The focus of this blog has been The Music of the 1960s and’70s, but its “to do” list has always included some musing on where rock and roll has gone since. With the passing last week of Prince Rogers Nelson, maybe it’s time to ask that question — more particularly, did it go Purple, and to the Twin Cities?
I was first exposed to the music of Prince, as were a lot of music fans, via the music video phenomenon. I found the concept of rock and roll combined with videos interesting — another dimension for a creative genre to play with. (There were “music videos” decades before the 1980s, but the need of MTV and its network imitators to fill hours and hours of airtime created a new and expanding market for them.)
A lot of artists made use of that extra dimension and creative opportunity, but not so much the diminutive rocker from Minneapolis; Prince mostly just sang and danced. But his music was compelling, as were his performances, and a lot of those MTV-era songs stood on their own, without the moving-picture accompaniment.
My interest in music videos waned, and so apparently did America’s, because MTV eventually switched to reality TV and other fare, after it had sidelined competing shows like TBS’s “Night Tracks” and the like. I listened less and less to the sort of FM radio stations that played Prince’s music, and I mostly lost track of him.
There was that occasional blip on the radar, of course. The change his of name to a symbol rose to the level of general cultural awareness — and when he changed it back, it allowed me to dub him The Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as.
It was easy back then for someone like me to dismiss Prince as a creature of the MTV age — a visual presence whose music didn’t impress as much without the video. But while it wasn’t getting through to me, Prince kept making music — a total of 37 albums, was the figure given in one of the many retrospectives and commentaries I read and heard in the days after his death.
That coverage, as always seems the case in such cases, was exhaustive — and exhausting. And some of the tributes were a bit over the top, though.
For example, I saw several comments about Prince stealing the show at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to ex-Beatle George Harrison — his guitar solo taking over “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” One of them took a swipe at Tom Petty — I think calling him “boring old white guy” or something like that.
There’s no question that Prince’s solo is amazing. But he wasn’t exactly going up against the A Team, or A Team players with their A Game: the guitarists he upstaged were Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood (neither particularly known as Guitar Gods, the latter being primarily a keyboardist), Petty with an acoustic guitar and Harrison’s son Dhani, also on an acoustic. It wasn’t like he was trading licks with Slowhand and Hendrix.
Besides, Prince was the one being inducted into the Hall that night. I’m not saying it was a setup, but maybe it wasn’t quite the cosmic moment that some considered it to be
Another pundit wrote that Prince’s music couldn’t really be categorized. It wasn’t funk, it wasn’t pop — it was Prince Music. Several commentators tried to put the Purple One on a pedestal, claiming that he was one of those major figures who reinvent music.
We spent six hours on the road Sunday, and tuned into SiriusXM’s temporary all-Prince channel for most of the ride. It was good to hear the familiar songs — “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Raspberry Beret,” “1999” — but after four hours, everything started to sound the same: a surplus of synthesizers, too many digital drums, too much dance beat.
I got the impression that some of those trying to deify Prince posthumously were people for whom rock started in the 1980s and ’90s, for whom the revolution that occurred in the ’50s and ’60s was ancient history. They seemed to feel their era just had to have produced artists as important as those that spoke to the Baby Boom Generation.
There’s no question that Prince Rogers Nelson was a singular musician: a multi-instrumentalist, largely self-taught; a songwriter with a knack for catchy lyrics and grooves; an artist who charted his own course, and produced most of his work solo.
But are musicians today making Prince Music, and/or will they in the future? Will the Purple One rank up there with Berry, Holly, Presley, Dylan, the Beatles?