Prince was a musical genius who blended disparate cultures — black and white, R&B and rock, queer and Christian — and hit the pop world with the force of destiny.
Earlier this year, humanity got a bracing lesson in the unifying power of music when David Bowie died and deep, personal outpourings of love came from all sides. An even greater outpouring will meet the passing of Prince, the singular American musician and songwriter who died April 21 at the much-too-young age of 57.
Like Bowie, Prince had a decades-spanning career rich with visual and musical innovation that transformed expectations of pop music, and both have songbooks of classics that will last as long as people have ears. But even more than the wide-open Bowie, Prince was for everyone.
He titled his 1978 debut “For You,” following it with a series of albums that saw him blend disparate cultures (black and white, R&B and rock, queer and Christian) en route to that rarest peak — a one-of-a-kind musical genius who also becomes a pop superstar.
It happened with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, it happened with Prince, and it’s the best the pop world can offer: fearless innovators with enough people-pleasing instincts that their inventions hit the world like destiny.
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For Prince, the whole pop-genius endeavor was fueled by a hubris that remains awe-inspiring. What made this black, polymorphously perverse, diminutive gender-bender, who defied all efforts at easy categorization, believe he could become America’s (and the world’s) musical heartthrob?
His astounding musical talent, for one. (Prince routinely wrote, arranged, performed and produced every note of music on an album by himself.) Then there was his flair for controversy and boundary-pushing, with the forever-heterosexual Prince striding onto the stage in high heels, gartered stockings and mascara to belt out songs that earned love from fans of everything from classic R&B to classic rock.
The unspoken message: Sometimes the greatest pleasures come from the freaks, and Prince positioned himself as their king. The pose was undoubtedly messianic, but his ministry was open to everyone who was ready to freak out, make love and party like tomorrow’s your funeral.
But any appreciation of Prince must center on the music. Here was a man who loved to play — his late-night, post-show jam sessions are the stuff of legend and, right to the end, his onstage passion and prowess remained in full effect. Every once in a while he’d pop up somewhere like the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, perform live for a few minutes and create a new generation of believers. For Seattleites, our last great blast of Prince came in 2013, when he packed the relatively tiny Showbox for two nights with his new band 3rdeyegirl.
Playfully working through a set of beloved classics, new tracks and deep cuts, Prince came off as the most benevolent, fun-loving musical genius in history. He was ridiculously gifted and he knew it — and his greatest joy was to share his gifts with the world.
All we can do now is give thanks.