One of a kind: How Prince broke all of pop's rules and became an icon

He died today, aged just 57.

Prince death PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

YOU’VE DANCED TO to Let’s Go Crazy. You’ve swooned to Purple Rain. You’ve shed a quiet tear to Nothing Compares 2U. And you’ve probably cocked a curious young eyebrow to the lyrics in songs like Erotic City and Darling Nikki.

Even if you don’t have a shelf of his albums at home, you know many of Prince’s songs. You know them, you just know them, because the music made by musicians like Prince becomes bigger than themselves.

It becomes like air, something you breathe in when you’re born, something whose essence becomes part of you. You pop out of the womb and there you are, singing Raspberry Beret to your parents.

Prince death Yui Mok Yui Mok

You know, too, how megastar Prince was the kind of musician who was totally himself, while managing – like the sadly also deceased David Bowie – to explore many different sides to his own personality without apology.

Prince wrote pop songs that we still treasure decades years on, songs that have soundtracked the last 40 years.

But he’s also been the type of contrarian who refused to participate in the streaming-first culture of modern music. He’s left a mark on popular culture, but he at many times refused to let it leave a mark on him.

(He also, as it happens, could do a pretty amazing cover of Radiohead’s song Creep):

Miles Hartl / YouTube

Born in June 1958 in Minnesota – the same state where his Paisley Park studios were later built – he was just 57 when he died today, after a rumoured period of ill-health.

One of the times he performed on a grand scale was at the below Super Bowl halftime show.

In true Prince style, they made it rain in the stadium. His vocals, his swagger, his guitar-playing and his outfit were all – of course – on point:

That a song like Purple Rain still maintains its freshness 32 years on from its release is testament to Prince’s musical ability and versatility.

A master guitarist, he was able to make musicians like Tom Petty and Steve Winwood look like amateurs when he started soloing:

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame / YouTube

He did it his way

Prince started making music young, and was 20 when his first record was released.

He was a man who did things his own way – he was protective of his music, and a multi-instrumentalist who composed and produced most of his work. He was a record-breaker, an award-winner, and one of the most influential popular musicians in the world.

It’s hard to imagine the world of music without him, without his brash sexuality, his guitar solos, his confident swagger, the quiff, that eyebrow raise.

It’s hard not to compare him to David Bowie here – and to Madonna, whose Like a Prayer album he worked on (and who he feuded with) too.

That sense of being comfortable in their sexuality, of taking risks with their image, risks that would leave an indelible mark on the pop music world. Sex and sexuality were ever-present in Prince’s work, from his look, to his stage shows, to his videos, to his lyrics. His name was Prince, and he was sexy.

Given all of this, it’s no surprise that he was a figure of fascination to the press, who wanted to know everything about who his lovers were, and what exactly went on in his private life.

In later years, his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witness religion would change a lot of his public comments on sexuality, but when people think of Prince and sex, they think of songs like Controversy, which asks:

Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?

Causing controversy

Prince - Do Me, Baby - 01/30/82 - Capitol Theatre (OFFICIAL) Music Vault Music Vault

Prince played with gender – he was androgynous, he toyed with sexuality and wasn’t bound by society’s rules. He was sylphlike, resplendent in tight, bright clothes the colour of royalty.

Looking at music now, it can be hard to imagine the controversy that he caused with the release of albums like Dirty Mind and Controversy (the latter of which addressed on its title track the controversy around his own self).

Famously, the daughter of Tipper Gore was caught listening to the Prince song Darling Nikki (which contains a reference to masturbation). That led her appalled mother to found the Parents Music Resource Centre, which is behind the Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics warning labels.

Prince’s battle with the label Warner Bros in the mid 1990s again showed how little he wanted to be bound by convention – he changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph (later called the Love Symbol), in a two-fingers to the man.


He told the NME at the time:

I want to help young musicians. I don’t want people to be in the same position. I’ve been doing this for 16 years now, I know how it works. A manager knows thinks when you start out that he ain’t gonna tell you because it isn’t in his interests. He’s only gonna tell you the things he wants you to know. You understand what I’m saying?

He appeared in 1995 at the Brit Awards with Slave written on his cheek (which in turn was aped by Dave Rowntree of Blur, who wrote ‘Dave’ on his face).

You won’t find Prince’s back catalogue on Spotify. YouTube has been scrubbed of his original videos. He’s a musician who didn’t make music for streaming, and wanted to sue YouTube and eBay for not sufficiently filtering out the use of his songs.

Prince is gone, and though it’s a cliché to say his music will live forever, that’s exactly what we want.

He’s lucky, that way. He’s a legend, and musical legends never really leave us. They live on in our ears, our hearts, and feet (and, were the younger Prince writing this, he’d probably say they live on somewhere not very family-friendly too). 

RIP, Prince.

Read: Legendary musician Prince dead at 57>

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