A Prince and a Duke

In the way the world has of throwing up patterns, this has been the year of the death of musical icons. I’ll not be the first to draw comparisons between David Bowie and Prince, or the last.

Bowie and Prince inhabited very similar places in my musical world, the respectable faces of popular music, so vastly talented that the reach of their appeal could not diminish their cool, even to a fragile, fashion conscious adolescent. Each dominated their respective decades, Bowie ruling the seventies, from Hunky Dory through to the Eno trilogy, and Prince moving in just as Bowie’s musical star faded. 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’ the Times surely represents that period’s most startling run of recordings. Along with Bob Marley, Prince provided my generation with a sound track that transcended cultures, something Bowie, even in his pomp, never managed.

And yet, it is hard to escape the feeling that the media treatment of the two deaths is both different, and instructive. The death of Bowie saw not only a devoted front page in my local paper, but an endless sequence of articles over the following days, where journalists and luminaries of a certain age dwelt at length upon the contribution Bowie made to their existence. While the world section of this morning’s paper does lead with Prince’s death, neither the front page treatment, nor the mourning chorus, can be found. In Prince’s case, the coverage is already veering towards the salacious, with more interest in the circumstances of a death, that the grandeur of the life that preceded it. Along with the probing articles on drug use (Bowie’s drug use, like Keith Richards, was more often passed over as the predictable indulgences of fame and youth) there has also been a piece on Prince’s love life. And, as the controversies are brought to the fore, the musical genius fades to off stage. There is something shabby, and sadly predictable, about this difference.

It’s almost too obvious to point out that part of the issue here is race, and the stereotypes indulged by the lazier journalists. The broader point perhaps, is a reminder that the world portrayed by the mainstream media is the world of a few. As it is with music, which is in many ways the trivial case, so it is with the way the spotlight falls when it comes to social and political issues, to the way history is retold, the way our heroes are selected and celebrated. All my life, this has been a reasonably comfortable state of affairs for me, for I am white and male and middle class, and latterly of the age and concerns of the agenda setters. But, for a great number, they will never see their concerns presented back to them: not on the New Year’s honours lists, not on the political campaign, the six o’clock news, not even in the passing of their musical heroes.

One would like to say it’s a sign o’ the times, but the problem feels much older than that.



2 thoughts on “A Prince and a Duke

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Bernard-

    I take your point, and it is quite a mine field to wade into, once the race card is put out there. But I think there are two further hypotheses that might be relevant. Prince chose an awkward time to die, before his fans had fully come into control of the media landscape. I agree that there was far more, and more heartfelt, coverage on the media I consume for Bowie than of Prince. Perhaps younger media played it differently. For me, (and you as well, perhaps), we are still professionally active and probably the managerial cohort in the media, while also starting to become nostalgic about music that transformed our youth. Which fit Bowie’s choice of when to die perfectly.

    Secondly, there is the possibility that Bowie was, indeed, a better and more transformative artist. Not a better guitar player by any means! But Prince, in his androgeny and lavish self-presentation was hardly blazing a new trail. I think that coming out of the more straight-laced 60’s, mop-top bands, etc., Bowie was more revolutionary to those sheltered youth who encountered him. Looking at the charts, Bowie was not objectively better in making hits than Prince. So I would have to recur to matters of taste and artistry, which is doubtless a losing proposition, though personally, my Prince catalog is much, much smaller than my Bowie collection- racism at work, surely. But seriously, artistic judgement is highly fraught, I am sure you appreciate.

    Lastly, Prince had a rather testy relationship with the industry- understandable enough- which seems for some reason to not have won the media to his side, as one might have expected for a leftish crowd. Bowie was perhaps a little more canny about the media throughout his career, and even financially once he got his drugs and management straightened out, (with his bond issue, for instance). And beyond that had a more broad and interesting range of artistic activities- acting, painting, video, etc, which helped frame him as a serious modern artist, not just a composer and singer.

    On the other hand, all this speaks to Bowie’s ability, as a white person, to just take the world (his world) by storm as if he deserved and owned it, which a minority person simply can’t do. Michael Jackson was another pattern and competitor for Prince, and suffered so terribly and visibly for being different. Racism warps people with its many poisons.

  2. Hi Burk

    I agree. With respect to the first point, it will be interesting to see whether a swing in the media used to collect information will broaden the channels, so to speak. I’m not sure that’s a given, but only time will tell. I wonder if the eighties are sufficiently historical that Prince and Bowie fans are both caught on the same side of the digital divide on this one.

    As to quality and significance, indeed, how could one ever judge such a thing (ask God, perhaps?)


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