The definition of entertainer is “to hold the attention of a person or persons, with something amusing or diverting”. Even though that’s a bit stark and cold, it does a well enough job describing how we feel about some of our favorite artists. We sing along to their songs, hang posters, quote lyrics, and enjoy seeing them on a screen or on stage. But above mere entertainers, are icons. An icon goes beyond the conventional aspect of entertaining. These individuals shatter perceptions and stereotypes, break down and rebuild opinions, and more importantly, tell us something about ourselves, bringing up questions we didn’t even think to ask. Prince is one of those icons.
It would be easy to sit here and discuss why hundreds of songs in Prince’s repertoire mean so much to us.
“Let’s Go Crazy,” “Kiss,” and “Little Red Corvette” among so many others, are still a staple of anywhere secular music can be heard. I grew up hearing those songs like many people my age, and despite his later output not finding it’s way on mainstream radio, he’s still relevant. Whether they are aware of it or not, the current generation of listeners are hearing Prince’s influence in just about every popular song on the charts right now, be it samples, references, recording techniques, or even marketing and promotion. While he wasn’t the first artist to bring sensuality to mainstream music, he brought it in a big way. In fact, mainstream’s sexual liberation can in someways be credited to the progressive model Prince perfected years before most of the current breed of pop stars were even born.
It goes deeper than just enjoying one of his simple pop songs though. There’s always been something about his art people connect with. Most of his songs (or at least the popular ones) deal with lust and desire in a timeless, carnal fashion that can be understood by the most naive listener or the most experienced man or woman of the world. As a songwriter, he knew how to hit all the right emotional notes to keep the listener invested in any given story without pandering. Even if the narrative is mundane like the teenage romance of “Raspberry Beret” or the possible exhortation to follow Christian ethics in “Let’s Go Crazy.” He used the common realities of existence and manipulated them into something joyous and interesting. Conventional or vague, it’s not hard to identify with the narratives in his music.
There’s three main aspects of creating pop music. The beat is the ingredient that makes our bodies want to move regardless of what the lyrics (if any) are saying. The heart convinces the listener to feel something by way of words or instrumentation. Then finally, the brain; the component that encourages the listener think. Throughout music history many artists have excelled in one or two of these aspects but only a handful have managed to master of all three at the same time. Prince somehow managed this and on quite a few occasions, displayed these factors in one song! Look at “When Doves Cry” for an example. There’s no bass in the groove! The lack of bass lets the cold beat put the emphasis on the lyrics. The lyrics tell a story of the narrator’s musings on life, which makes the listener ask themselves the question ‘why are we the way we are?’. The beat, the heart and the brain all working in unison creates soul. The Beatles and David Bowie are prime examples of artists who achieved this a number of times throughout their respective careers, which puts Prince among very exclusive company.
Speaking of recording techniques, dropping the bass out of a groove, wasn’t the only production trick under Prince’s sleeve, he used plenty of unorthodox engineering throughout his career that were other-worldly at the time, but common practice today. He was one of the first artists to successfully manipulate pitch by tape speed to sing in ranges he wasn’t humanly capable of, as well as integrate synthetic drum machines with tracks of live percussion, creating a strange hybrid of robotic sheen and imperfect live performance. That could very well be used as a metaphor for the style of music he delivered throughout his four decade career. Technical, smart, and soulful.
Most intriguing, was the questions his songs made us ask ourselves. Can we devote ourselves to a spiritual belief at the same giving in to our carnal desires? Are we bad people if we act on those same desires? Are we naive to believe in God? Are we worth questioning ourselves if we don’t? These are questions, among others, all of us have asked ourselves at some point or another in our lives whether we admit to it or not. Prince knew how to craft an art form that spoke of those fears, desires, and insecurities in a way that was still extremely fun to listen to. Instead of claiming to know the answers and preaching his opinion as gospel, he encouraged the listener to look within themselves and find the answer they may have already known.
Prince’s influence is felt across genres and trends. He’s among the exclusive company of artists who have not only shaped the way we listen to music in general, but maybe even the way we feel about our own psyche. He used the beat, the heart, and the brain as instruments to speak to something that’s already deep within all of us. The anxiety of insecurity. The temptation of desire. The longing for something more than just carnal feelings. There’s a constant battle between flesh and spirit, and it’s something some artists are too afraid to tackle. Prince faced that battle head-on with poise and confidence, confirming his status among the greatest artists of all time. More than an entertainer or innovator, Prince was and always will be an icon.