Pop life / Everybody needs a thrill / Pop life / We all got a space 2 fill / Pop life / Everybody can’t be on top / But life it ain’t real funky / Unless it’s got that pop.
In 1985, Prince released ‘Pop Life’, the latest single from his ‘Around The World A Day’ album. Despite being a credible, established face on MTV, the singer took a surprise turn and refused to make a video to support the release. This decision can be marked as the start of a tempestuous relationship between the artist, the music industry and the mass media – a relationship that, to this day, remains unstable and unpredictable.
The song’s lyrics (an excerpt included above) cast a critical, cynical eye at life in the public eye and life within the public at large – of a life in pop and a life without that pop.
Examining Prince’s career to date allows one to reflect on the changes that have affected art and media production and distribution and the on-going issues that surround audience consumption, be it music, writing, photography, film or video. Yet, at this stage in his three decade career, the talent that has made the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, actor and director a global phenomenon looks set to be outshone by on-going controversy surrounding his attitude to new media.
Despite scoring huge success with platinum-selling albums and sell-out tours, Prince has become synomynous for his opposition to both the established contractual methods of the music industry and later the internet, taking a stand against traditional methods found in the creative industries before performing spectacular U-turns on previous decisions, much to the bemusement or bewilderment of his audience.
For an artist with a much documented love-hate relationship with the internet, it is still the best resource for information on the singer and examples of his work. With this in mind, along with reference to Prince’s public spat with YouTube, I have drawn upon YouTube videos to identify key points within Prince’s career in a bid to identify how an artist has clearly struggled with controlling his work and rights as traditional media gave way to new media.
I ain’t go no money / I ain’t like the other guys you hang around
In 1978, Prince releases his first single, ‘Soft And Wet’. But it was ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, the first single from his second album, ‘Prince’, that gave him his first taste of chart success, reaching No 1 in the US R ‘n’ B charts in 1979. It also marks Prince’s video debut, who is forced to make a second version of the video after the first is deemed too risque:
I was dreaming when I wrote this / So sue me if I go too fast
The title track from Prince’s 1982 album ‘1999’ goes global, with heavy rotation on MTV and radio stations generating further success. Prince joins Michael Jackson as one of the first black artists to find success on the infant TV channel and enjoy cross-over success with pop, rock and soul audiences.
How can you just leave me standing / Alone in a world that’s so cold?
The release of ‘Purple Rain’ in 1984 establishes Prince as a major star. His acting debut in the film ‘Purple Rain’ proves a resounding success as does the accompanying soundtrack album and the singles released from it.
Prince becomes a familar face on the awards ceremony circuit in 1985, winning a host of awards both in his native US and abroad:
He even gains Hollywood’s approval when ‘Purple Rain’ wins the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Am I black or white? / Am I straight or gay?
With previous releases proving controversial due to their overtly sexual subject matter or provactive visuals, Prince was already subject to media controversy. He chose to address the issues of press intrusion and criticism in the title track to his 1983 album, ‘Controversy’.
Yet its the album track ‘Darling Nikki’ that garners a huge amount of negative attention onto the artist. The song, that features on the ‘Purple Rain’ album led to the launch of the Parental Advisory label after Al Gore’s then wife, Tipper Gore, heard her young daughter playing the song. The song topped Gore’s Parent’s Music Resource Center’s ‘Filthy Fifteen’ list as the most x-rated track of 1985 alongside the likes of Madonna, AC/DC, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.
My name is Prince / I don’t wanna be king / Cuz I seen the top / And it’s just a dream
Prince remained a fixture on the global charts throughout the latter half of the 80s and early 90s, releasing a number of commercially successful singles and albums as well more films including Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. He also provided the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1990 Batman film, which resulted in more chart success.
In 1992, Prince released the single, ‘My Name Is Prince’ – the first from his ‘Love Symbol’ album. Soon after, the singer issued a statement saying that he will no longer be referred to as Prince but by his specially designed symbol, a version of which is issued to the world’s media as a useable font, much to the annoyance of the press now forced to comply to his demands.
A surprise appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1996 provided further insight into Prince’s thinking behind his name change and how it related to his work and relationship with his former record company, Warner Brothers. Likening his name change to those by Mohammed Ali and Malcom X, even the star admitted he hadn’t worked out how to pronounce his new moniker.
Emancipation – free 2 do what I wanna / Emancipation – see U in the purple rain / Emancipation – free 2 do what I wanna / Emancipation – break the chain, break the chain
Having been photographed with the word ‘slave’ written on his cheek, Prince made an appearance on The Vibes Show in 1998 where he spoke of being “…under chains so to speak..in the business. It’s hard to speak about freedom when you’re signed to a contract…a lot of my music has a lot to do with being free.”
He also spoke about the “creative freedom and the financial freedom” of owning and releasing his own material, on the show that also discussed the use of contracts in the wider creative and entertainment industries as well as the mood of change in the mid 1990s that affected music distribution.
With the increasing popularity of the internet at the time, it was no surprise when Prince, a now established critic of the music industry, chose to use the new technology to promote and distribute his work, even winning a Webby award for his website that offered fans the chance to purchase and download tracks.
Yet his relationship with the internet would soon turn sour when an artist so passionately opposed to notions of control discovered he could not control the distribution of his work to an audience who were becoming more technically savvy.
Despite his public spats and disapproval of the contractual system, the singer would soon make a number of dramatic u-turns. Despite his clear opposition of record contracts, he subsequently signed one-album deals with Arista, Columbia and Universal. He also launched several successful websites that sold more new work and won more awards before unexpectedly closing, leaving fans and critics in the dark.
The singer added further confusion when he signed lucrative deals with The Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mirror to distribute new albums, much to the anger of his international audience and his UK music distributors.
In 2000, the singer dropped the symbol as his moniker, revealing to a press conference that it was a “means to free myself from all undesirable relationships.” He also used the conference as an opportunity to comment on the music industry, stating,
“The price of CDs have skyrocketed while the quality of music has plummeted, and as long as middle men create the means for the consumer to consume, this will never change.”
But I don’t care what people may say / I ain’t gon’ let it ruin my day / The best reme-die for a basket full of lies is funk
But it is Prince’s relationship with the internet and its users that continues to address more contemporary aspects of distribution and consumption. In 2007, Prince revealed he was out to “reclaim the internet” by suing three web sites – eBay, YouTube and the Pirate Bay over copyright infringement with the singer stating the sites “are clearly able (to) filter porn and pedophile material but appear to choose not to filter out the unauthorized music and film content which is core to their business success.”
He also hired a company to remove any Prince audio or visual online footage immediately. He even threatened a number of dedicated fan websites with lawsuits and closure before issuing them with a song entitled ‘PFUnk’ that addressed rumour-mongers and file-sharing in what was yet another highly unexpected, somewhat eccentric move.
Come on baby / Let’s get nuts
In a daily battle of wills between Prince’s camp and his fans, online videos featuring the singer’s music or footage from his gigs would appear across the internet only for them to disappear in a matter of hours or days. In a bizarre twist, a mother launched a lawsuit against Prince after a YouTube clip of her son dancing to Prince’s hit, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was removed. The issue of uploading copyrighted material had suddenly become contentious as the counter lawsuit demanded “takedown proceedures” to be considered.
The case remains unresolved but the clip is back online with over a million views and counting (read the uploaders comments for more info on the case):
The internet is dead.
Prince continues to buck the trend of promoting and distributing his work, albeit with questionable results. In July 2010, Prince signed a deal with the Daily Mirror in order to give away copies of his latest album, ’20Ten’. Yet, the interview he gave to the tabloid generated more interest than his latest opus:
“The internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it. The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”
Whilst the Daily Mirror enjoyed a healthy boost in sales, Prince’s comments foolishly diverted attention from an album that remains one of his strongest in years to a series of soundbites that hint at an artist so out of touch from both the music scene and the audience that comprise it:
There’s gonna be a party in here 2nite / But I can’t send a simple Facebook invite
Unsurprisingly, YouTube became the platform of choice for fans to respond back to Prince, with direct messages to the singer, audience commentary and even parodies:
Six months on from declaring the internet was over – and in what appears to be yet another U-turn, Prince’s videos on YouTube are not appearing to be removed. Perhaps the exercise proved too costly or was deemed ineffective, or it may have something to do with the rumours circulating around a financial deal made by Prince and YouTube, which, if confirmed, could pave way for other artists to seek similar payment.
Despite this, the Prince.org website still urges its thousands of users not to post Prince videos on YouTube. Surprisingly, Prince’s renewed relationship has proved unpopular with his fans who paid for Prince’s various subscription only websites, which raises questions over consistency in new media and the fickle behaviour of both internet users and those who use the internet to distribute their products.
To sum, Prince is a prime example of an artist who has continually pushed boundaries with his art, his image and his relationship with his audience but also one where artist control and integrity has backfired spectacularly. Yet one can’t help feeling that as new media technology has rapidly overtaken the more traditional, artist-controlled methods of communication and distribution, Prince has struggled to maintain his stand as he rapidly lost control over the way his work was created and distributed, and subsequently lost respect and value as an artist.
Having taken a stand against Warner Brothers, his clout and success helped him negotiate his way back into the music industy as required. In a similar fashion, the media-shy artist renewed his relationship with the press and broadcast media with carefully chosen, carefully timed appearances that proved he was still relevant.
Yet the internet has proved impossible for Prince to master as the legacy and relevance of an artist is challenged directly by an audience with the means to provide feedback in an instant; where the powers of negotiation and collaboration are subject to instant scrutiny, criticism and dismissal and where traditional values and practices surrounding copyright and licensing are challenged on a daily basis.
Unlike other artists who have embraced the internet and utilised online social networking and file sharing services and technology in clever, creative ways, Prince’s haphazard attacks have somewhat tarnished his reputation as both as a recording artist and an early internet pioneer.
It would be a pity if he was largely remembered for his negative approach to new media. Yet it would be a greater tragedy if the internet was wiped clean of all mentions and evidence of one of the most iconic musicians of our times, due to ego, greed, misgivings or misinformation that continue to shape Prince’s approach to a pop life in the 21st Century.