By John Cody
We accept a few things universally, like red means stop, green means go, yellow means go faster and, in the words of John Lennon, “the sun is up, the sky is blue.” Did you know that purple is the colour of contrition? I got a purple guitar once and I named it “Contrition,” like B.B. King named his “Lucille.” I wanted to make people feel sorry for every note I played on that goddamned thing in a really good way. Why? Because Prince did it, and that’s the only thing that, across the board, people seem to agree on about the colour purple. Purple means Prince.
How else can we explain the fact that just hours after his death rang a shockwave through the world, almost every single monument we have was lit up in that shade? What does that tell us about this man? What does it tell us about ourselves, our world and our place in it?
It’s easier to begin with what it tells us about Prince: the consummate performer, composer, showman, singer, dancer, producer, musician, humanitarian and, perhaps most important of all, artist. So much so that it was and still is undeniable, inexorable, irrefutable, cannot be argued, impervious to criticism, holds up in a court of law, and ultimately heartbreaking at the loss of him. I come here not to bury him but to praise him, right?
Why was Prince important? The reason might be because he was the architect of the hybrid. Jimi Hendrix changed the way people played guitar, Jaco Pastorius changed the way people played the bass, and Charles Mingus wrote a song entitled: “If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There Would Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats.” Prince changed the fact that no one before or since actually managed to bridge so many musical styles without us realizing that was what he was doing. Beyond the confines of genre, metier and industry-imposed segregation,he mixed funk with corporate rock, folk with new wave, hip-hop with pop, jazz with prog rock, black with white, straight with gay, masculine with feminine, sacred with profane, and so on. He did it so artfully that he could have a hit song with such divergent musical styles and complicated and unconventional time signatures, and we didn’t even know it. The thing of it is, we can sing those songs note for note: “Diamonds and Pearls.” Here’s a great idea: let’s write a number one song and take the bass out: “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry?” They still went to number one in the charts. Who else stretched and was allowed to stretch within and without the confines of the music industry unchecked? Few if any.
What this tells us about ourselves is more complicated. Society has never been particularly kind to its artists over the course of history, and I make a distinction between a star and an artist, although Prince was both. We were unforgiving when Prince changed his name to a symbol and stopped listening when he explained that it was a fight for ownership of his name. Instead, we laughed and made jokes about him. What went unnoticed was that he created a business model to monetize music on the Internet when he knew that the record industry had stopped caring about its artists and that the world was not far behind, not even wanting to pay for music at all. He also succeeded at this business model as few people can or will. We are a fickle bunch and, tire of things quickly. But when the news of Prince’s death hit? We all stopped.
I think it’s because we knew a great artist was no longer among us, and I think we knew that he was one, and also one of the best. I think we also felt that we need artists and we knew we had been acting like they didn’t matter anymore for cynical reasons. Whenever we downloaded a song without paying for it, we all thought it was okay because it was only a dollar or whatever, right? Although I think we knew it was wrong, but we did it anyway. And whenever Prince spoke out about it, we all applauded and agreed but we did it anyway, even though we knew it was kinda stealing and we all know stealing is wrong, but now? We won’t have Prince to tell us that anymore and, what’s worse, we won’t have anything new to look forward to from him, or funky outfits to marvel at, and jaws to drop every time that sexy little m—f— picked up a guitar and let loose. Not in retrospect, but in the now, and we know now too.
We love you Prince. I love you, Prince. Rest in purple, Prince.