Prince: Biography & Music

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will examine the life and career of pop artist Prince. We will explore his androgynous style, extensive discography, and overall impact on international popular culture.

Who Was Prince?

Few artists in the history of popular music have been as restlessly creative, iconoclastic, or unapologetically eccentric as Prince. Like some amalgamation of David Bowie, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix all rolled into one, few popular musicians have generated as much adoration and befuddlement as Prince.

During a career that spanned more than 30 years, Prince's embrace of hyper-sexuality, androgyny, and religious themes pushed the envelope of what audiences were willing to accept. It would be easy to become distracted by Prince's visual style and performativity, but his greatest strength was always his musical ingenuity and songwriting abilities.

Prince, 1986

Early Career

Prince Roger Nelson was born in the midwestern city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1958. By all accounts, his family was dysfunctional and sometimes violent. We can catch a glimpse of Prince's childhood and family life in his semi-autobiographical film 'Purple Rain.'

As a child, Prince suffered from epilepsy, although he apparently ceased to experience seizures as an adult. As a teenager, Prince quickly earned attention as a musical prodigy, mastering numerous instruments and displaying significant musical precociousness.

In 1978, Prince recorded his first album, 'For You,' playing all of the instruments on the record himself, in addition to producing and composing all of the tracks. 'For You' would set the tone for Prince's upfront, occasionally raunchy, and sexually explicit lyrics. In 1979, Prince released a self-titled album. In 1980 the highly regarded 'Dirty Mind' followed, featuring fan favorites like 'Sister,' 'When You Were Mine,' and 'Dirty Mind.' These first three albums can be seen as a trilogy of sorts, marking his most disco-influenced period.

Prince performing at the Coachella Festival in 2008

The 1980s and Superstardom

In the 1980s, Prince took the world of popular music by storm. Few artists, with the possible exceptions of Michael Jackson and Madonna, experienced as much popular success in the 1980s as Prince did. His affinity for the color purple would earn him the nickname 'The Purple One,' and his fans came to be known as 'Purple People.' The 1980s would also display Prince's exhausting work ethic and bottomless creative drive as one of the most prolific artists in popular music.

In 1982, Prince released one of his most enduring records, '1999,' which featured the classics 'Little Red Corvette' and '1999.' In 1984, Prince starred in his first feature film, the iconic, era-defining 'Purple Rain.' Based loosely on Prince's own coming of age in Minneapolis, 'Purple Rain' featured a powerful original soundtrack, live performances, and distinctive visual style. 'Purple Rain' often feels like a feature length music video, dripping with Prince's unique aesthetic and sensuality. Both the film and its soundtrack were successful, cementing Prince's status as an A-list rock star.

In 1985, Prince released 'Around the World in a Day,' which included the quintessential hit 'Raspberry Beret.' Prince also earned himself the somewhat dubious honor of his song 'Darling Nikki' topping The Parent Music Resource Center's 'Filthy Fifteen' list of songs they hoped to censor. 1986 saw Prince return to the big screen in the less-than successful 'Under the Cherry Moon.' All of this relentless activity was supplemented by much touring, producing, and several side projects.

In 1987, Prince unfurled what many critics consider to be one of his finest records, 'Sign 'O' the Times.' The soulful, eclectic, and political 'Sign 'O' the Times' ranges from odd, yet deeply compelling narrative tracks like 'The Ballard of Dorothy Parker,' to world-weary jams like the title track 'Sign 'O' the Times,' to party anthems like 'Housequake.' Intriguingly, 'Sign 'O' the Times' also included the overtly Christian song 'the Cross,' articulating a growing interest in Christianity which seemed somewhat at odds with Prince's overt sexuality.

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