Saturday, October 31, 2009

Michael Jackson and Prince

No, by this I don't refer to either of his sons, though I ought to mention that I spent years thinking that Michael Jackson named his sons after his great 80s rival for musical dominance (or alternately as a tacit acknowledgement of his own status as 'king' (of pop)). No, this is about that other effeminate, slight, light-skinned genre-bending 80s superstar, Prince Rogers Nelson.

They say (Elvis and the Beatles perhaps having been erased from the public's memory) that the 1980s was the era of the pop superstar. And with the peculiar revisionism through which we remember the past, it's often said that the era threw up three massive pop stars: Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna (sometimes, Bruce Springsteen is stuck in that list, but that's a ridiculous claim about someone who's never really worked in the pop genre). I think Michael Jackson and Madonna have a lot in common, and 'pop'-wise are true kin, but I think the comparisons and contrasts between Michael Jackson and Prince are probably more interesting.

Prince was never the reliable unit-shifter that Michael Jackson was. His Purple Rain went huge at around the same time as Thriller, but Prince tended to sabotage his commercial breakthroughs by rushing less commercial follow-ups onto the marketplace. In the 1980s Prince was far more prolific than Michael Jackson, and this restlessness meant it was much harder to be a Prince fan, despite his obvious genius (this is why Prince fans became a rarer commodity as time went by). Prince was a songwriter, musician and producer sooner and with more accomplishment than Michael Jackson, and his talent routinely overflowed to other artists, whereas Michael Jackson was perhaps too independent-minded (or self-conscious) to 'svengali' any proteges.

Yet every Michael Jackson album was a major event, while Prince albums often got lost in the shuffle. Spreading himself too thin over so many acts, projects and albums meant high amounts of filler on Prince albums. Prince was interested in the silver screen; Michael Jackson chose instead to master the music video in a way Prince never approached. Michael Jackson sometimes seemed too asexual for comfort; Prince turned off many fans by being overly libidinal.

In the 1990s, Prince alienated his fanbase with a series of eccentric decisions: going to war with his record label, suing his internet fansites and, of course, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Michael Jackson's eccentricities were related not ot his professional career but to his homelife, and ultimately led to the increased accusations of child abuse that led to his retreat from public consciousness. By the end of the 1990s, both were punchlines for hack comedians, even as they continued to release excellent material. Both have had on-and-off-again relationships with the Jehovah's Witnesses, which has affected their work. But have even composed songs for Brt Simpson: Michael Jackson's, "Do the Bartman", was the hit, while Prince's "My Name is Bart" mutated into a solo track called "My Name is Prince" that is filled with what many interpret as disses of Michael Jackson. What a cartoon can do to people...

"Bad" was meant to be a duet between these two icons: a kind of 'sparring' session to see 'who's bad' between the two of them. Neither is, of course, even remotely bad, but I think Prince has a certain street-sense that would give him the edge as 'badder' than Michael Jackson. No worry: another difference between Michael Jackson and Prince is that Prince has always been so interested in control that he's unwilling to enter into genuine equal-partner 'collaborations', preferring instead to keep the reins at all times and 'collaborate' only in a top-down fashion; any kind of duet between them would (like "Love Song" by Madonna) have way too many of Prince's fingerprints on them and way too few of Michael Jackson's. It's probably just as well they didn't collaborate, however fascinating the thought indubitably is.

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