What most of my generation generally knows about Prince makes for a fairly short list. Chris Rock did a skit where he claimed that Prince won the Prince/Michael Jackson debates of the 1980s. Kevin Smith did a bit on his speaking tour where he explained just how batshit insane Prince is. During most of the time we’ve been listening to music, he had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Oh and he was on American Idol last year.
Not unlike his 1980s contemporaries U2, Prince has spent the past few years in a valiant attempt at commercial relevance after spending the 1990s in an experimental, self-indulgent phase. Also not unlike Bono and the boys, he has done so with recorded material that, while decent, is a pale imitation of previous glory days. The success of his “comeback” seems to be founded on people just being glad to have Prince back in the public eye once again, regardless of the music he’s actually making.
For people like me who grew up seeing Prince as an eccentric oddity, it’s fascinating to look back at the Purple Rain era, another time where Prince made no bones about wanting to take over the world. Prince OWNED 1984, from the music to the politics (it was Purple Rain’s “Darling Nikki” that led to Tipper Gore’s campaign against obscene content in the music industry). How else to explain an all-over-the-place vanity film, featuring acting and plot as terrible as the performances were stunning, becoming one of the top-grossing films of the year (making around $126 million in today’s money)? Almost every one of the album’s 9 tracks hit the radio that year, from the notoriously bass-less “When Doves Cry” to the soulful “I Would Die 4 U.” The title track was actually written when Prince noticed during his 1999 tour that Bob Seger was playing many of the same venues as him; he wanted to write a song that a Bob Seger fan would enjoy.
So it’s fitting that during the Super Bowl Halftime show last night, probably the biggest stage Prince has played since his “comeback” three years ago, that the only three original songs played came from Purple Rain, opening with the obvious “Let’s Go Crazy,” followed by “Baby I’m A Star” and ending with the wonderfully-epic title track. What was surprising was the material in between, as Prince riffed on a number of covers including “Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and most bizarrely at all, “Best of You” by the Foo Fighters (not that I’m complaining, mind you – “Best of You” is easily among the best modern rock singles of the past few years). All the while, Prince wailed on three different guitars, continuing to prove his chops as one of the best guitarists in the business. And when all was said and done, many today are calling it the best Halftime show in years, if not ever.
Well done, Purple One. Now just make a great album again, will ya?