Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Prince: The Epitome Of A Superstar

Like many droves of music lovers and music industry professionals, I was shocked by Prince's death on April 21, 2016. Upon receiving the news, my heart sank. Sadness overwhelmed me and I immediately began to mourn his loss on multiple levels: as my lifelong favorite music artist; a creative influence; the subject of many of my class lectures on career success; a once-in-a-lifetime musician, songwriter, and entertainer; a rebel, pioneer, and music industry icon; a humanitarian, and as a superstar.

What distinguishes a superstar from a star? Superstars have more x-factor and, thus, they shine more brightly than stars - who are often mistaken for, or falsely view themselves, as superstars. Stars aspire to be superstars...and very few actually achieve that status. Stars are plentiful. Superstars are a minority.

Both stars and superstars have stardom (the state or status of being a famous or an exceptionally talented performer in the world of entertainment or sports), which in today's social media/reality TV crazed world is often mistaken for celebrity (the state of being well known).

Prince never was, nor wanted to be, a celebrity. 

In fact, he wasn't interested in being a star. He revealed in an interview with Arsenio Hall that he was a shy and socially awkward student in high school, and was teased about his name so much that he created the nickname "Skipper" for himself to curtail it. Upon graduating he looked at the want ads and discovered that there were no jobs he wanted to do. It was at this point that the serious musician got serious about making a living in the music industry.

And why not? Prince started playing piano at the age of four and was influenced by his father, a jazz musician, and his mother, a blues singer. He had supreme confidence in his immense musical talents when he graduated, and believed that he could offer something of great value to the music industry; something that it and music lovers of all races could appreciate...also something that they had never experienced before. 

After three decades, his mission is complete.

Comparisons and perceived competitions between Prince and Michael Jackson were inevitable, illusory, and largely fueled by black audiences. Prince was a self-contained, genre defying artist, and did not make an immediate splash with black or white audiences. Artists who could not be defined/categorized by a record company (in those days) were considered high risk investments.

Michael Jackson (on the other hand) was a child prodigy, a fan favorite of the masses, and the prize of his record label. Michael was the artist you wanted your children to like. Prince was the artist you wanted to keep your daughter and sister away from. And he had no problem with that.

To this point, Michael Jackson and his brothers were opposed to their sister LaToya dating Prince at the onset of his career, during his Dirty Mind days. Michael was vaguely aware of Prince and viewed him as just another freaky musician who liked his sister. Prince was well aware of Michael Jackson's crossover success, and the musical formula he used to achieve it. He would eventually emulate it.

Prince's highly commercial album, 1999 (released in October, 1982), and Michael Jackson's Thriller (released in November of the same year), battled on the music charts. Thriller topped the charts and beat every album in history. Unphased, Prince released Purple Rain in 1984, which successfully transported him to the crossover stardom that eluded him for most of his career, earning him superstar status and a well-deserved place along Michael Jackson as a music industry icon.

When you top a superstar, you assume superstar status.

Prince didn't take comfort with his superstar status; he used it to transcend the music industry and create his own industry; one that merely overlapped with the music business. This emancipation marked his evolution into a different breed of superstar, and the type of artist (and person) that you wouldn't mind your sister dating.

Prince quickly pushed himself into new artistic directions, collaborated with numerous artists in multiple genres, challenged the status quo, revamped his style, music, and recording production, and distanced himself from the type of music industry that he once wanted so desperately to be a part of. The industry needed Prince, more than Prince needed the industry.

He was a true artist who believed that art and commerce don't mix. Prince believed that people connected with each other through art, specifically music, which is why he invited more and more music artists into his once tightly knit inner circle.  It's from this pool of associates that those who perform tributes to him in the future should come. Others can support, but featured artists should be former band members or proteges.

Real superstars use their light to illuminate others.

If legacy is the new currency, Prince was rich beyond measure. The number of talented artists who have been influenced by Prince, or have indirectly had their skills elevated through their efforts to emulate the standards of his performance, or the mastery of his craft, are innumerable. It's also the reason why Prince invited a whole new generation of music lovers and musicians to party with him during his 21 Night Stand Tour for the seemingly absurd ticket price of $25 dollars. Money was not his objective; it was maintaining his legacy. My memory of this concert in LA is priceless.

Superstars plant seeds for future stars.

Prince donated millions of dollars to schools, shelters and community music programs in Los Angeles, New York, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Chicago, Indiana, Georgia, Iowa, and his native Minneapolis, in addition to his unpublicized humanitarian efforts, and helped  raise copious funds for countless organizations, and various causes, And never mentioned it. That's a super deed, by a generous superstar who didn't merely express that "the children are our future," he put his money where his heart was. As a result, some aspiring musician who can not afford music lessons (or instruments) at a pivotal time in their life when they can most benefit from them, will have an advantage that Prince did not have. They will just need the vision and drive.

The ever increasing galaxy of departed superstars who have made our lives more entertaining and enjoyable is not only shining more brightly now, but has a funky new shade of purple that it never had before. R.I.P. Prince.

The best YouTube documentary on Prince can be found here:

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