Based on my personal experience, it seems that the general population is unaware that Prince was born with his unusual name. His father, John L. Nelson, was known in the Minneapolis music scene as Prince Nelson, and his firstborn son was given that name in 1958. The birth certificate read "Prince Rogers Nelson" as a matter of public record. I can only imagine the taunts he had to endure in his childhood. Is Prince a common name? For a dog, maybe. But he overcame the stigma and became a phenomenal musician and a worldwide superstar.
On his thirty-fifth birthday in 1993, Prince announced that his public life under that name was at an end. From that moment on, he wanted the press, his record label, and everyone else to refer to him by using a symbol which had appeared on his album covers and elsewhere since 1982. Visually, this new name combines the traditional symbols for male and female, along with a stylized horn of some sort. This puzzling move has been the subject of ridicule and scorn ever since. But aren't there some questions to be considered here? Why did he change his name? And why did it have to be an unpronounceable icon? What does he stand to gain? Has he sabotaged his career or was this the best move he ever made?
First of all, it should be noted that name games are nothing new to this man. By using a variety of pen names and identities, his creative mind has explored new avenues. In the early 80's, Jamie Starr wrote and produced a great deal of music for Prince's protégé acts the Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E., and Apollonia 6. A guy by the name of Alexander Nevermind gave the song "Sugar Walls" to Sheena Easton, and a fellow called Christopher lent his talents to the Bangles by penning "Manic Monday." Alter egos like Camille and Gemini have been credited as the vocalists of memorable Prince songs. And while he essentially played himself in the film Purple Rain, the character was known as The Kid.
He has also been known to refer to his songs as "children" and, over the years, spoiled some of these kids by placing their names elsewhere. "Paisley Park" was a song about a mythical place where one could feel free, and then it became the name of Prince's mythical recording studio in Minneapolis. "Glam Slam" embodied his philosophy of lust and later served as the name for a number of nightclubs across the country that he helped operate. And there was a song called "New Power Generation" before he lent that name to the band who collaborated with him on his final two albums as Prince. And what was the final release by Prince and the New Power Generation? It had an unpronounceable title: . This album suggests that his identity crisis had already become an issue. "My name is Prince" is the lyric that kicks off the song cycle, and the closing comment is "when I reach my destination/ That's when I'll know/ That's when my name will be Victor." As we know, he opted against Victor.
When the name chance was announced, no reasons were given. Popular consensus was that he was having a superstar tantrum, an identity crisis magnified to an impossible degree. Later, he discussed the unorthodox change on his web site, The Dawn. Frustration with Warner Bros. and their legal right to the master tapes of his music led to his decision:
"The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to . 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 , 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."
No matter what jokes you have heard on late-night talk shows or around the water cooler at work, Prince Rogers Nelson remains his legal name. He can sign that name however he pleases, just as a pharmacist can scribble a prescription and claim that it shows his signature. It seems to me that serves as a stage name for a man who became disgusted by the identity that had been molded and packaged by big business. But does any of this justify his use of a symbol for a name? Maybe not. Let's dig deeper.
On a video collection in 1994, an important thought was voiced by Mayte, then a member of Prince's entourage and now his wife: "We don't worry about what to call Prince now. If we're always with him, then we never have to call him." An omnipresent being? Wouldn't that be God? And hasn't Prince always been one of rock's most outspoken religious thinkers?
Faith can be puzzling. It's difficult to believe in life after death, or divine guidance, or any religious precepts when so little proof exists. Yet a vast majority of the world's population has a firm belief in a higher power. Prince calls him God. But is that His real name? Or has organized religion tagged Him that way to make it easier to "sell" to the masses? Could the concept be so complex that words fail?
Maybe, in some cases, a symbol is the best way to make your point. Holding two fingers in the air only signifies peace because we want it to. Flicking the bird is only offensive because we agree that it is. A heart makes love seem tangible, and a dollar sign explains the gold standard better than you or me. The symbol suggests the union of all men and women through music, and who are we to argue with that concept? If you've seen sheet music, you know that a whole mess of symbols were invented so songs could be put on paper for everyone to share. Music is meant to be heard, not seen, and pointing out a treble clef on a sheet of paper defeats the purpose. Who cares about the treble clef? And in the long run, who cares about ? The music will outlive the man.
Now let's discuss that music. In the years since the name change, three albums of Prince/ music have been released by Warner Bros. At first, the company resisted the symbol and credited the initial release, Come, to Prince 1958-1993. This was done even after the phenomenal success of the first single by , "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Some of the jams included on Come were first seen on an import-only videotape called The Beautiful Experience and are clearly attributed to , making the gravestone credit seem even stranger. This album contained no hits and drew little commercial response. A year later, The Gold Experience (the first album) was enjoyed by a small but enthusiastic audience who recognized it as his best work in years. When Warner Bros. distributed Chaos and Disorder the next year, sales were dismal. The record was widely considered to be a contractual obligation throwaway, despite its tight live sound and impressive range of material. The dwindling sales of these albums could be considered a disaster. But maybe impressive numbers aren't the aim.
Prince started his career as a big R&B star with limited mainstream success. At that point, he left the middle of the road and headed for the ditch. In 1980, it was risky to record new wave songs with lusty lyrics that assured no radio airplay (the classic Dirty Mind), but it paid off. Critics took notice and he became an underground favorite. This paved the way for his huge success with 1999 and Purple Rain. Certainly that was the pinnacle of his career, as far as worldwide earnings and universal adulation are concerned. But by heading for the ditch again, by changing his name and experimenting with his style, by lowering his stock value and escaping his record contract, ; has become an underground artist again. In late 1996, the first collection of music since his break with Warner Bros. appeared in record stores, a sprawling three-hour extravaganza integrating great dance grooves and slow-burning ballads. Critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, and sales have been brisk despite the high price of a 3-CD set. It's no coincidence that he titled this album Emancipation.
In early 1985, Prince was touring the world in support of a hit movie and its multi-million selling soundtrack. The single "I Would Die 4 U" was released at that time and became the fourth Top Ten single from Purple Rain. In the years since then, it has emerged as one of Prince's most enduring songs. Considering the Messiah fixation evident in its lyrics, the topics discussed in this essay should not be a surprise. He said:
I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I am something that you'll never understand....
I am not human
I am a dove
I'm your conscience
I am love
All I really need
is 2 know that you believe that I would die 4 u
In many ways, he lived up to his promise. Prince is dead. He died so that the creative process could flourish without the interference of big business, and everyone benefits from that. The self-sacrifice of Prince offended and confused many of his listeners, and they may never forgive him for making strange choices. The audience is smaller now, but more devoted than ever. Perhaps it's necessary to offend everyone to find out who your real friends are. It worked for Christ. And it's working for too.