Without them, structures, systems and societies fall into chaos. But even the rules have a way of making room for special cases. Consider quantum physics and the particles that exist in more than one position at the same time. In much the same way, a tiny musical prodigy from Minneapolis existed as both Black and White, occupying both perspectives fully; Prince gave voice to both male and female aspects of himself, utterly; he played R&B and rock amazingly; and he inhabited it all completely at the same time. The general rule is that you find your genre and stick with it. Rules are necessary, but in some cases, they simply don’t apply.
The prevailing rule in 1977 was that the record label you signed with wrote your songs, you recorded with a studio band, and you were assigned a producer to polish your sound. That was before a soft-spoken but cocksure 19-year-old bounced into the offices of Warner Bros. Music, quietly demanding to have none of the above. Prince would play all of the instruments himself, and write, arrange, and produce all of the songs (because he was able to do it all, and do it all well) or he would walk. The rules tend to make room for special cases.
In the nascent days of Music Television, the standard model for airplay was white rock bands and pop stars, and that was about it. The only remotely brown faces to be seen at the time were two of the most gifted, enthralling, and seismic performers of the day: Michael Jackson (an icon in his own right), and a heels-wearing, roller-skating, basketball-playing, son of a band leader. Prince brought a sound and an attitude all his own to MTV that refuted being pigeon-holed and would not be ignored. Even when the rule was homogeneity and exclusivity, Prince’s musicianship and showmanship made certain that a place was made for him.
The established order for a musician was (and mostly still is) that you write, record, and release an album, then go on tour to promote it. This process generally consumes a couple of years at a time, to be conservative. An order such as this can be restrictive though, especially if one happens to almost exhale music –lyrics, melodies, and accompaniments alike– naturally, and sincerely as Prince did. The songs fell from him like ripe fruit, so bountiful a harvest, that he gave many away. The Time, The Bangles, Madonna, Sinead O’Connor… the list is extensive. For the songs that he kept, some were recorded and released, more were recorded and stored away. Funk grooves, jazz licks, rock operas… he even wrote the score for a ballet. Prince’s ability to create any and every conceivable musical thought that he had was nothing short of a superpower, and superheroes are known to bend or break the rules that bind us mortals to the earth.
Prince himself said that “a strong spirit transcends rules,” a fitting testament to a musician, a performer, a person who so often made the incredible seem so effortless. We, the spectators and admirers, are grateful for his strength of spirit, his depth of talent, his wealth of artistry, and his capacity to soar far above any rules that dared to abridge his genius.
He was exceptional that way.