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How Prince earned the right to be an auteur

What I found fascinating about Prince was his control of the creative process and the media machinery that can so easily homogenize and trivialize unique talent.

Prince performing during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

I suspect there are some people who have been startled by both the volume and quality of eulogies for Prince. It’s an odd quirk of human nature that we, or at least some of us, never quite appreciate the stature of someone living among us. As though true greatness only resides elsewhere. Or maybe it’s an “only above average” Minnesota thing.

In the context of native Minnesotan legends, I’ve always been more of a Dylan guy. The confession here is that I never connected with Prince. Never bought a CD. Never saw a live show. Of course I heard the music. You couldn’t miss it (though the hometown pop stations didn’t exactly overplay Prince’s vast catalog beyond the most familiar hits).

But I got the appeal. The guy was a stunning performer. A hyperkinetic mash up of the old masters — Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Mick Jagger — with a shameless/compulsive lasciviousness that probably made even Jagger wonder if the new crowd wasn’t maybe pushing it a little too far. In other words, Prince had all the ingredients ­­— sound, look and energy ­­— for a pop phenomenon.

But, for an old rock and blues fan, it was more pop than I cared for: a lame, short­sighted admission that clearly says everything about me and nothing at all about Prince. What I did notice and found continually fascinating was his control of his creative process and the media machinery that if allowed to get out front and drive a career in an industry that can so easily homogenize and trivialize unique talent.

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One of the truisms of show biz (right after “Give the people what they want”) is that you have to earn the right to be an auteur. In other words, you have to first satisfy public demand before you make the media to play by your rules. The press, much less some record company’s marketing department, has zero interest in an act that moved 100 CDs.

It’s always an interesting process to watch: a unique, revolutionary talent protecting his or her muse, creating space and conditions that permit maximum time and energy for the creative process. It’s a recognition that it simply isn’t possible to be accessible to everyone ­­— as so many here-today-gone-tomorrow pop idols try to be. To do the kind of work, the amount of work, to push out beyond the accepted parameters agents and record companies prefer, you have to establish standards for yourself and everyone who wants a piece of you.

Put another way, you have to understand that a long, productive career requires an environment — ­the ideal balance of external stimulation and seclusion that allows you to do the work that actually builds a legend.

Dylan of course is a prime example of this. Other than his never ending tour, how he goes about his life and how he works is pretty much a mystery known only to him. Interviews are exceeding rare, and now all but completely disconnected​ from the context of the questions. Very little time is wasted in overt promotion, public appearances-for-appearance sake and, worst of all, “explaining” himself and the artistic choices he makes.

A couple other personal heroes, film directors Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, function(ed) the same way, dismissing the alleged necessity of making themselves available to the press and public and the demand to diagram their thought processes for the media­-merchandising entertainment complex regarded by virtually everyone else as indispensable to “moving product.”

Not to single out contemporary country music as a prime offender, but the fealty of so many of its performers to established formulas in tempo, lyrics, fashion and public appearances is a constant source of amazement. (How many of those guys even wear the same hat?)

Prince, while not the complete Howard Hughes-­like recluse some might have you believe, (basically anyone who doesn’t stop on a sidewalk and exchange quips with TMZ is a “recluse” in the modern media game), clearly decided early in his career that being something better meant being something different. Pulling the quantity and variety of music he felt he had in him required a life within but apart from common standards, and to hell with anyone who thought that strange.

And it worked.