Prince, the resplendent, bizarre, and extraordinarily talented musician, died this past Thursday of as of yet unconfirmed causes. The cruelest of recent years, 2016 continues to rob us of our most beloved artists and performers. What words are left for us to express our bewilderment and grief when we’ve been forced to use them so many times before in just the past few months? In the past several days, we’ve seen multitudes of eulogies and tributes, and I too feel compelled to write about this devastating loss to popular culture.
As a child in the early 1980’s, when MTV first introduced him to me, Prince seemed to be some type of phantasmagorical oddity. He, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, and Boy George, defined the popular culture of that era. Taken together, that curious coterie of artists reigned over MTV in its early days. His singles permeated the airwaves, and I have vivid memories of listening to them in the car as my parents drove me to and fro in suburban Houston all those years ago. Then came the summer of 1989. Thirteen years old that year, I greatly anticipated Tim Burton’s Batman for which, of course, Prince authored the vibrant and daring soundtrack. My favorite moment of the film remains that electric sequence during which The Joker vandalizes the priceless works of art in the Gotham City museum as Prince’s “Partyman” echoes throughout the building. It was as if the song became its own character in the film.
His music served as the soundtrack to countless moments of my life. Each time I hear the mad genius of “Let’s Go Crazy,” a song released more than thirty years ago, it’s as if I’m experiencing it again for the very first time. In the early 1990’s, as a high school student, I often drove around Houston listening to the anthemic “7” (after spending the entirety of an afternoon searching for its compact disc single at various local record stores). Music fans of all stripes once quested for the mysterious, unreleased Black Album, which for many years existed only as an elusive bootleg. I never found it, although the album ultimately saw its commercial release in late 1994. In December of 1998, and of course, at the end of the following year, Prince’s “1999” was inescapable, despite the fact that the song had been released more than a decade and a half beforehand. In 2004, the cast and crew of Pleadings, the independent film I wrote and produced, joined together to sing “Purple Rain” at a Houston karaoke bar to celebrate the end of principal photography.
Culturally omnipotent, he worked with or otherwise influenced throngs of other musicians, and references to Prince’s work would often crop up in the work of other artists. He wrote “Manic Monday,” which became a hit for The Bangles in 1986. Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” still haunts listeners 26 years later. Known for their catchy 1990 single “Pure,” the members of The Lightning Seeds chose their name after mishearing the lyrics to “Raspberry Beret.” In 1996, a group of Austin bands, including Spoon, contributed tracks to Do Me Baby! Austin Does Prince, a tribute compilation. In 2002’s “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem revealed that he had “been suspenseful with a pencil ever since Prince turned himself into a symbol.” In 2009, The Fruit Bats released “Singing Joy To The World,” a wonderfully melancholy song which tells the story of a love which germinated, in part, due to Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.” His influence abounds, and without a doubt, it will continue to do so.
In early 1978, when Prince released his first album, I was a mere toddler, meaning that until this week the only world I knew was one which included him. Upon hearing the news of his death, my mind leapt again to the sense of loss we communally felt upon the passing of another great, David Bowie. In January, just a week after Bowie’s death, I wrote:
Now we find ourselves a part of a popular culture absent David Bowie, once its ubiquitous fixture. For many, including myself, there was never until this week a cultural landscape that existed without Bowie thriving therein. As Jemaine Clement, a member of New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords musical duo, remarked on behalf of that group, “Both born in the ’70s, we hadn’t witnessed a world without Bowie.” To fans and followers of popular music, Bowie remained omnipresent in both his output and influence, and we always anticipated that he would soon release something intriguing and new.
We are, as one Twitter user recently observed, “losing the unloseable.” Like intrepid concert photographer Ben Stas, I now marvel at “the degree to which the man has been omnipresent in my life since I first took a serious interest in music.”
The same is true of Prince, the cool and cryptic crooner, the guitarist, the producer, the actor, the enigma. Unlike so many makers of music in those halcyon days of the early 1980’s, he endured, becoming one of the artists whose work nearly all of us knew. He continued to experiment with both his art and its delivery to his fans. To toy with his listeners, he once released a 45 minute album featuring nine songs combined into a single track on the compact disc. When fans purchased a ticket to a Prince concert, they would often discover that they had also bought a copy of his latest album as a part of the transaction. However, his notorious hostility to the streaming services made it rather difficult to revisit his oeuvre in our bereavement. As one writer noted, “[i]t was a strange mourning, to be at work and wanting to listen to the songs that we all knew but knowing that they wouldn’t be available to illustrate the shared grief.” Despite his reluctance to embrace the Internet, he remained omnipresent in the culture, prompting the great manifestation of adoration we beheld on that sad, sad day.
Requiescat in pace, Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016).