Prince was the definition of prolific. An artist who spent the majority of his life creating, recording, and performing at an incomparable rate. With over 30 studio albums, numerous side-projects, and countless unofficial recordings, he crammed a staggering amount into his time on this planet.
Equally impressive is that many of those albums (particularly through the zenith of his creativity in the early to late 80s) were markedly different from each other. Each had a distinct sound and theme, while retaining a unifying and quintessential ‘Prince-ness’. His constant need for reinvention wasn’t limited to music either – every release brought a new visual aesthetic that complemented the sound.
However, as an icon of not just music but popular culture in general, when you mention Prince to anyone who isn’t necessarily a fan, they will more than likely conjure up a very specific image of him in their mind. It will relate to a particular period, and be linked to a particular color. That image will be of Prince circa 1984, and the color (that has come to be synonymous with his name) will be purple.
Despite the fame, fortune, and recognition it brought him, the huge success and cultural impact of Purple Rain (both the album and movie) came to be something of a burden to carry. He’d managed to shape and define the zeitgeist of 1984, but in doing so he’d also shaped an image of himself that would prove to be more enduring than he could have possibly imagined. Purple Rain would go on to become his best selling album by some distance, and for all his subsequent reinventions and musical backflips, he would never really escape the shadow it cast.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. At various points in his career, Prince did his best to unshackle himself from his purple past, perhaps most famously in the mid 90s, where along with declaring ‘Prince is dead’ (and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol) he also embarked on a tour where he primarily played material from an unreleased album (the later released The Gold Experience) and steadfastly avoided playing ‘the hits’. At concerts on his 2002 One Nite Alone tour, he would sometimes reproach the audience by declaring “4 those of U expecting 2 get ur purple rain on, ur in the wrong house”, but even on this tour, his most famous song would occasionally be slipped back into the set. It wasn’t until 2004, the 20th anniversary of the release of Purple Rain, that Prince seemed to finally come to terms with his legacy, and became more at ease performing the songs from his 80s heyday. Of course, his focus always remained on whatever new music he was creating, and dedicated fans were always eager to see which direction his muse would take him next, but for the most part, his new music became increasingly ignored by mainstream audiences, and their perception of him fixated in the past.
For the public at large, Prince is forever frozen in the purple rain.
For the public at large, Prince is forever frozen in the purple rain. In the same way that Elvis’s depiction in pop culture usually involves the flamboyant jumpsuits of his Vegas period, Prince will more often than not be depicted wearing a purple trench-coat with curly bouffant hair. On occasion, there’ll be the addition of certain anachronisms such as his 1992 era ‘love symbol’ motif, and sometimes even the symbol guitar, but the overall image will likely be reflective of a relatively narrow timeframe for someone whose career and impact was much larger.
For those of us who followed his music and career closely, there’s often a sense of frustration when we encounter these stereotypical portrayals of him that the wider media generates. Prince’s lifelong kaleidoscopic approach to music and visual identity get seemingly ignored, and we’re left with a crude monochrome caricature. Perhaps there’s little that can be done to make the general public’s image of him more expansive and elaborate, just like Prince was, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and add more color to the picture when educating future generations about his genius. Prince was more than purple – he was the entire spectrum.