Prince was good at surprises, and if his death in a domestic elevator in Paisley Park was banal (was he going up, or down?), he fell on a slow news day and garnered all the attention his singular reign deserves.
He provided, as they say, the soundtrack (or maybe the dance tracks) to the lives of me and my friends — if you didn’t like his music, it would have been hard to be friends; it wasn’t “about” the music, it was that he exemplified a particular attitude to being in and dealing with the world. It was his sheer erotic engagement with life — you knew he loved what he was doing and that was wholly infectious. It was a kind of philosophy, a generation after Dylan and the Beatles, it was hippie love – “If it feels good, do it” – repurposed: “Let’s Go Crazy“.
Coming up on the tails of the Brit New Romantics, Prince was a Funk Romantic, with his deployment of lurid colours, exaggerated silhouettes in shoulder shapes, hair and frills, and his necessarily high heels.
He crystallised the idea of pop auteur: writing, playing everything, producing, performing. His music had all the beats and grooves, and squalling guitars; but it’s worth recalling that the Dionysian funk that ensued was a result of an Appollonian discipline. You don’t get to MAKE all that music without being dedicated to the craft. (The film biopic of Brian Wilson, Love and Mercy, has a wonderful sequence of the obsessive attention making music requries.)
I remember talking to a hippie-throwback acquaintance who said about the Purple Rain album: ‘Yeah, Prince has got some moves, but he’s like not real? He’s no Jimi Hendrix.’ It’s hard to recall when Prince was a usurper, since he became a touchstone. He passed his hits around. Sinead O’Connor, of course, but also one of my favourites, a song of empowerment, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” I had no idea then that Janet Jackson was singing Prince. [I have been corrected: Prince covered this song by Janet Jackson, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. *sigh*]
The NYT has republished a smart piece from 2007 by Jon Pareles: ‘His career is heading into its fourth decade, and he could have long since become a nostalgia act. Instead [Prince] figured out early how to do what he wants in a 21st-century music business, and clearly what he wants is to make more music.’ And that’s the business and existential question for any artist, how do you keep doing the thing you love, but also not become your own shadow, your own cover band? Prince figured it out, he still led the way.
For my generation, Prince was King. We’ll be partying to Prince all weekend, like it’s still 1999.