A Pre-Superbowl Prince Primer

Most everybody who knows me well knows that I’ve been a fan of Prince for pretty much my entire life. So when casual fans or non-fans hear that Prince is playing the halftime show at the Superbowl this year, they ask me, “What’s up with that guy?” or “Is his name still a symbol?”

So I figured I’d put together a quick primer on Prince, at least what he’s been up to since he was at his most prominent back in the 80s.

  • Prince’s name is Prince. Legally, it always has been, but he did go by the symbol (which is usually typed out as “O(+>”) from 1993 until 2000. But his public name is now again the same as his legal name.
  • Though he’s not commercially or culturally dominant like he once used to be, Prince is not a has-been, either artistically or on the charts. His “3121” album last year debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, and followed the success of his Musicology tour and album in 2004, which had a great run on the charts and grossed over $90 million dollars as the most lucrative tour of the year. And his single, “Song of the Heart” from the “Happy Feet” soundtrack won a Golden Globe for best original song just the other day.
  • 3121 is also his most consistently interesting and listenable album in years, so if you have his greatest-hits box set with b-sides or the recent, excellent “Ultimate” collection, it’s a good place to start. Oh, and buy “Sign O’ The Times“, if you don’t have it. There’s just no excuse not to.
  • Overall, Prince has had dozens of top 10 singles, he’s released over 20 albums with almost all of them going at least platinum, he’s made 3 or 4 films with nearly 50% of them watchable, and even as he nears 50 years old there just aren’t any live acts that are better than him. Maybe, now that he’s slowed down a bit, somebody who’s at their prime can be as good in concert as Prince. But since James is dead, nobody can beat him.

Since most of my readers are geeks who like technology, and care about issues ranging from DRM to artist’s rights to the tyrrany of the RIAA, there’s some other things that might appeal to you about Prince’s career. A short list of highlights:

  • Prince has distributed much of his own music independently since 1994, and his major label deals since then have largely been promotion-and-distribution deals where he retained ownership of his master recordings.
  • Prince is the first artist not signed to a major label to perform during the Superbowl halftime show, not counting accessory marching bands and child choirs.
  • He’s had a continuous presence on the web since 1995, and last year won a Webby for his work online
  • There are a number of really great prince fansites like prince.org, though Prince’s control freak tendencies have resulted in a lot of stupid legal threats towards them
  • Prince distributed an online-only album back in 1997 with the liner notes available as a website
  • Prince published an interactive CD-ROM in 1994, and it didn’t totally suck * He has distributed several albums’ worth of material exclusively online through his own music label (though much of it was DRMed) as well as a number of videos and some really bad poetry
  • Prince’s webmaster maintained a now-defunct blog, largely ghostwritten by Prince, starting back in 2000.
  • Prince and some of his studio staff used to actually join in on AOL chat room discussions with fans as late as 1995, talking about recording work in progress
  • His current official site, 3121, should have a song available for download today

There’s a lot more trivia I can spout, and I love the man’s work because it’s funky, not because he’s been a pioneer in digital distribution. But my geek friends are always surprised to find out that “that guy who wrote Kiss” is also seriously on the edge of technology and tech culture in many ways.

Prince is snagged by the Invisible Fishhook of FunkIf you want a sneak peek at what he’s going to be performing at the Superbowl this Sunday, ther are some great video clips from the CBS affiliate in Miami. Prince had told reporters he’d be answering some questions in a press conference, but played 3 songs for them instead. The station then staked out his rehearsal stage (shaped like the symbol!) with a helicopter and shot footage from the chopper. Judging by the lighting and choreography, since there’s no sound, it looks like we’ll see a medley of 5 or 6 songs, with Purple Rain thrown in towards the middle. There’s a marching band, the Florida A&M University Marching 100, and if they actually release doves then he’ll probably have to play “When Doves Cry”. And Tipper Gore will have to apologize to us all for saying he was offensive, because Prince isn’t offensive, he’s cheesy.

I get excited about this stuff because I forget most people have never seen him play. (From a jaded reporter: “I’ve never been to a Prince press conference before, but after Thursday, I would recommend them to all my friends. In fact, I’d give it a 9 out of 10 because you can dance to it.”) Anyway, I have a pretty exhaustive storehouse of otherwise-useless Prince knowledge, so feel free to ask any questions if you want in the comments.

Update: I put up a setlist and mini-review of Prince’s Superbowl performance on Vox, and as I find videos of the performance, I’ll put them up there, too.