RIP Prince: a guide to pop royalty

Understanding one of the biggest pop stars of all time... and how much he influenced nearly everybody you listen to today
Prince is all smiles as he performs live in 2011. (Mark Milstein | @Dreamstime)


Yesterday morning, April 21st, 2016, Prince Rogers Nelson passed away at the age of 57. But the world knew him as a musical icon who went only by his first name: Prince. Immediately after he died, musicians, the general public, even President Barack Obama, were grieving his loss and posting memories on social media. Snapchat posted a filter where you could cover yourself in "purple rain" (after one of his most famous songs).

But for many young people today, Prince doesn't really mean much. He hasn't had a hugely successful album or single since around 1992. So why should you care about some pop star that your parents loved? Well, for starters, because pretty much every pop star out there today loved him, too. And they learned a lot from him.

The kid genius

Prince signed his first record deal when he was only 18. His first album, called For You, was released in 1978. He played and wrote everything on it. Every single instrument. In case you're wondering, that's highly unusual. Yet even as a teenager, Prince was already a master musician, singer, and songwriter. Between 1978 and 1992, he would release a new album every year (except in 1983). Two of those records were double albums (twice as long as a normal album). That level of creativity is almost unheard of today.

And Prince didn't just record a lot. He recorded a lot of hits. By the middle of the 1980s, Prince was one of the four biggest stars in music, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen. His peak came in 1984 when he released the album and starred in the film both called Purple Rain. (Seriously, where did he find the time to do all of this?)

And Prince was more than just a songwriting and recording machine. In between making records, he toured a ton and was an incredible performer. Prince took great pride in his ability to surprise and delight fans with his song choices and ability to play shows for hours on end. As a dresser, he always looked sharp. And as a bandleader, he looked beyond race and gender at a time when others didn't (one of his most famous players was the incredible Sheila E., who stood out at the time as a woman playing drums).

Endless inspiration

When you add it all up, you get a musician who could play everything, sing anything, perform forever, and who had more hit songs than almost anyone else out there. He played pop music, R&B music, dance music, rock music... all of it. And young musicians who grew up at the time took notes. When you see Katy Perry's bright candy-coated world or Bruno Mars' energetic stageshow, you're seeing Prince. When you hear Janelle Monae's super funky pop or even Justin Bieber's latest chart topper, you're hearing Prince. Sure, Prince didn't do it all by himself. He didn't invent music. But very few people made it all as exciting as he did.

So why don't I know about him?

That's a good question. Songs like "When Doves Cry", "1999", "Raspberry Beret" and "Purple Rain" have definitely stood the test of time. But Prince himself was a very private person who didn't play the usual superstar game. He didn't do lots of public appearances or interviews. He didn't sponsor an energy drink or potato chip. And he didn't move to Los Angeles or New York permanently after becoming famous. His main home was his studio called Paisley Park. It's in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a place where it's snowy and cold a lot of the year.

Still he never lost his ability to amaze a crowd, playing shows right up until just before he died (his second-last shows were a pair of sold-out piano performances in Toronto). Here is a video of him playing "Purple Rain" as the last song in his halftime show at the Super Bowl in Miami in 2007. People agree that the entire 12-minute performance was the greatest halftime show ever. And he played the whole thing during a rainstorm.


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