Prince messed with rock’s formula more than any other artist.
By Kali Holloway / AlterNet
Last year, Prince presented the award for Album of the Year at the Grammys. “Albums still matter,” he said. “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
That moment maybe sums up why Prince Rogers Nelson was so great, and why his death—which despite confirmation still seems unbelievable—is so devastating for so many people. With a few off-the-cuff words, the always unpredictable Prince outshined at least half of the artists who would take the stage that night, even without his guitar. With his guitar, he could pretty much blow them all away.
It’s hard to write about icons, especially those who have wielded so much influence over your life and tastes, whose music is threaded through so many of your cherished and formative memories. Prince was one of the very first musicians I ever loved, and however clumsy it comes out, it feels worth it to try to sum up what he meant to me, and millions of others.
He was weird. And wonderful, and insanely talented and eccentric, and even dangerous. (My parents refused to let me go to one of his concerts as a kid because they heard he stripped onstage, a charge that would turn out to be true.) Prince made music that didn’t sound like anyone else (though he would be endlessly copied), taking Jimi Hendrix and James Brown and his own out-there brilliance and reforming them in washes of guitar and synths that defied categorization. “He’s the only musician that everyone I know loved,” one of my friends texted me, upon hearing the news, “no matter what their usual musical leanings.” That was true for me, too.
On Controversy, Prince sings, “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” That song came out in 1981, before it was remotely cool—or even acceptable, really—in mainstream circles to gender-bend or suggest, coyly, that your sexuality wasn’t quite fixed (and that you didn’t care who was wondering about it). It was radical, at the time, to toy with conventions around sexual identity, masculinity, and more specifically, black masculinity. Prince had coiffed hair and wore high heels (“People say I’m wearing heels because I’m short. I wear heels because the women like ‘em,” he said in an interview), and exuded sex in a way that made people uncomfortable. To this day, his pairing of Christianity and a sort of hedonistic sexuality feels oddly pure.
There are few musicians who have been as consistently inventive and willing to fuck with the formula of rock in the way Prince did and yet create music that resonates with so many. A stubborn perfectionist, Prince wrote, composed, arranged and played most of the instruments on nearly every track he recorded. His talent was astounding, and every person I know who’s ever been in a band has namechecked him. A handful of artists in music are or were as fearless or daring, as genius or visionary in their output.
Honestly, 2016 has pretty much sucked for losing icons. David Bowie’s death was gutting; the sudden loss of Prince feels unreal. I got to see him play a few years ago, and it was one of the most thrilling, incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, before or since. It seems cheesy to write that his songs, the ones that feel as timeless and brilliant as when he wrote them, will live on, but they will. In moments like these, cliches serve their intended purpose. The insane beauty of Prince’s art is what we are left with.
I invite folks to discuss their thoughts on Prince in the comments. I’m sure we all have lots to share. Even NASA offered an ode:
— NASA (@NASA) April 21, 2016
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.