Happy Birthday, Prince, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, the Symbol of Love, and All the Purple One's Other Alter Egos
The artist once again known as Prince -- and to his mother by his given name, Prince Rogers Nelson -- is one of music's most enigmatic figures, as wildly eccentric and unpredictable as Bowie, Neil Young, Dylan, or any of rock's other well-known chameleons. However, with that reputation comes certain schizophrenic tendencies; if there's any predictability in being unpredictable, it resides with the fact that his fans never know what to expect with any new or upcoming effort. And inevitably, that leaves ample room for disappointment. Like those who hope the new Stones album will measure up to Beggars Banquet or believe that Paul McCartney is capable of crafting a new Sgt. Pepper, there's always lingering hope that a new Prince album will somehow measure up to the triumphs of his initial entries... And that another Purple Rain might be in the offing.
This is, of course, fruitless speculation. Like the artists mentioned above, Prince (born June 7, 1958) has never seemed concerned with repeating earlier endeavors. Following his well-publicized tangle with Warner Bros., he even went so far as to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol -- known as the Symbol of Love -- in order to effectively erase his identity.
Truth be told, 1987's A Sign of the Times was arguably Prince's last masterpiece, the last set that many of his early fans could still identify with. In the nearly 25 years since, his career path has meandered to skittish extremes, shucking all but the most die-hard devotees in the process. His egocentric persona did little to endear him to the masses, while his revolving series of record company relationships only serve enhance his erratic and reclusive reputation.
After mostly releasing his music via his website, NPG Music Club, Prince signed on with Universal, the world's biggest record conglomerate, giving him a conduit to the spotlight. For the first time in more than a decade, Prince was actually signed to a company and not merely usurping it for distribution. Maximizing its coup, Universal went all out to trumpet his comeback by nudging the album 3121 to the top of the charts and coaxing its reluctant star to agree to a series of high-profile appearances, including a jaw-dropping appearance on Saturday Night Live. The immediate success of 3121 gave Prince his first number-one debut on the Billboard 200.
Prince released his album 20Ten in July 2010 with a free CD included with publications in the U.K., Belgium, Germany, and France. However, he also closed his official website. Speaking to London's Daily Mirror, he commented, "The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it, and then they get angry when they can't get it... Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers, and that can't be good for you."
When Prince performed at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show in Miami, he played on a large stage shaped as -- what else? -- a symbol. And though he's now back to calling himself Prince, he's as much of an enigma as ever. Never mind that he's won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the first year he was eligible, or that his music draws on an array of popular influences -- from the Beatles to Hendrix to Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown -- he remains as aloof as ever in terms of both his public and private persona.
Of course, this is all part of Prince's mystique and his habit of guarding his identity through an ever-shifting list of handles. That's not to say he doesn't share his animosity. In 1993, while negotiating the release of his album The Gold Experience, a legal battle erupted between Warner Bros. and Prince over the artistic and financial control of Prince's output. At the time, he appeared in public with the word slave written on his cheek.
"The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol," Prince explained. "Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros... I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is, a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name."
Hence, Prince became the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
Nowadays, however, he's the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or simply "Prince." And to make matters even more complicated, he's used other handles to establish other guises. Here, again, is his explanation: "I was just getting tired of seeing my name. If you give away an idea, you still own that idea. In fact, giving it away strengthens it. Why do people feel they have to take credit for everything they do? Ego, that's the only reason."
Now if that's not altogether clear, here's a quick breakdown of the other names he's favored from time to time:
Jamie Starr and the Starr Company: The pseudonym he used to claim credits for the songs he wrote for the Time and other artists from 1981 to 1984.
Joey Coco: The songwriting credit assigned to the cache of songs he wrote in the late 1980s, many of which remain unreleased. It was also applied to songs written for Sheena Easton and Kenny Rogers.
Paisley Park: Prince previously used this moniker in the early 1990s as his production credits, including those for Martika and Kid Creole.
Alexander Nevermind: This seemed an especially clever handle, but it was used only occasionally, as when he used it as the composer credits for the 1984 hit "Sugar Walls" by Sheena Easton.
Christopher: Paring things down, the Princely One used this name as his songwriting credit for "Manic Monday" when it was famously recorded by the Bangles.
Mister Nelson: We don't know this for sure, but we imagine that a certain amount of formality may be called for from the employees at his Paisley Park headquarters.
Final note: It would be really cool to know how he signs his checks.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.