khan covered it in 1984.]
Of course, Prince's virtuosity seemed to make him quickly lose interest in musical styles, probably because he could master everything so quickly. His career was marked by experimentation, and experiments often fail. Going back and listening to even his most popular albums can be infuriating, because he could be over-indulgent in letting songs go on too long and in including songs that were a bit too ... something. "Lady Cab Driver," "All the Critics Luv U in New York," and so on were good in their ways, but I still find myself tolerating them rather than looking forward to them -- and, now that everything is digital, skipping over them with the touch of a button, which we could not do in the 1980's.
But the good stuff? "D.M.S.R.," "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," "It," "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man," "Controversy," and on and on. These were admittedly pop-ish songs, but they were interesting and daring in various ways. And although "Purple Rain" rightly dominates the album of the same name, songs like "Take Me With You" were subtly beautiful and romantic. (Again, subtlety is not a word that people readily identify with Prince, who also wrote "Jack U Off" and "Sugar Walls.")
As I was trying to explain to younger people why Prince was such a huge star, I noted his multimedia appeal. What I found most difficult to fathom, much less describe to a new generation, was that the smash hit movie "Purple Rain" somehow combined terrible acting (including by Prince, but especially by his costars) with a ridiculously banal story, yet somehow it was a memorable and enjoyable movie. In part, this was simply because it was largely a performance movie, and Prince was a consummate performer. But it was also a deeply personal movie, and its clearly autobiographical aspects displayed a young genius dealing with his own demons.
What I appreciate most about Prince, however, was that he was trying to get people to loosen up. Sure, that pissed off prudes like Tipper Gore, but this was a person who was trying to get people to broaden their minds. "I won't hurt you, I only want you to have some fun" was not just a line at a beginning of "1999," it was his ethos. Suggesting that people "wear lingerie to a restaurant" was actually a more political statement than "Ronnie Talk to Russia," and "if you like to fight, you're a double-drag fool" was not only wonderfully Orwellian in its diction but brilliantly pacifist in its sentiments.
In the end, what I like most about Prince's career is that it demonstrates how important it is that there are people who are simply artists. Yes, he made a lot of money because he was a great artist with a sense of how to market himself, but his was a life dedicated simply to encouraging people to enjoy their lives. Even though his is now over, he is still making it easier for me to enjoy mine.