How does one describe the artist Prince?
Hm. Well, it certainly must be said that Prince was a musical genius.
Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin were too. So, was Prince like them?
Well, sort of. In some ways, yes. But, well, actually, not exactly.
Perhaps the best phrase to characterize the genius of Prince is a "recording artist."
Some people are great singers, like Adele, or Placido Domingo. Some are great instrumentalists, like Yo-Yo Ma, or Les Paul. Some are great songwriters, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The art of Prince, however, culminates in the recording.
This was his special gift, his forte, and his ultimate form of brilliance. It is not just the singing, or the playing, or the lyrics. It is the whole thing put together, the final product with everything combined, where Prince's greatest talents reach their climax to provide a mind-blowing experience.
Each song recording is its own special sound extravaganza. Some are loud and raucous with wild energy, some are funky or soulful, some are soft and smooth. But all of them were designed and engineered with meticulous precision to deliver to the listener a profound encounter with sound.
The various methods and techniques Prince employed to achieve his wondrous effects are a testament to his seemingly infinite imagination. Sometimes it was unusual synthesizer or guitar sounds, sometimes amazing rhythms, sometimes it was incredible beats or precision timing, and sometimes it was the innovative use of vocals that functioned as instruments themselves. The dazzling inventiveness and originality that sprang from this artist's fertile imagination are truly astonishing.
Admittedly, getting into Prince can be a bit difficult. Some of his work is challenging in that the structure and essence of various songs are not easily revealed, but instead they reside somewhat concealed beneath the surface. This, however, gives the work greater depth and ultimately makes it more rewarding. It is very much like classical music in this respect.
A good way to get into Prince (and classical music) is to buy a CD and quickly pick-out the one or two tracks that you instantly like. Enjoy these favorites by playing them over and over again until they become familiar. Then, let the rest of the CD play in the background. Even though you don't particularly like the other tracks, you can endure them in the background and enjoy your couple of favorites when they come-up again. Over time, you will unwittingly become more familiar with the works that you did not initially like, the barriers will begin to erode, these pieces will reveal their inner essence to you, and you may discover some real gems. It's sort of like one of those posters that feature a visual illusion. Initially, the poster appears as just a random pattern, like a bunch of meaningless dots, but after staring at it for a while, suddenly a magnificent three-dimensional object magically appears! Prince's music comes alive like this as well.
So what's up with this guy singing in such a high voice? After all, that's not very manly. Why would he do such a thing?
Because it's beautiful. It creates a beautiful sound as if it were coming from a mellifluous instrument. In fact, Prince's body of work is like a wonderful collection of people, both men and women, young and old, who produced beautiful sounds with their voices, from back-up vocals to featured performers.
Now what about Prince's proclivity for singing about both sex and God? For many, this seems contradictory and offensive, and it indeed turned Prince into something of a bad-boy outcast.
The conventional wisdom is that if you are devout, then you cannot be sexually enthusiastic, and if you are sexually enthusiastic, then you cannot be devout.
Prince came along and said, not so. He believed in both at once. And actually, it does make sense. If God created humankind, then God also created human sexuality, so let's indulge in the pleasures of our divine gifts.
And Prince's music does indeed indulge. It ventures into the realm of the explicit, the profane, the kinky, and even the raunchy. Some of it is good fun, or even funny, yet for those who find that it may exceed the bounds of good taste on occasion, these moments should be forgiven and not be permitted to detract from the other aspects of the particular song, which in other respects may offer brilliance.
Despite its apparent naughtiness, Prince's portrayal of sexuality, while unorthodox, is in fact positive. Sex is portrayed as pleasurable, sensuous, and delightful. Sexuality is not associated with negative or harmful dynamics such as violence, abuse of power, or exploitation. In fact, contemporary movies and prime-time television programs are far more damaging and violent than any song by Prince.
Sexuality is portrayed as being equally enjoyable and desirable for women and men alike. Neither gender is exploiting the other, but rather, each gender is merely indulging in its natural attraction to the other.
And what is to be made of the androgynous appearance of Prince? This is a guy who often adorned himself in high-heels, make-up, ruffles, and lace. And what about his appearance of blurring racial lines? Is he straight or gay? A man or a woman? Black or white?
This can be confusing, and even disturbing to some. But after listening to the music, the essence of Prince emerges. We learn who he is: a human being.
We realize that it doesn't matter if Prince is a man or a woman, straight or gay, or black or white. Prince is a human being experiencing this incredible journey of life. And then, we realize that this, in fact, applies to all of us as well. These attributes of our gender, sexual orientation, and race, simply don't matter. What is most important to appreciate is that we are all human beings undergoing the same journey of life. By implication, we must recognize that we are all equal, and that we should all love each other and help each other.
Prince consistently projected this notion of equality. Women are equal to men, not only in expressing equal sexual desires and pleasures, but also as depicted in the songs. And in real life, women always served as prominent members in Prince's bands and as musical collaborators.
Even Prince's famous symbol reflects this point. The symbol is an amalgamation of the two traditional male and female symbols into a single gender-neutral symbol, which thereby represents the equality of women and men and the elevation of humanity overall.
The same view of equality applied to race as well as Prince's collaborators and music were racially diverse.
This universality is reflected in the composition of Prince's fans. Male and female, black and white, straight and gay, old and young, all throughout the world.
And boy oh boy, these fans received a treat. Not only could Prince play, but he could also perform.
Unquestionably, Prince was one of the greatest musical performers to ever grace the stage. He sold out enormous concert halls around the world for years and years with shows that were veritable extravaganzas. And he also loved to appear unannounced at small clubs around the world often in the wee hours of the morning to delight the lucky revelers with an intimate performance that often lasted for hours on end. No matter where it was, he played and danced his heart out to give his fans a show they would never forget.
So what is Prince's music about?
Well, it is about expressing the wonderment of being alive as a human being.
It is about loving each other, and making love. It is about living in peace and harmony with each other on this planet. It is about the incredible sound and beauty that exists in the world. It is about romantic relationships, and friendships. It is about laughing. And indeed, a marvelous sense of humor runs throughout much of the music. It is about dancing, and partying, and enjoying life while we're living. And oh that scream! It bursts forth from the very soul of humanity. And it is about the pain of losing loved ones in death (the now tragically prophetic, "Sometimes It Snows In April").
Prince, the world is a sadder place without you in it.
Thank you for the love, the peace, the inspiration, and for sharing with us your art.