Prince, Bowie and the Air of Mystery in Art

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Prince, Bowie and the Air of Mystery in Art

It’s not just that Prince seemed immortal; it was as if he belonged on a higher plane altogether. It was scarcely imaginable that he could somehow cease to exist, and news of his death came as a genuine shock.

His influence has been profound. As a singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, Prince has played an outsized role in shaping the sound of popular music over the past 35 years. Dig down into the cores of D’Angelo, OutKast, Pharrell, Lenny Kravitz, Beck, Sinead O’Connor, The Bangles (Prince wrote “Manic Monday”), Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, even Madonna, and you’ll find Prince. Hell, Drake’s entire career so far has essentially been a drab cover of “Purple Rain.”

Though Prince won awards (seven Grammys, an Oscar) and sold tens of millions of albums, he was also unusually attuned to his own creative vision and financial position—so much so that he shed his name in a contractual dispute with his record label and spent years releasing music under an unpronounceable symbol. It was eccentric and headstrong, and it helped enhance the mystique that surrounded him and, in many ways, defined him.

Like David Bowie, another musical icon whose death in January came as a surprise, Prince lived a private life in the public eye. On the one hand, he was everywhere: concert tours, the Super Bowl halftime show, South by Southwest, stealing the show with his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2004.

Yet in the same way that Bowie could be an extraterrestrial onstage and (eventually) live a quiet life at home, the public manifestations of Prince were an illusion, projections that allowed him to hold back his true self. For all his onstage theatrics and bold, androgynous sexuality, he was by most accounts reserved, bordering on shy. Glimpses of his personal life were spare: he played on his high school basketball team despite his diminutive height; was father to a son born with a genetic disorder who died a week later; and, after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he went door-to-door as part of the evangelical tenets of his faith. The comedic account Charlie Murphy gave on Chappelle’s Show of spending an evening playing basketball with Prince—featuring Dave Chappelle dressed as the singer—was about as inside a look as most people ever got.

Neither Prince nor Bowie set out to be enigmatic as such. Rather than being coy about it like, say, Sia, with her wig and child stand-ins, they simply kept as low a profile as anyone so famous reasonably could, especially in recent years. Driven by a restless creativity, they preferred writing songs instead of posting selfies, holing up in the recording studio instead making the scene (though Prince did drop by Electric Fetus in Minneapolis to browse on Record Store Day), being musicians instead of merely being famous.

There aren’t many artists on their level who can say the same. In fact, there aren’t many artists on their level, period. But apart from the perpetually mysterious Bob Dylan, the lives of their peers—mega-star pop icons like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, maybe Sting—have been far more picked over by the media, and by fans. The music of those artists is no less worthy for it, but dispelling their air of mystery shrank them to human size, and laid bare their flaws and failings. Bowie and Prince, by contrast, had seemed unknowable outside the vast borders of their music. That’s part of what made their deaths so stunning.

Though Lou Reed kept quiet about the health problems that led to a liver transplant in May 2013, it wasn’t such a surprise when he died five months later. For this year’s in memoriam reel, country singer Merle Haggard had lived a hard life, Glenn Frey of the Eagles had been ailing for a while, and it’s frankly amazing that Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister lasted as long as he did.

There had been Bowie health scares, too—namely, the heart attack he had onstage in Germany in 2004. But that was more than a decade ago, and there had been no recent public indications that the end was near. In fact, Bowie was so busy making such good music that it would have been ridiculous to think he was writing his own musical epitaph. Then suddenly it was obvious that’s what he had been doing with Blackstar, the album he released two days before his death from liver cancer.

In retrospect, there were hints that not all was right in Prince’s Purple Kingdom, either. The singer was said to have been struggling with the flu for a conspicuously long time, and Prince was briefly hospitalized in Moline, Illinois, last month when his private jet made an unplanned stop less than an hour away from reaching Minneapolis. Inevitably, the unexpected circumstances of his death will mean penetrating the inscrutable shroud that Prince had wrapped around himself, and that had served his music so well. In a sense, that’s a shame: for as much as we want to learn all the gritty details, sometimes it’s better not knowing how the illusion was performed.

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