Prince, the Revolutionist
Originally written for Live2Play Magazine, May 10, 2016
How Prince Changed the Music Industry Forever Like all Prince fans, I was thrown that Thursday into a giant basket of sorrow. The memories flooded me. I couldn’t find my iPod fast enough, and I spent the bulk of two days shirking all other responsibilities to watch the non-stop tributes to his life on TV. I grew up in the golden era of Prince, came of age in it, and decided to become a professional musician because of it. Prince is a cornerstone in my musical life, as much as any teacher I ever had. And that wasn’t just because he was a genius of a musician. It’s because he was an innovator. A creator. A mastermind of thought, not just about music, but about humans and what the hell we are actually doing on this planet. When I asked my Facebook friends to tell me how THEY thought Prince had changed music, they came up with a lot of answers. One person said he was the Mozart of our era. Several said he had opened up sexuality in music and changed how all of us felt we could express it. The more that I thought about it, the more examples there were. So, here is the definitive list from a fan and fellow musician of what made Prince, not just extraordinary, but a demi-god. And more importantly, how he revolutionized music and the music industry forever. 1. He was damn sexy Prince WAS sex. In stunning clothes. Holding a guitar. He was unashamed of it, unapologetic for offending people’s stark sense of sexual shame, and wholly disinterested in holding up society’s ridiculous gender norms. He wore women’s clothes and high heels. He ran around half naked. He made buttless pants look good. And we grew because of it, into a society that believed our sexual mores needed a lot of updating and our marginalized sexual misfits needed acceptance. Prince reminded us that sex was not only fun, but spiritual. And when mixed with the right kind of music at the right time, is one of the most important things about being human. He smashed the shame to bits. And replaced it with magic. 2. He hired female musicians He literally ushered in an era of women in music that the world had never experienced before. When he hired Lisa Coleman, Prince was probably not aware of how much he would revolutionize music for women. But after hiring Wendy Melvoin, too. He had to have. He had to have known that having a female guitarist front and center as his career exploded would likely change music history. He had to have cared about it. And he had to have been willing to take the risk of being criticized. He sealed the deal when he hired Sheila E., started writing hit songs for other female pop artists (Sinead, Sheena Easton, Cindy Lauper, The Bangles), and throughout his career—time after time through the years—he filled his bands with extraordinary female musicians. In doing so, he inspired a whole generation of females to become better musicians (including me), and changed the gender divisions in music forever. Not that the war is over, but without Prince, we wouldn’t have had any battles. Some of his final appearances were with 3rdEyeGirl, the all-female rock band he created with totally unknown musicians, at least one of whom he found by searching Myspace pages. Who does that? Really? Who? Link: 2006 Brit Awards performance with Wendy, Lisa and sheila E. https://youtu.be/D15woX5EqLk Link: 3rdEyeGirl SNL Performance: https://youtu.be/CMNKnC9K8Uo 3. He fought for artist rights in an industry that had long abused them Prince was the first artist in history to suggest that a musician signed to a major label recording contract should own their master recordings. Though owning your work as an artist outright in a system controlled by giant corporations is a nice fantasy, at the time championing this cause was utter music industry blasphemy. Writing “slave” across his face wasn’t just a PR stunt. It was his final ultimatum to the suits. He was luckily, at the time, at a point in his career that he neither needed them, nor would suffer much in the backlash. Other artists had launched similar assaults (Fiona Apple had no clout or timing) and greatly suffered for it by being buried by the industry. It wasn’t just a squabble. It was a public brawl. And Prince definitely got his punches in. Check out his most obvious work about the conflict: Video of Face Down. https://youtu.be/9qowqBXoFS4%20 4. He was a musical genius He was indeed, as my friend Ginger put it, “The Mozart of our time.” Absolutely. In fact, he was more amazing than Mozart. He could play any instrument he touched with a natural ease that was otherworldly. He could play any genre: jazz, rock, pop, funk, hard core, afro pop, latin fusion, blues, and I’m certain anything else he wanted to. (If you have any doubts about this, try to get your hands on a recording called “One Night Alone – Live!” where you will be treated to wide range of Prince’s musical palette.) He was as good a singer as he was a musician, as great a performer as he was a songwriter. A ground-breaking producer. And he easily mastered the use of digital recording technology in the studio. And again, inspired a whole generation of musicians to become multi-instrumentalist, producer/writers, and in every way to try to take their skills to the next level. He blew the musical universe wide open for everyone who followed him. His ideas were from another planet. And so was he. 5. His musical instruments were finely crafted pieces of art Over the years, Prince hired an endless string of master luthiers to create guitars that broke all the boundaries on instrument design. Don’t think anything but a Les Paul sounds good on a soaring lead solo? Prince proved you wrong. His guitars were not only visually stunning, but they sounded amazing and were designed to suit his small body. The last one made, likely one of the most gorgeous, made by Simon Farmer of Gus guitars, was never played onstage, but will certainly go down in history as one of the most beautiful instruments ever designed. His purple Yamaha grand piano was to tour with him. What’s better than an guitarist who’s likely the best player on the planet? A guitarist who appreciated the artistic geniuses who make guitars, that’s what. Link: Gus Guitars, Prince’s last guitar: 6. He was a superior athlete The fact that Prince could dance and play at the same time was impressive. It’s hard to describe to people how hard it is to do, even when you are truly proficient at your instrument. The fact that he could do it in the way he did was OUTRAGEOUS. He wasn’t just “a dancer.” He was a world-class athlete. He was muscularly superior in the same way that Michael Jordan and Koby Bryant were. (He played high-school basketball and his coaches say he was good enough—even given his small stature—to have played pro.) In the same way that Michael Phelps and Venus and Serena are. I’ve read that Michael Phelps’ body couldn’t be more perfectly designed for swimming from head to to toe than it is. Prince was like that. Physically perfectly designed to defy gravity when he danced. Leaping from the stage risers five feet above the deck and landing cat-like in 4 inch heeled boots. (If you think this might just be easier than it looks because you’ve never tried it, ask a woman what she thinks about it.) Prince was a PHENOMENAL athlete and it was that same athletic muscular ability that drove his proficiency at so many instruments. To simply say he danced and played, is laughable. He didn’t dance. He sprang. He plyometrically soared. He leapt, pivoted, scaled, and parkoured. And he didn’t just play, he was technically perfect and soulfully connected. Every show. For hours. For most of his life. I’m telling you: another planet. 7. He was a humanitarian The breadth of how much charitable action Prince has taken in his life only came out after his death. CNN political commentator Van Jones revealed shortly after the announcement that Prince’s recent concerts were designed to stem the violence brought about by racial tensions. His goal was bringing the communities together, speaking with community leaders, and influencing the dialogue about change and progress. His closest friends say people will never know how much he did because he never wanted the spotlight for it. What we do know is that he was vegan and an outspoken advocate against animal cruelty, championed women’s equality, and donated large amounts to many charities and causes ranging from community building and education to AIDS research and hunger. The charity tracking website, Look To the Stars lists nine known charities and eleven causes that Prince supported. He created #YesWeCode, an organization that teaches underprivileged kids about technology. He paid for solar panels to be installed in California. He stopped by local schools in his home of Chanhassen. He talked the talk. And he walked the walk. Link: Van Jones talking on CNN about Prince’s latest concerts: We’ve lost a lot of musical heroes this year. We all certainly have our own favorites for our own personal reasons and experiences. The loss of Prince was a truly dark day for me, because it’s really rare when, as a musician, you can truly attribute your success to mostly one person. But I can, and that artist is Prince. I wanted to be like him. Or at least good enough to be in his band. He didn’t just highlight the dream for me, he created it. I’m taking comfort after writing this, that he’s probably not really gone. He’s probably just returned to his home planet. Which looks like heaven. Where every sunset is purple. Where people are awash in blindingly beautiful music, the laughter of the party, and love itself. Andrea Bensmiller is a professional musician, singer, writer and teacher based in Las Vegas. She graduated from Berklee College of Music with a degree in vocal performance and music business, and has blogged for Live2Play Network since 2010.