Friday, May 3, 2013

What We Put Up With When We Put Up With Prince

Last week my Facebook news feed was overtaken by Prince. The little fella was going to be playing four shows at the teeny-tiny DNA Lounge in San Francisco, and since I used to live there and still have a lot of super-cool music-loving friends there, they went into a social-media frenzy, first debating if the $250 ticket price was worth it, then as the day drew near, scrambling to get some of those tickets they realized at the last minute they couldn't live without (No judgment, I would have probably done exactly the same thing), then excitedly anticipating the experience of seeing a universally adored, unquestionably virtuosic musician in such a small venue, then gushing about what an amazing show it was.

Amid all this excitement, I noticed the following exchange (names blurred on the way off chance they get mad at me):

The incident being referred to is when Prince played Late Night With Jimmy Fallon a couple of weeks ago and borrowed a guitar from "Captain" Kirk Douglas of Fallon's house band, The Roots. Then, to end the performance, he tossed the guitar straight up in the air and let it drop to the floor, breaking the headstock and ruining the valuable, rare 1961 Epiphone Crestwood. Adding insult to injury, Douglas good-naturedly asked Prince to sign the broken guitar, and Prince refused.

Informed of all this in that Facebook thread, my friend replied, "there's two sides to every story."

I don't mean to single this friend out, because we've all willingly put up with, rationalized, overlooked, and straight up denied Prince's increasingly outrageous crap for 30 years now. I would (and am about to) argue that Prince, more than any other artist, goes out of his way to alienate his fans, conducting himself with an arrogance and self-importance that suggests he believes he really is royalty, and not just a talented guy whose parents gave him a weird name. And we all just put up with it, justify it, wave it away, or look the other way because the guy is so insanely talented.

Is that Prince taking his bodyguard on stage
to accept a politically questionable award?
Yes, yes it is.
To that, I can attest firsthand. Near the end of my time in San Francisco, in the spring of 2001, I got a chance to see Prince perform an "Aftershow" (as in, a show after a sold-out show at the Oakland Coliseum) at the Fillmore Auditorium, capacity 1,100. At the time, I was not a big Prince fan, but he had recently changed his name back to Prince from the unpronounceable symbol (more on that in a moment), excitement was high, so I decided to fork over the shocking $50 for a ticket (at the time, all shows at the Fillmore were $15 or $20), stood in line for three hours before the show finally started at 3am and I was treated to probably the best show I've ever been to. People forget, because he's such a weirdo, that the dude is such a bitchin' guitar player it's not even funny. I was so far beyond entertained I happily forgot all about the long wait in the typically cold SF night and the (at the time) ridiculous ticket price. (Note: the show was bootlegged and you can download it here.)
But those inconveniences don't even move the needle when it comes to Prince's greatest acts of arrogance. The sentimental favorite, of course, is the night he attended a James Brown show with Michael Jackson; when James called Michael up to the stage, Michael busted a couple of moves and then urged James to call Prince up on stage as well. This being 1983, in the narrow post-Thriller, pre-Purple Rain window, James does not know who Prince is, but he obliges, and Prince responds by riding his bodyguard piggyback up to the stage, petulantly taking said stage like he owned it, doing nothing at all of consequence once on it, and then pulling a big piece of scenery down into the crowd while dismounting. (I wrote at much greater length about this incident, which you can watch on YouTube, right here. My favorite moment, possibly in the history of anything ever, is when Prince pulls his leather gloves off with his teeth and then tosses them into the crowd; a moment later, the gloves hit him in the chest.) 

Any discussion of Prince's way overblown ego begins with his name change. In 1993, bridling at Warner Bros. insistence on releasing his work at a far slower pace than he was generating it, he was desperate for a way to get out of his contract. Warner Bros. wanted to release an album every couple years or so, as had become the industry norm, the better to exploit every last potential single from a given record. Prince, who just wrote and recorded a song in the time it took you to read this sentence, wanted to release everything he recorded as he recorded it, which would have been something like a double album every ten days. 

I can kind of see Warners' point, particularly because the chaff-to-wheat ratio on Prince albums (1999 and Purple Rain excepted) is pretty high. For every amazing, iconic track on a Prince album (and there are so, so many), there are four or five boring, downtempo ballads. But that still doesn't make it right to legally prevent a prolific artist from being prolific.

The solution Prince came up with would have been absolute genius if he hadn't done it in such a colossally douchey fashion: he changed his name to, gave no indication of how one might say it out loud, and told Warners' execs, "you didn't sign, you signed Prince., is going to release whatever he wants on another label." 

We can agree that tactically, this move was on par with Patton taking Bastogne. But practically, it was unnecessarily pretentious by about 99 percent. A name change is a name change -- would this strategy have been any less effective if he had changed it to "The Kid" (his ridiculous character name in the Purple Rain movie) or "Shreddy McFunkbeat" or "Purple Nurple" or "Malcolm X-Ray" or whatever?

It's pronounced "doosh-bag"
Even worse, when someone in the music press tried to find a workaround -- there is nokey on most typewriters, which in 1993 had yet to be supplanted by computers (even with a 2013 computer, putting those goddamn little symbols into this blog took me an extra hour) -- and referred to him as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince," the nameless little bastard complained. "I'm not the Artist Formerly Known as anything. Use my name," he sniffed, overlooking the fact that his new name was a little unwieldy, being unspeakable and untypable and all. Eventually, he consented to be called "The Artist," which is just the blowhardiest gust of hot air ever to come down Blowhard Mountain. From now on, just call me "The Writer," you guys. Have you met my wife, "The Teacher"? This is our son, "The Ruiner."
What were people calling him to his face during this period? "Artist, your pancakes are ready!" "What time does your flight get in, Artist?" "I really like the Artist's new high heels!" Anyway, one could make the argument (and I am about to) that all this stupid Puff Daddy-P. Diddy-Diddy-Doo Doo name changing can all be traced back to, so if you're annoyed that Snoop Dogg is now Snoop Lion or Ron Artest is now Metta World Peace or Chad Ochocinco is now Chad Johnson, you know who to blame.

I am never not going to love this album cover
The Artist is also one of those extra-special musicians who (through his management, of course) instructs all the employees at the venues he plays not to make eye contact with him or look at him. "Weird" Al Yankovic tells a story (I saw it once on "I Love The '80s" or something but can't find it on YouTube) about attending the 1985 Grammys and being sternly instructed, along with all the other famous musicians sitting near Prince, not to look at him.

And speaking of "Weird" Al, Prince is the one and only musician who's consistently refused to let him parody one of his songs. When you have less of a sense of humor about yourself than Kurt Cobain, who gladly let "Weird" Al parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's time to reassess.

We overlook the overwhelming evidence of this man's douchebaggery because he's just so, so good. We all remember when he played the Super Bowl a few years ago, right? Until Beyonce decisively took the title a couple of months ago (and I say that as no big fan of Beyonce), Prince's was the best halftime show ever. He played "Purple Rain" in purple rain, for Chrissake.

But Prince doesn't want me to watch it on YouTube, or any other video containing any part of anything he does, unless he gets kissed in for a taste. In 2007 he sued YouTube, eBay, and bittorrent site The Pirate Bay for copyright infringement, in an attempt to (as he put it) "reclaim the Internet." (I guess he hasn't heard of Vimeo.) The Pirate Bay is a no-brainer, and YouTube makes sense I guess (although, he played mostly covers-- not his songs-- at the Super Bowl, and nobody paid to see that the first time, so what's the harm in seeing it again?), but eBay? Is he trying to stop people from selling their Prince albums? He got paid the first time they were sold. Taking things to a new height of ridiculousness, last month he filed a lawsuit against Vine -- the social media service where users post videos 6 seconds or shorter -- because he found a few videos of people lip-syncing to 6 seconds of "When Doves Cry." What. A. Dick.

That's the guitar he broke

Not only that, he keeps soaking his fans for membership in his exclusive online music clubs, and then shuts them down. In 2001 he started the NPG Music Club, promising exclusive downloadable content and priority seating at his concerts, for only a $100 lifetime membership. Then, in 2006, he shut the site down, emailing fans that the service had "gone as far as it can go." So it can't keep providing exclusive material and priority seating to the people who paid for it? Awesome!

Two subsequent official sites, and had a similar lifespan and demise, charging the many hardcore Prince fans who will pay anything to hear what he's up to a "lifetime membership" fee, then releasing very little material, confounding subscribers with a completely confusing, decidedly user-unfriendly design, and then shutting down altogether with no refund or explanation given. He's also declared the Internet "completely over" (I'd check my numbers on that, Prince) and refuses to sell any music through iTunes or any other digital music service, so if you want to hear the new Prince album, you've got to get in your car and go to a music store (if you can still find one) and buy a CD.

Prince hates you is what I'm saying.
<0> also have 2 speak out 4 the grammar nerds out there (and U know who U R) against Prince's ridiculous liner-note shorthand. It has 2 B the stupidest thing <0> have ever seen, and it started the destruction of our language that text messaging and Twitter have since accelerated (but most definitely did not invent). So in addition to all his other sins, Prince ruined the English language.
Don't get me wrong -- if Prince wanted to charge me and 150 other people $400 to see him play at Pianos (and he probably would charge me even if I was working that night), I would pay the money, I would wait all day in line, I would subscribe to his stupid website, I would refrain from looking him in the eye, I would lend him my favorite guitar if he asked for it, and I would be every bit as stoked about it as all my friends in California were last week. I'm just saying, let's not lose sight of the fact that this guy is only slightly to the left of Idi Amin and twice as arrogant. I dig his new Afro, though.


  1. This is a great article. I feel the same about Prince, he's so ridiculously talented but I'm so tired of his arrogance. He was recently in Minneapolis and I wanted years to finally see him and tickets were $259 each, which was out of my price range. Disappointing.