ADVERSARY NO. 1
In the eighties and early nineties, Prince steamrolled the music scene like a stack-heeled tank. The only one who could touch his orbit was Michael Jackson. In a way, they were destined to be rivals: two Black kids born to musical fathers in the Midwest in the summer of 1958. Two painfully shy artists known to go without sleep for days in pursuit of their art. Two musicians who found truth with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Michael Jackson even named both his sons Prince: Prince Michael Joseph Jackson Jr. and Prince Michael Joseph
Jackson II, nicknamed Blanket.
Their universes aligned so much that a collaboration seemed inevitable. Michael Jackson wrote “Bad” with the intention of singing it as a duet with Prince. The Purple One traveled to Neverland Ranch in 1984, but apparently it was a sour mix of personalities from the start. According to a 1997 VH1 interview with Chris Rock, Prince listened to the first line of the song — “Your butt is mine” — and immediately balked. “Who’s singing that to whom?” he asked Jackson. “Cause you sure ain’t singing that to me.”
According to a sound engineer present that day, Prince was alone with Jackson all of two hours then left. No one’s sure exactly what transpired, but it’s clear Prince did or said something that deeply offended the Gloved One. According to record producer L.A. Reid in his recently released memoir Sing to Me, he left such a bad taste in Jackson’s mouth that the King of Pop got his jollies watching an old video of Prince dancing, posing and preening on stage at a 1983 James Brown concert at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles. Jackson found the performance so terrible he would double over with laughter every time he watched it. Inevitably, writes Reid, Jackson would then screen another one of Prince’s catastrophes, the 1986 art film Under the Cherry Moon.
As for Prince, he took the feud public in 1992 with “My Name is Prince,” an audacious hip-hop ballad that snapped at his surgically altered rival: “I don’t wanna be king / cuz I’ve seen the top / and it’s just a dream. / Big cars and women and fancy clothes / will save your face but it won’t save your soul.” In a clear parody of the rapping on Jackson’s “Black or White,” Prince brought in rapper Tony M to throw the final dis: “U must become a prince / before u’re king anyway.”
The bad feelings stretched right into Michael Jackson’s final days. At the time of his death in 2009, he was planning a 50-concert stretch as a response to Prince’s 21 Nights engagement in 2007, when the Purple Wonder sold out London’s O2 arena for 21 days in a row, grossing $22 million. Obviously, that never happened.
IN A WAY, THEY WERE DESTINED TO BE RIVALS.
Add another similarity to that list: both icons taken before their time. Perhaps that star-crossed collaboration simply wasn’t destined to be earthbound.
ADVERSARY NO. 2
His Own Libido
Prince is the godfather of raunchy music. As journalist Craig Semon wrote in 1992, “Prince was bumping and grinding before Madonna knew which end of an Evian bottle to drink from.” In the 1980s, his level of kink was unrivaled, with tracks about so-wrong-it’s-right incest (“Sister”), rape (“Lust U Always”), 23-position tantric sex (“Gett Off”) and the like. At one point, he had the impressive distinction of having both the No. 1 and No. 2 songs on Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center’s Filthy 15: “Darling Nikki” and “Sugar Walls.”
Hetero guys must have been perfectly befuddled when women screamed in wild ecstasy for the five-foot, two-inch diva with a 27-inch waist and a wardrobe consisting of nothing more than a trench coat, a thong and leg warmers. In an interview with Out magazine in 2009, former Prince collaborators Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman theorized that his sex appeal was really about women being able to express homoerotic feelings without taking on the baggage of being gay. “He’s a girl, for sure, but he’s not gay. … I remember being at that “Sexuality” video shoot and him on stage with that little black jacket and that tie thing around his neck and his black pants with white buttons on the side. And [Lisa and I] looked at each other for the first time, and I thought, ‘Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy.’ It doesn’t matter what sexuality, gender you are. You’re in the room with him and he gives you that look and you’re like, OK, I’m done. It’s over. He’s Casanova. He’s Valentino.”
Then, in 2001, Prince found religion and shifted from raunchy rocker to preachy bore. Right after his conversion, he banned all cursing from Paisley Park. That same year, he performed at the Xcel Energy Center and stopped the show mid-set to publicly scold a woman in the front row for wearing a dress he deemed too short. In 2007, the glammed-up gospelite offered to pay the lap dancers at a Hollywood nightclub double their night’s wages if they packed it up and went home. In 2009, he released “Ol‘ Skool Company” that longed for an “old-school melody when God, his son and the love of family ruled in the community.” And in interviews, he claimed he finally felt unshackled from the demands of his overactive libido: “I’m single, celibate and sexy,” he told USA Today reporter Edna Gundersen in 2008.
“It doesn’t matter what sexuality, gender you are. You’re in the room with him and he gives you that look and you’re like, OK, I’m done.”
WINNER: His Libido
As Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Willman once wrote: “[Prince] is just another confused Peter Pan with Playboy on the brain and a Bible in the hotel drawer.”
ADVERSARY NO. 3
Prince has never been a fan of the Fourth Estate. It’s been more than 30 years since he yelled out “Take a bath, hippies!” on “All The Critics Love U In New York,” and he only grew more anti-media as the years wore on. By 1990, Prince had issued a universal decree against note taking and tape recorders in his Purple Presence. He preferred, as Guardian columnist Joachim Hentschel put it, that writers simply “soak up the vibes.” Of course, journalists technically weren’t allowed to share any of said vibes because they were reportedly required to sign a four-page confidentiality agreement prohibiting them from writing about anything outside the narrowly defined purview of the interview.
Not only did he try to make the job as hard as possible, he was also into unabashed humiliation. In 1990, Prince made a gaggle of journalists dance for him, and only those hacks whose moves he deemed sufficiently funky got to ask questions. Last November, he summoned four European music critics to Paisley Park and had them literally sit at his feet while he fielded questions from behind a grand piano. Whenever the journalists asked him a question he didn’t like, he struck up the theme from The Twilight Zone and wordlessly shook his head.
It really wasn’t anything reporters didn’t expect. English music writer Alexis Petridis was there and summed it up like so: “I’m a journalist and thus aware that among Prince’s panoply of talents lies a nonpareil ability to screw with journalists.” He certainly got his chuckles last August when he summoned New York Post reporter Hardeep Phull to Paisley Park on short notice then insisted on being interviewed over the phone — from Paisley Park. Novelist and hardcore fan Matt Thorne spent months trying to secure an interview with His Highness. Finally, he was invited to a gig in New York. Midway through a guitar solo, Prince spotted the writer in the audience, walked over and whispered: “How ’bout that interview?” When Thorne turned around, the musician ran off. The novelist never heard from him again.
We knew what was coming, and yet we reporters just kept banging our heads against the wall. Mark Lepage, an industrious reporter for the Montreal Gazette, spent the better part of two weeks in 2001 trying to land an interview via various Prince underlings, essentially offering free publicity prior to his show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. After a half-dozen contradictory messages, it became clear to Lepage that an in-person interview was never going to happen. He was finally able to email a few questions to Prince, by way of his handlers, hoping that the elfin enigma would deem him worthy of a response. Eventually, Lepage was told Prince “[would] not answer these questions.” After pushing a little harder, he was then told Prince wouldn’t answer “this woman’s questions.” When he tried again to get a response — noting he was in fact a man, not a woman — Prince insisted he actually only wanted to be interviewed by a woman.
Journalists tried various tactics to skirt the Evasive One. Clever Twin Cities writer Neal Karlen, for example, faked a bladder infection so he could race to the bathroom every half hour to write notes on toilet paper. Star Tribune columnist C.J. long called Prince “Symbolina,” a nickname that practically seethes with revulsion. We media types have had our moments of quiet rebellion, but really, who are we kidding? This is a slam dunk for the Purple One.
“Among Prince’s panoply of talents lies a nonpareil ability to screw with journalists.”
Resist though we tried, we simply couldn’t stay away.