Biggest Stars Today Owe Prince, and Not Just for His Music

The shock death of the American musician on Thursday has robbed the world of a unique, risk-taking talent.

Prince performs a benefit concert for the family of Charles (Big Chick) Huntsberry in Minneapolis, 1990.
David Brewster / AP

Prince was one of the most brilliant and influential pop artists of the past four decades. The uninhibited pop star, who died suddenly at his Minneapolis home last Thursday at 57, was a singer, musician, dancer, writer-producer par excellence and virtuoso performer.

In black music, Prince was second only to Michael Jackson. He couldn’t compete with the latter’s commercial success, but the string of great albums Prince released from the late 1970s until the mid-’90s enriched the music world with a collection of unforgettable songs and influenced dozens of other artists, black and white.

The radio stations selecting from his back catalogue over the weekend could play his perfect hits for hours without repeating the same song twice.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis in June 1958. He released his first album, “For You,” at 19. His next three solo records, one a year, sold relatively well and were critically acclaimed. Disco was fading and Prince, who owed a lot to black funk but also winked toward rock, was seen as a worthy alternative.

Pop at that time was under the ever-lengthening shadow of Jackson (between his two biggest albums, “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”), but Prince insisted on taking a different path. While Jackson was careful with his messages and avoided too-graphic sexual imagery, Prince had no such qualms. Sex was his main subject – from his provocative album covers to his lyrics. His third album, in 1980, was called “Dirty Mind.” Music critic Robert Christgau paid the album and artist an unusual compliment by recommending that Mick Jagger “fold up his penis and go home.”

But Prince’s big breakthrough was a few years later, with a pair of fine albums: 1982’s double album “1999” and 1984’s “Purple Rain,” which was the soundtrack for a successful (albeit quite banal) film musical. He now had the perfect combination – a mixture of influences from Little Richard and James Brown to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, and, as always, Jackson. When “Purple Rain” came out, Jackson was still riding the wave of “Thriller” and went on tour with family band The Jackson 5. But America was already in love with two other artists – Prince and Bruce Springsteen.

Prince was the first black artist since Hendrix who was equally accepted by white rock fans, many of whom saw Jackson as too “soft.” Even the high, extremely thin voice that Prince adopted on his ballads failed to deter them. Part of this was due to Prince’s brilliance as a guitarist. He was no Hendrix, but he wasn’t far away. And although he had a great backing band, The Revolution, really he was a one-man band – he sang; played a variety of instruments in a variety of styles; wrote great songs; and produced. And yes, like Brown and Jackson, he was an excellent dancer. A very rare combination in a single artist.

The series of female singers and bands Prince took under his wing and sent rocketing to success became known as “the Minneapolis sound.” It’s a sound that traversed the color barrier – which was still extremely high in the United States of the mid-1980s – and was enthusiastically embraced by radio stations seeking an audience of white rock fans. (The enthusiasm spread, also a rare thing, to radio stations in Israel: Army Radio played Prince regularly at that time – a tiny enclave of color and energy amid the bland British artists of the time.)

Provocative lyrics

It did Prince’s popularity no harm, of course, that his lyrics continued to be provocative. Tipper Gore, wife of the Democratic senator (and later vice president) Al Gore, organized a group of concerned mothers in 1985 with the intention of censuring pornographic messages in music, after hearing her 11-year-old daughter listening to Prince’s explicit song “Darling Nikki.”

The Parents Music Resource Center launched a resounding crusade against the broadcast of sexually explicit material, but Prince showed no sign of mending his ways, even for a moment. His output at the time, year after year, was simply astounding. Almost everyone who grew up in the Western world in the 1980s and ’90s remembers those songs – “Purple Rain,” “1999,” “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Sometimes It Snows in April” and, of course, “Sign o’ the Times,” the title song from another double album (in 1987), which captured the spirit of the times.

The legendary artist’s golden age continued until the mid-90s, deep into the dominant days of rap – a genre Prince treated with deep suspicion, even though numerous hip-hop artists cited him as a key influence.

His career began to lag due to an ongoing business dispute with his then-label Warner Bros., whom Prince accused of denying his rights and even described himself as a “slave.” He changed his name to a graphic symbol for a time and then to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” He declared recording strikes and alternately flooded the market with albums. Sometimes he released two to three records a year, including triple albums, more than most of his fans could handle.

Even when he finally freed himself from his restrictive contract, Prince found it difficult to recover. His musical career turned into a roller coaster of ups and downs, although occasionally he recorded a song that raised hopes among fans of a comeback. His live performances, some of which were held with almost no prior warning, were unusual experiences – long concerts in which he performed songs drawn randomly from his huge repertoire.

His final years were quite good. He resumed recording and the critics recognized his energy and originality, even if the releases didn’t compare to the high standards he had set 30 years earlier.

The biggest stars of the last decade, first and foremost Kanye West, owe him a great deal. He provided them not only with direct artistic inspiration, but also a template to shape their public image.

Like David Bowie, another iconic musician who died recently, the news of Prince’s death came as a big shock – certainly for many who were still hoping to see the musical wonder perform live. When his death (for reasons yet unknown) was announced, I thought of Spike Lee’s 1996 film “Girl 6,” for which Prince wrote the soundtrack. It was the beginning of his “lost period,” when he was embroiled with the struggle against his label bosses. Yet the movie’s climactic scene, in which a flood of public telephone booths fall from the sky as Prince sings in the background, is as good, to these eyes, as any of his excellent albums.