This blog has never made a secret of its furtive love for the Purple One. He was one of the few cultural figures that we rushed an immediate retrospective about—the Beastie Boys being another, upon the death of MCA in 2012. For the Gen Xers and millennials who make up most of the writing team at Tropics of Meta, these artists meant enough to us in our formative years to merit instant assessment and reflection.
Prince was also one of those unusual—and increasingly rare—characters in popular culture who boasted such universal appeal, across races, classes, and genders, that their death left a blast crater in the public consciousness, noticeable to those who hadn’t even heard the news. I remember sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Queens in 2009, noshing on yakitori when a series of songs—“Billie Jean,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel”—came on in rapid succession. In a time before (for us at least) smart phones, we had no real way of knowing what was happening or what prompted this sudden outburst of Jacksonia, but I remember my friend George saying after a while: “Did this motherfucker die?” You could know it without even knowing it, so vast was the artist’s impact on the culture. For the most part, we don’t make pop stars like that anymore.
Rave Against the Machine
Yet we find Prince to be of interest for another reason, too: what his career means for the twin evolution of music and media technology. The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince started out as a fairly straightforward R&B singer in the late 1970s, but rapidly developed a unique persona as an eccentric pop star who transcended lines between “white” and “black” music. He played solo and assembled various bands, made movies, and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, but through the 1980s and into the 1990s he was still a product of the major-label system and MTV—two structures that still technically exist, but are almost unrecognizable in a post-Napster, post-Road Rules culture where music is available everywhere but MTV or the late Tower Records.
Prince, as always, was a stubborn iconoclast. He clashed with his record label, which did not want to swamp the market with the protean output that Prince wanted to share with his fans; the artist wrote “Slave” on his face to protest the terms of his record contract, and eventually broke free to put out three- and five-disc (!!) albums, Emancipation (1996) and Crystal Ball (1998).
Later, he resolutely refused to let his music be available through most digital platforms, including iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify. The result was that no one knew where to turn to wallow in his music upon his death, because almost no recordings could be streamed in the online media that most of us have grown accustomed to in the early twenty-first century.
So there is the paradox of Prince: like fellow erstwhile genius Robert Pollard, he possessed a prodigious creativity that could not be remotely contained by the old structures of the music industry. Putting out multiple albums a year made no sense in a world defined by hyping up a few hit singles, maximizing MTV and radio play, and fighting for scarce shelf space in the CD racks at Target. Like Ani DiFranco, Tsunami, or any number of other indie mavericks, he had to go outside the system in the 1990s to set up his own parallel production and distribution structure, creating NPG (New Power Generation) Records and trying to reach his fans directly through mail-order sales.
In this way, you would think Prince would be right at home in the brave new world of DIY online distribution—of BandCamp, SoundCloud, YouTube, and Patreon. But it didn’t quite work that way. He did predate Radiohead’s daring strategy of releasing an album for free when his Planet Earth was included as a giveaway in the UK’s The Mail newspaper in July 2007, seemingly pointing the way to a new approach to music distribution. But the Purple One mostly stuck to old-school methods; he made a bit of a comeback commercially in the 2000s, releasing successful albums such as Musicology (2004) that more or less worked through the old major-label system. Meanwhile, he blanched at the idea of online distribution as just a new form of exploitation that did not fairly remunerate artists.
Much to the chagrin of fans, his artistry remained mostly tied up in vinyl, magnetic tape, and CD form, even when the rest of the vast catalog of human musical expression was becoming instantly and (more or less) freely available to most people. If you’re dying to hear that Steely Dan bootleg, it’s on YouTube. Prince, not so much.
Prince Meets the Database Aesthetic
Which brings us to today. Prince has shuffled off this mortal coil, and with it go at least some of the reservations that kept Prince off the reservation. Starting February 12th, at least some of his music became available on streaming platforms such as Spotify. (Some had previously been made available on Tidal, but that’s another story…) Ars Technica’s Joe Mullin sardonically observed that Prince’s estate could owe a massive amount to the federal government, and “when you’re facing a $100 million tax bill, it’s time to make a deal.”
We don’t care about the tawdry details. Whatever the motivation, the release of so much music has been a boon to fans. The last week and a half has been a musical orgy—something Prince Rogers “Twenty-three Positions in a One Night Stand” Nelson would surely have appreciated. With an artist this talented and prolific, though, where do you begin?
I don’t know about our other Prince-loving readers, but I immediately turned to Sign o’ the Times (1987) as the go-to album, and Diamonds and Pearls, Parade, and the Love Symbol record to a somewhat lesser extent. To listen to these recordings is to be reminded of the dazzling creativity of an artist whose minor works are more impressive than most people’s major ones—and how very deep and broad his body of work is, as vast as any other twentieth-century polymath like Mingus or Monk.
There are many ways in and out of this catalog: the chintzy synths and sexual provocations of Dirty Mind and Controversy in the early 1980s, the awkward engagement with hip-hop you see in his late 1980s and early 1990s albums, and the not-giving-a-fuck of his last few albums. Sometimes Prince was at his best when he truly did not give a fuck and indulged in whatever R&B, funk, psychedelic, rock, or gospel whim struck him: the 1999 album The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale may have been released primarily to close out Prince’s Warner Brothers record contract. An odds & sods collection of throwaway songs, perhaps, but tracks like “She Spoke 2 Me” and “5 Women” show the artist’s genius at its most casual and freewheeling. The throwaways are hardly throwaways.
Then again, Prince could also be incredibly self-indulgent when left to his own devices: see 2001’s baffling self-release The Rainbow Children.
There are also notable holes in the Spotify catalog, which only includes work released by or through Warner Brothers Records. Even at that, some things are missing: 1995’s The Gold Experience and 1996’s Chaos and Disorder. Neither might be in the highest order of Prince records, but they are both dear to my heart. Indeed, the latter in particular has been viewed as a minor work; Wikipedia notes that “Prince refused to promote the album, still engaged in his fight against his Warner Bros. contract, and the album was released simply to fulfill his contractual obligations.”
For an album of filler, though, it also showed how much Prince’s talent worked against him. “His curt farewell to Warner Bros. is the finest ex-Prince album you’ve never heard,” SPIN magazine enthused in 1997. “If some unknown had released this much rock and soul, bruise guitar and gifted trash talk, fans would rave.” Third-rate Prince is still first-rate almost anyone else, and Chaos and Disorder is worth seeking out, even if the legal machinations of Warner, Spotify, and the Prince estate make it somewhat more difficult to find.
The Legacy Formerly Known as Prince
In short, the Purple One has come to us today as a pretty divided baby: the irascible wunderkind who fought the music business and tried to do it his way, whose work is only being made more widely available to listeners in death because, in a way, his struggle was not just with the industry but with the market and the audience itself. Like Cynthia Hawkins, the opera singer in the classic 1981 film Diva, he insisted that the world meet him on his own terms and engage with his art only in the way he desired. And like Hawkins, he faced technological and commercial forces that were just as insistently demanding that he conform to them, not the other way around.
For those of us who are Prince obsessives and completists, these are indeed the best of times. You can subversively listen to 1980’s “Head” in the office at work, and you can go find the many fantastic bootlegs and other records missing from streaming sites. (There is a Dutch bootleg from 1988 that includes a soulful take on “I’ll Take You There” that bleeds into a blistering “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic.”)
It is sad and poignant, though, that an artist who wanted to share his unmasterable artistry with everyone would likely have been distressed by that very same work being so easily and widely available as it is today. In that sense, Prince remains a truly transitional figure, stuck between two eras in the evolution of the American music industry. Then again, the man’s perplexing complexity and his principled orneriness were always a big part of the appeal.
Alex Sayf Cummings is a senior editor at Tropics of Meta and author of the book Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013), which goes into way too much detail about this stuff. Especially The Black Album.