Like Michael Jackson before him, the public outpouring of emotion this week at musician Prince’s passing has provoked discontinuous reactions. People too young to have experienced him the first time are posting Facebook and Twitter images of his peak in the late 1980s, when his innovative fusion sound dominated multiple charts. But they aren’t celebrating him as he was when he died. They’re celebrating the Platonic Ideal of Prince.
Hardly a wonder, either: though he briefly creased the Top Twenty with 1997’s “The Holy River,” he hasn’t produced an out-and-out chart hit in a quarter century. Unlike David Bowie, who persevered through a decade-long illness to produce two of his best albums, Prince largely avoided the limelight, even forcibly removing videos from YouTube. Recent footage reveals he remained a consummate musician, but his best work was long behind him.
Yet people respect his accomplishments, because they are undeniably accomplishments. His CV reads like inevitable hero-worship, even from lukewarm audiences: an unusually wide vocal range, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, comfortable with both the technocratic studio environment and the human-dominated stage. Like Bowie, he had no difficulty mixing his flamboyant, sexually omnivorous public persona with his lifelong spiritual quest. As a musician and celebrity, he had something to offer everyone.
But for me, his songwriting looms largest, primarily because of its disdain for limits. In a music business heavily chopped by categories, Prince’s a sound combined multimodal guitar playing, Dylan-esque lyrical complexity, a prominent dance backbeat, and the best mix of rock and funk ensemble playing. Like Sly Stone, his band was integrated. And like Hendrix or Jackie Wilson, he drew large white and black audiences despite music’s historically segregated demographic.
Like those prior artists, Prince showed no restrictions in his embrace of musical influence. He played American, European, and International chord progressions with equal ease. If some technique from country music, show tunes, or advertising jingles piqued his fancy, he incorporated it. But he never felt like someone merely imitating somebody else; his skillful integration of influences made every artistic appropriation feel wholly, inevitably, like Prince.
This inclusiveness seems obvious now. We applaud politely whenever, say, Selena Gomez uses a tabla and sitar to supplant a traditional Western rhythm section on some overproduced single, calling her “eclectic” and “international.” A duet between country ensemble Florida Georgia Line and hip-hop eminence Nelly produces a crossover hit that unites audiences who often cannot stand one another. Cross-genre fertilization happens so often, we forget how revolutionary it once was.
Worse, we accept this efflorescence only in approved ways. Nelly and FGL managed to produce a chart hit by combining America’s two top-selling genres; neither ventured into truly uncharted territory. Top-40 radio has become so risk-averse that tracks cross over from the indie, dance, and “Heatseekers” charts over a year after release, because corporate program directors won’t gamble on anything that isn’t thoroughly test-marketed in advance.
And the business is deeply technocratic in ways invisible to consumers. As Charles Duhigg reports in his book The Power of Habit, the music industry is dominated by focus groups, analytic software, and substitutes for individual initiative. Even Pandora, the most common way people who dislike radio discover new hits, doesn’t really introduce new artistry: Pandora’s algorithm is so strict, fans discover new artists but not new sounds.
Thus it’s easy to overlook the influence Prince had on the music-listening audience. We could forget the impact he had on a suburban white boy whose parents kept him proactively sheltered from the modern world. Imagine that boy, riding a schoolbus with the radio tuned every day to the Top-40 station, the most studiously inoffensive music available to listeners. Why, to that boy, everyday radio must’ve sounded positively abject.
Now imagine that boy, in 1987, a year dominated by slick, bland, over-loud artists like Starship or Whitesnake. A year when black and white students sat on opposite sides of the schoolbus, not because laws required it, but because they just did. A year when raucous beats, unsupported by lyrics or melody, encouraged boorish behavior among largely unsupervised schoolkids. Suddenly, through all that crap, he hears “Sign ’o’ the Times.”
Prince gave me hope that popular music didn’t have to be a tool of exclusion. He let me believe that one song could reach across racial, economic, and social lines, to make everybody sing along. Because Prince wasn’t ruled by categories, I realized, I didn’t have to be, either. That sounds easy to say now. But Prince proved we could live it, too.