Distilling the essence of Prince Rogers Nelson into a few hundred easily digested words is foolhardy, not to mention impossible. To encapsulate Prince-ness would be to describe a universe. Not only is there a vastness to the idea of Prince, there is paradox and contradiction.
If genuine understanding is sought, Prince can only be experienced, not described. And it’s the particularly intimate, personally subjective and wildly diverse nature of the Prince experience that sets him apart as arguably the fountainhead of modern pop.
Who was Prince?
There’s a sense of all and nothing to Prince – he was so many things, in so many ways, that the notion of an “authentic” Prince has little meaning. Famously private in terms of his personal life, the inversely proportionate gregariousness of his pop-icon persona does little more to reveal the “real” Prince.
His domination of every aspect of commercial music production at the dawn of the modern (post-rock) pop era ultimately results in an absence of core – a lack of easily definable Prince-ness.
A peculiar blend of universalism and elusiveness is characteristic on every level: sonic, visual, and in terms of performed identity.
His musical omnivorousness is obvious – blending rock-based guitar with post-disco synthesiser in a funk-derived new-wave pop sensibility. This unique stylistic character, simultaneously organic yet resistant to categorisation, was made possible by Prince’s extensive artistic control.
He could do it all – composer, lyricist, producer, sound engineer, mixer, performer, and eventually, distributor (almost). Prince was not only one of the great guitarists of the last 50 years, but also a multi-instrumentalist who famously performed all 27 instruments on the 1978 album For You. His output of 39 studio albums in less than 40 years is astonishing.
At the heart of his sound, probably, was his voice. Prince’s vocal style was highly affected and stylistically varied. Ranging from ballad crooning (Purple Rain), gruff hip-hop (Get Off), to entire songs in delicate falsetto (Kiss) – his voice could do anything and everything, and in doing so never presented a single version of itself.
Sexuality, a central motivator of pop energy, represents another layer of Prince’s all-encompassing yet un-fixed vision.
A certain anxiety probably underpinned the sexual ambiguity he exuded. Perhaps in response to difficulties in his own childhood, plus a reaction against the somewhat brutish masculinity of James Brown, his musical forefather, Prince famously subverted sexual norms throughout his career.
Prince’s performance of masculinity was unique, his androgyny avoided effeminacy, and his frank sexuality celebrated male sexual virtuosity without descending into misogyny.
In recent decades, Prince receded from the heights of public visibility that defined his 1980s and 1990s. Despite working harder than ever, touring and recording both, his steadfast refusal to bow to streaming probably accounts for that decline. The extent to which future generations derive pleasure from Prince’s music may rest on whether that situation changes.
Prince’s music can be especially hard to “get in to” retrospectively. The mercurial nature of both the music and the man can be mistaken for slippery superficiality.
If you were a teenager between 1978 and 1988 it was slightly easier – Prince’s thrillingly subjective and intimate way of communicating was coded especially for ears at awkward stages of life. Along with David Bowie, Prince made it cool to be different or weird.
And yet underneath the visual imagery, lavish outfits, sonic whackiness, ironic sexuality, and the constant wriggling away from fixity, there is a Prince signature – a constancy to his aura.
It’s the seductively evocative message that animates all of his variegated output. Perhaps more than any pop musician before him, Prince was able to speak directly to people’s most personal experience. May Prince’s art continue to make a space for people to feel free and alive.
[ Piano Performance Fellow, The University of Queensland ]