The musical world lost a genius, an innovator, and a true legend. Two days ago Prince passed away at the age of 57. While I didn't know him personally, nor was I fully aware of his exceptional abilities that would make him an icon, I did know that I enjoyed his music and it was a big part of my middle and high school experiences. He was on my clock radio and at the school dances, providing a soundtrack for those days and nights filled with innocence and uncertainty.
As I've been watching tributes and hearing his songs there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential pop musicians of our time. He has left a tremendous legacy and everyone is talking about how amazing and phenomenal he was and the mark he left on not just America, but the on world. And something has struck me so profoundly among the accolades:
He was 5'2".
He was a scrawny, androgynous looking, African-American man from humble roots in Minneapolis.
He had a penchant for bedazzled suits, wild hair, and combining gold lame pants with platform boots and no shirt.
But back in the late seventies and early eighties, none of the physical stuff mattered. It was radio, NOT video, and most of the time when we heard a song we liked we may have only had a passing idea of what the artist even looked like. The outer appearance didn't seem to matter much to Prince himself either because when asked how he wanted to be remembered he simply replied, "The music."
He may have only been 62 inches tall, but there was enough talent in that frame to fill a mountain. He could play any instrument, and play it flawlessly with soul and passion. He could jump between pop, soul, R&B, and jazz with the expertise that few on the planet possess. When Eric Clapton was asked "How does it feel to be the best guitar player on the planet?" he responded, "I don't know, why don't you ask Prince?"
In the 80s, wild hair and extravagant outfits were the norm. Remember Boy George, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Twister Sister? Prince fit right in with that era, and when that style trend ended, his signature flamboyance cemented him as eccentric and unconventional. When he famously broke with his given name and officially replaced it with an unpronounceable symbol, people thought he went off the deep end just for the sake of being weird. (It turns out, there was a very specific, rather ordinary reason for doing what he did, according to him.) But whatever anyone thought of him based on his appearance and public behaviors, no one could ever deny the magnificence of the music.
He had immense talent, and his height and physical appearance were secondary.
I do not think that is the case now. I believe that if Prince was introducing himself to the world now, he would have not made it past the first round of American Idol, America's Got Talent, or The Voice. He did not have the physique or "typical" look of what constitutes a "star" these days. He did not have a soaring voice that could belt out high notes for 16 counts. He didn't fit into one specifically marketable category - he wasn't grunge, or singer/songwriter, or Top 40, or classic rock.
Which, by the way, is what made him so great. He was all of those genres put together. Artists today are pigeonholed into "You're country," or "You're alternative," and if they try to cross over into another type of music they are told "It won't sell. The public won't get it." (Unless of course you are Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, or Taylor Swift, who can breeze effortlessly between country and pop hits because they share the trump factor of looking exactly like Barbie dolls.)
32 Grammy nominations, 7 Grammy awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, 4 Number One American Billboard Chart Hits, more than 100 million albums sold worldwide - for those of us who enjoy empirical data, the numbers don't lie. Prince was one of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century. Despite the fact that he was not conventionally good-looking and that 99% of American men were more than an entire foot taller than him.
Nobody cared. Talent won out in this case and hopefully people will remember him and give the kids with potential, who look more like him than the quarterback, a chance to perform and pursue their dreams of becoming musicians. Prince can be a lesson to us all. It doesn't matter what your outside looks like, it's what is inside your heart, your mind, and your soul that really counts toward having a happy and successful life. He also always stayed true to himself in spite of fallouts with record companies and press who dubbed him "unwilling to play the game." His nonconformity was also what made him so great and so admired. Prince was Prince, and that was more than enough.