Unless you are much older or much younger than I am or have been living under a rock for the last 30 years, you should remember the few years when Prince Rogers Nelson, usually referred to just as Prince, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. For people like me who were in the radio broadcasting industry at the time, he became known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”
I never really thought about it before his sudden death last week at the age of 57, but I could have easily shortened it to simply “The Artist.” I’ll bet folks would have still known who I was talking about.
Prince’s music has been a part of my life at least since I became a disc jockey at the tender age of 15 on the island of Saipan in the the Northern Mariana Islands. His songs were very much a part of my rotation of pop hits on WSZE-AM.
What was a 15-year-old white Jewish kid doing playing Prince on an island made up of Catholic non-white Pacific residents? Why, playing the hits, of course. That’s the flip answer. The real answer is, Prince’s music spoke to me and my classmates, whether profane, sexual, both or neither. After all, the mid-teenage years are the height of discovery, experimentation and, believe it or not, introspection.
I was a pretty square kid growing up. A nerd or geek, depending on the decade or location. Listening to and broadcasting Prince’s music was a way to rebel, even if I was rebelling at myself.
By the time I started working on WSZE in December 1980, Prince had already released three albums: For You, Prince and Dirty Mind. While these first albums produced some hits primarily on the R&B charts, it wouldn’t be until the following year when Prince released Controversy for folks to really start paying attention. While the title track only made it to No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it went to No. 3 on the R&B side. The album itself peaked at No. 21.
Then came 1999. And Purple Rain. And Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy and, perhaps, my second favorite after Purple Rain, the soundtrack of pop songs from Michael Keaton’s Batman. And on and on through albums recorded on his own and with his bands, The Revolution, New Power Generation and, most recently, 3rd Eye Girl.
As a writer for Rolling Stone pointed out recently, not every album succeeded as a total package, but there was at least one song from each album which surprised and/or delighted in some way.
But I’m not here to run down Prince’s discography. This is about The Artist as inspiration, as a way to unlock my own creativity and sense of self.
Prince was nobody’s person but his own. He refused to be enslaved by a predatory music industry nor by labels foisted on him by the national media and critics.
In the latter third of his career, it became more and more difficult for guys like me on a relatively low income to grab all the music I used to when I was younger. He dismissed the internet, but then used it to sell his music exclusively from his own website. His catalog is unavailable on Spotify, my streaming service of choice. I think the last physical copy of a Prince CD I own (one of my sisters is holding on to my collection at the moment) is 2001’s The Rainbow Children, a wonderfully jazz-tinged album. It was the first he recorded after becoming a Jehova’s Witness and, in the words of one write-up, focused on both spirituality and human sexuality. I just knew I liked it.
While his business choices have frustrated me, I completely understand them. All artists, whether painters, musicians or writers, want to maintain control over their creations. Even if they set them free, so to speak, it should be their choice, not some bean counter’s in Nashville or Hollywood.
So, for me, The Artist Formerly and Again Known as Prince, was the embodiment of freedom of expression. His music and his life lit the way to personal independence. It was also filled with some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard. And for that, I will always remember him.