No matter what he asked us to call him, Prince was an artistic force for the ages.
Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, aka the Symbol, aka the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, aka the Artist, is gone at the age of 57.
From his prolific and beautiful songwriting to his studio genius to his onstage brilliance to his work with other artists to his mentorships to his influence on style and fashion, Prince was one of the great artists of the last 50 years.
He is the latest iconic figure from the popular culture to pass away in 2016. We’re just 30 percent of the way into the year, and this is already shaping up to be a tragically overcrowded In Memoriam year. In the 25-plus years I’ve been covering pop culture, I can’t recall a similar three- or four-month stretch during which so many big names passed.
A partial list:
David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Maurice White. Alan Rickman. Merle Haggard. Doris Roberts. Chyna. George Kennedy. Patty Duke. Garry Shandling. Frank Sinatra Jr. Keith Emerson. Sir George Martin. Nancy Reagan. Harper Lee. Paul Kantner. Abe Vigoda.
Yes, yes — some of these famous names had lived very long lives, and it was hardly a shock when we heard of their passing.
But Garry Shandling was just 66. Glenn Frey, just 67. Alan Rickman, 69.
And Prince, who played “The Kid” in the blazing and original “Purple Rain” (Has it really been THIRTY-TWO YEARS since its release?) was just 57, and what with his diminutive size and his signature energy and a voice that didn’t change all that much over the years, he always seemed young.
When we think of Prince’s music, we think of hits such as “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” — but let’s not forget the myriad hits written or co-written by Prince that became signature tunes for other artists, including:
• “Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinead O’Connor
• “Manic Monday” – The Bangles
• “Jungle Love” – The Time
• “I Feel For You” – Chaka Khan
• “Pray” – MC Hammer
• “The Glamorous Life” – Sheila E.
• “Love Song” – Madonna
Not to mention the covers, e.g., “Kiss” by Tom Jones.
Only a handful of music figures from the modern era have left such a lasting footprint.
• • •
Onscreen, whether he was electrifying an awards-show audience or performing in a music video in an era when music videos really mattered — or starring in the “Purple Rain” movie — Prince had undeniable presence.
He was not a great actor, but he had a visually arresting, unique on-camera persona. Even when playing essentially a version of himself in “Purple Rain,” Prince hadn’t mastered the art of appearing completely comfortable and entirely natural on camera — but he had some touching and sweet (and R-rated) moments with Apollonia and a powerful scene with Clarence Williams III as his abusive fathe, and he was a confident enough performer to play straight man to Morris Day’s hilarious antics — and to no one’s surprise, he absolutely slayed it in the performance sequences.
Roger Ebert said of the film, “It’s one of the best combinations I’ve seen of rock music and dramatic information,” and he placed it at No. 10 on his list of the best films of 1984. (Gene Siskel had it at No. 5.)
Subsequent forays into film didn’t fare nearly as well. The Prince-directed 1986 film “Under the Cherry Moon” (with Kristin Scott Thomas in her feature debut) was an ambitious miss. Prince also wrote, directed and starred in the sequel, “Graffiti Bridge” (1990), to disastrous results. It was a critical and commercial bomb.
In between those two duds, the off-camera Prince had spectacular success with the soundtrack of the 1989 “Batman” film, including the goofy but ridiculously infectious “Batdance” single.
Prince also wrote and recorded “Song of the Heart” for “Happy Feet” (2006), and his compositions were heard on dozens of movies and TV shows, from “Pretty Woman” to “Girl 6,” from “Glee” to “The Simpsons.”
For Bears fans, after the initial thrill of Devin Hester’s opening kickoff touchdown return, the 2007 Super Bowl is best forgotten. For fans of the Super Bowl halftime show, and of 12 minutes of electricity caught in the rain, Prince’s performance in Miami that evening is platinum standard for sports event musical performances.
At times Prince made it difficult to embrace him. He took himself so seriously it was as if he was inviting the media to mock him. (Even some of his biggest fans sometimes found him infuriating. For years Howard Stern has been talking about how he was at a private concert featuring Prince — who insisted on turning the lights off and performing in utter darkness for the entirety of the show.)
For someone who was world-famous for more than half his life, who had such a love-hate relationship with the spotlight, who craved attention but would then disappear into himself, Prince never really let us get too close.
In the social media age, we feel as if we’re buddies with the celebrities who are ubiquitous on Twitter, Snapchat, et al. Prince fiddled around with social media for a bit in 2013 — but a year later, he deleted his personal Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Soundcloud pages. He would subsequently return to social media, but with his guard up, and as was the case with his dealings with the traditional media, there was always a veil of privacy surrounding him.
Prince never talked about the setbacks and tragedies in his life, such as the death of his one-week-old son in 1996, his divorce, or the loss of his parents. He wasn’t one for tell-all books or one-hour, tissue-soaked interviews.
Perhaps the most intimate interview Prince ever did was with Oprah in 1996, but even then he shied away from directly answering her most personal questions. When Oprah told him, “People think you’re weird,” he said, “Yeah,” and told her what he wanted people to know about him was “the music.”
Music that will live on for generations.