The thing about icons is that in a way, you know them. No, of course, you don’t actually know them — you almost certainly will never meet them, and you might not even get to see them perform. But you know them. You know their style, their attitude, their feeling. Their work is as recognizable and familiar as a family member. When you hear it, or see it, you know it. You know them. Even if, like Prince, they were ultimately unknowable.
Prince, who died suddenly and tragically today, April 21, at just 57 year old, was an icon. Prodigiously talented, as a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, performer, arranger, composer and pop cultural figure. Like an artist to whom he’s often been compared — David Bowie, who also died this year because 2016 so far has been the worst — he was mercurial, restless and mysterious. And, most importantly, he was totally committed to his art. This is a man who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and wrote “SLAVE” on his face, to protest the way he was being treated by his record label. That is dedication on a level basically no other pop star has risen to.
This is a man who released 39 albums over the course of 37 years, including two in 2015 alone, effortlessly blending r&b, soul, funk, rock, pop and electronic into one signature, impossible to truly replicate sound. This is a man who starred in a fantastical, romantic, silly movie loosely based on his own life (the 1984 hit “Purple Rain”) and then wrote the soundtrack for it, which sold 22 million copies. This is a man who collaborated with and supported countless other musicians, dancers, actors and performers, and wrote hit songs for more beyond that, from Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” to the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.”
His private life, for the most part and especially in recent years, remained a mystery. The fierce, often litigious control he exerted over his work — you try finding a single official YouTube video — extended to his private life. There are stories that surface (read Questlove’s tale in his memoir of rollerskating with Prince), but from Prince himself? No word. He kept you guessing. His often unorthodox, downright odd behavior made for great rock n’ roll fodder, though. Total commitment. Total dedication.
And yet, we know him. I know I do. How? Because of the fact whenever I DJ anywhere — bar, club, house party, wedding — if you put on “Kiss” or “Let’s Go Crazy” or “1999,” you know that everyone is going to get up and dance. Everyone, regardless of age, taste or level of drunkenness. Regardless of whether those are the only Prince songs you know. I’ll admit it, for a long time those were the only songs that I knew. I didn’t even start getting deep into Prince until shortly after college, when I bought my own turntable for the first time and inherited some great records. “Purple Rain” was one of them. “1999” and “Sign O’ The Times” followed. Have you listened to “Parade”? God, that’s a great album. “Art Official Age,” which came out in 2014, is also incredible. I could sit here and go through most of his albums and point out things about them, but his back catalog speaks for itself.
That’s the thing about icons. You may never know them, but we all know them. That’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.