Saturday night Prince put on what Eric R. Danton, writing for Rolling Stone, termed an "epic concert" to close out SXSW. Tomorrow a new book about Prince by TourÃ©, called "I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon", will be released. And though the odds are against you, TourÃ©'s worshipful yet enjoyable read contains very clear principles you can follow to become a musical icon like Prince.
I found TourÃ©'s "I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon" a bit hard to take at times in the same way that I respond to any worshipful volume about an iconic figure. But Prince fanatics will certainly find it worth reading and that's clearly who it's written for. If you don't love Prince, then this is not the book for you.
That said, I know you're wondering how you can became an icon like Prince, so here are the key principles you must keep in mind.
9 Principles 4 Becoming a Musical Icon like Prince
There are many paths to musical greatness but you cannot become an icon without giving everything you've got. Said Alan Leeds (p. 35):
"He was the guy who was always in the music room practicing piano when everyone else was outside because he sat down as a youngster and designed himself to be a rock star. Not a musician, but a rock star."
Become a Great Musician
Prince wasn't just psychologically obsessed. He put in the work. Jon Tevlin wrote (p. 36):
"Football players [in high school] coming in from practice could hear him banging on the piano or the guitar, hours after other students had gone home. During lunch hours, the music teachers locked the door for him so he could practice without interruption."
Learn the Business
Some musicians feel business is a distraction but not knowing the business will get in the way of your path to iconic status (p. 37):
"Prince didn't just dream of stardom but immersed himself in the business of music class...said the teacher, James Hamiltion...'It was letting them become aware that you can't just stroll into this world and become a star.'"
Create Your Own Strong Image
Prince was considered quite shy in high school yet he was already creating a strong image with his performances and clothing. A basketball coach was quoted in a newspaper article (p. 39):
"He was so shy, you couldn't believe it to see him perform in front of people...But he is one of those students everybody talks about."
The article described him as often wearing "an open shirt with large collars, maybe a pair of baggies over platform shoes, and a choker around his neck...Sometimes he had an afro that made him look six feet tall. Other times he wore cornrows."
Make Great Music and Put on a Great Show
You can make a living and even become a star without making great music. You can build a career in music without being a great performer. But you cannot become a musical icon without making music and performing it at a level that your fans consider truly great.
You don't have to impress everybody but you do have to impress your fanbase.
Be Controversial aka Polarizing
TourÃ© discusses a number of ways in which Prince was consciously controversial, especially regarding the sexual content of his work, but his sense of style polarized audiences from the beginning.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wanted to introduce Prince to their audience in 1981 but it didn't go so well according to musician Matt Fink (p. 15-16):
"They wanted to give his career a boost and introduce him to mainstream rock-and-roll fans...We get on stage...they took one look at Prince... And they started booing, flippin us the bird.... And they're throwing whatever they could get their hands on."
Speak to Your Generation & The Next
TourÃ© makes the case that, though Prince was from the final wave of the Baby Boom, he was truly an icon of Generation X. But I think he reached both generations deeply, speaking directly to his peers yet apparently becoming even more iconic to the next generation down.
To some degree this process relates to current marketing approaches one finds with alcohol and lingerie in which brands reach teens and even preteens by reaching college students. Due to the seemingly inherent coolness of stuff loved by both generations, the next will become truly obsessed, especially if it relates to forbidden fruit.
Be Deeply Meaningful Yet Indecipherable
TourÃ© spends a lot of time trying to decipher the true meaning of Prince's lyrics. If your lyrics are too clear, people won't do this. If you don't create an air of mystery, people won't be able to project their own beliefs and concerns onto you.
So say things that sound meaningful and perhaps are meaningful but leave a sense of mystery by being somewhat indecipherable.
Decide for Yourself What to Share and How To Share It
Part of being meaningful yet indecipherable requires that one control the context for public statements as well as the statements made. Controlling the context for what is said is part of the game of controlling what is said about you.
TourÃ© speaks in detail about his handful of encounters with Prince. He described an interview to Brittny Pierre:
"You could not tape record the interview...I think what was really going on was he just wanted to keep these journalists off balance. Because if he didn't want to be distorted then he wouldn't want people to be scribbling notes on what you say as you say it..."
"It is really difficult to hear what he's saying because he speaks in a very particular way, this sort of modern Shakespearian way. So you're constantly writing notes as he's talking and you're not really getting all of it."
"I remember writing down what he said and then later on I looked at it and said, 'I have no idea what that means.'...I don't see it. I don't know what this relates to, I don't know what is going on. That's the experience of this guy."
Are You 2 Old to Become a Musical Icon?
Many of these quotes and principles appear early in the book. Let's call it "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" for a future pop star. Most of the factors that set the stage for Prince to become an icon were in place in his early years.
However a doctoral student in physics at UT Austin once told me that one of his professors considered initial conditions to be definable at any stage in a process. So don't let your age stop you if you have the ability and are willing to do the work.
Note: I found myself thinking of Bob Dylan as I wrote this post. He took a different yet related path to become a musical icon reminding us that there is no template but that many underlying principles remain the same.
- SXSW 2013: Prince Closes Festival With Epic Concert
- TourÃ© Tackles Prince in New Book, Finds Jesus, Discovers They're One in the Same
- Rolling Stone Special: Bob Dylan
Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at All World Dance: Videos and maintains Music Biz Blogs. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.