The De-Princeification of Prince's Legacy
It was recently announced that Prince would be the latest subject of a Mamma Mia! style jukebox musical that will use his soulful, idiosyncratic and deeply personal music and musings on love, God and spirituality as the foundation for a tacky Broadway-style extravaganza for tourists who’ve always yearned to hear what “Darling Nikki” or “Sexy Motherfucker” would sound like with full choirs and armies of robotically smiling, gyrating dancers.
I very much enjoyed Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again when I watched it for Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 and it’s stuck with me to a surprising degree but the announcement of a new jukebox musical is almost invariably a cause for trepidation rather than excitement.
That is particularly true when the person ostensibly being paid loving tribute conducted their lives and their careers in a way that suggested that a cash-in posthumous Broadway musical is the last way they’d want to be remembered or commemorated.
In a culture where artists are expected to put their life’s work on Youtube and Spotify and Apple and iTunes and Amazon, to make it available to the widest possible audience, often for free or for a negligible amount of money disseminated among many parties Prince took a lonely, widely mocked and misunderstood stand against the mass online dissemination against his music. As he’d tried to do extensively over the course of his career, Prince struggled to control the way that his music was distributed, marketed and packaged.
When Prince wrote Slave on his face and compared his relationship with the corporation that controlled his masters (oh, but words mean things!) to slavery people, largely white people, made fun of him. They portrayed him as a drama queen and a hysteric and asked why a black man who was a famous millionaire beloved by the masses could possibly be so unhappy with his treatment by corporations and institutions that he would feel the need to launch a public protest.
I am not proud to admit that I was probably one of those people at various points in my life. True, the portrayal of Prince as a spoiled baby throwing a very public tantrum by vocally and dramatically protesting his treatment at the hands of his industry was not quite as overtly racist as the right-wing vilification of Colin Kaepernick as a treasonous brat hypocritically raging against a system that made him a millionaire many times over but it was still pretty racist.
It was equally rooted in the notion that white people should be able to tell black people how they should feel about institutional and systematic racism and oppression and how they should express those feelings. Then and now we tell powerful black people who have undoubtedly experienced racism, casual and otherwise, the likes of which caucasians can hardly even imagine that they lost the right to protest injustice when they accepted the riches we throw at brilliant black athletes or entertainers who can make us money performing music or playing sports.
Prince was stubborn. He was headstrong. He was an anomaly, a superstar for whom there were far more important things in life than money and success, wealth and professional and personal power. So he kept his music off Youtube. He kept his music off Spotify. He kept songs that would be the crowning achievement of other artists locked away in vaults with hundreds of other tunes and scores of unreleased albums.
Then Prince died and everything changed. Suddenly if I wanted to include the music video for “Batdance” in every article that I publish here I could. I can play “Batdance” for my son. If I want to teach my family an elaborate interpretive dance to “Batdance” I can log onto Youtube and use Prince’s moves as a guide for our own choreographed shimmying.
As a Prince fan, I am grateful that after his death they really opened the floodgates and made his work available in a way it never was during his lifetime. As someone who admired Prince’s principled stand against the exploitation and spiritual corruption of the record industry and capitalism in general I look at developments like the upcoming Prince musical warily and with great skepticism, if not outright dread.
What we are watching now is the de-Princification of Prince’s legacy. The walls he intentionally and deliberately built over the course of his career in a Quixotic attempt to maintain some illusion of control over his genius and his incredible body of work are crashing down or have fell. While much has been gained, much has been lost as well, particularly Prince’s very strong, very particular vision for the music, released and unreleased, legendary or utterly, deliberately obscure, that will be his enduring legacy.
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