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What Will We Continue to Learn from Prince's Legacy?

The music of Prince will from now on live as refracted by others, at karaoke bars or in ersatz jukebox sets or in cover form.
April 28, 2016, 8:10pm

Image by Liz Klein

Near the end of Liz Phair's breezy set at New Orleans' Saenger Theater on Friday, a stagehand brought out a music stand and some microphones. She started to introduce her next song, then just said, "Fuck it," and strummed a few chords—the opening to the Prince-penned portrait of romantic despair "Nothing Compares 2 U," which was a chart-topping hit for Sinéad O'Connor three years before Phair's storied debut Exile In Guyville hit stores.


Phair's version of the song was plainspoken, bypassing the octave-leaping emotion in O'Connor's version (not to mention the take released by Prince, which featured a wrenching performance by dance belter Rosie Gaines, on his 1993 greatest-hits compilation). Yet even though her performance was muted, the emotional impact was still there—both because of the song's simple portrayal of post-breakup malaise and the fact that Prince's death at 57 had only been announced some 36 hours prior, exploding a weirdly shaped crater into the world of post-millennial pop.

As I type this I'm listening to Prince's 1982 track "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)," all submerged hyperactivity that sounds like it came from a time beyond even now—and certainly not 34 years ago. His yelps still sound electric, the song fresher than whatever Drake ripoff I'll hear in my next Uber. But Prince won't be pushing into the future any longer, which means no more unexpected shows in a city possibly near you; no more winking social media posts; no more music, unless you count all the long-buried material Prince has locked in his storied vaults. The music of Prince will from now on live as refracted by others, at karaoke bars or in ersatz jukebox sets or in cover form.

Those covers, at the very least, can also serve as a testament to Prince's legacy, a way of showing not just how he influenced musicians from all over the musical map, but how its points aren't all that far from one another. Take the one from last Friday: When Exile came out in 1993, Prince was tussling with Warner Bros. over whether or not to release his first album with The New Power Generation; Phair, meanwhile, was an instantaneous critical darling. (Exile handily won the 1993 Pazz & Jop poll, while the three-disc compilation of hits and rarities that Warner put out came in eighth on the reissues list, behind the likes of The Beach Boys and Elvis Costello.) The two drew glee from bawdiness—a "Sexy MF"/"Flower" one-two punch could be seen as a deliriously filthy back-and-forth between a ribald room-worker and an admirer quietly fantasizing from across the room—and a playful attitude toward song structure and melody, although their positions in the marketplace were far afield from one another at the time.

The weekend surrounding Phair's set was the opening weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where tributes to Prince abounded; Pearl Jam, Nick Jonas, Grace Potter, and J. Cole were but a few of the artists who took time out of their set to honor him. Janelle Monáe sprinkled her set with anecdotes detailing his unfailing support of her career, then closed things out with the luscious Purple Rain track "Take Me With U." Anthony Brown and group therAPy's rework of the Purple Rain track "I Would Die 4 U" into a straight-up gospel track—"Jesus died 4 u," the chorus went—was reverent yet joyous, celebrating both Prince's painstaking attention to funk-pop detail and his religious beliefs.

Prince's presence hovered over the festival quite literally at one point; during Maxwell's Saturday-evening set, a skywriter took it upon himself to add some Prince-inspired graffiti to the heavens. He opened with a simple tribute to the man himself, although like the man it was honoring, it was gone too soon: The "P" and "R" in Prince's name had fizzled into the sky by the time the "E" was even completed.

Skywritten eulogies have built-in poignancies, although they do add to the rollercoaster experience of mourning. Prince has been a part of my pop life for most of my 40-and-change years: Watching the video for "Little Red Corvette," all smoke and gloss, in the early days of my childhood MTV habit; "I was feeling rambunctious" and other spoonerisms littered my understanding of his catalog (that one was from the opening of the dancing-school staple "1999," and likely derived from a teacher's upbraiding); the grandiose solo and seething-lizard buzz that opened "When Doves Cry"; the boxing-ring bell that would snap me to attention every time "Pop Life" came on the radio; the scandal accompanying his bare butt on the VMAs; my first time seeing him; the songs, the songs, so many of which I loved and spun even during my cooler-than-thou undergraduate-radio years, even more of which I missed during their first go-round. He didn't define my idea of music as much as he popped up in all of its secret passageways, always grinning, always ready to bend my brain.

That's probably the best lesson to take from Prince's legacy—readiness. Not just readiness to dance, or make out, or throw caution to the wind, or wail, but readiness to see inspiration in places hidden or seen as unlikely. (Mid-period Foo Fighters? Joan Osborne's hit about God? Sheryl Crow? Sure, why not.) Making the musical map smaller, after all, makes the party pop off even more.

Listen to a Prince playlist on Tidal by Maura Johnston here.

Maura Johnston would die 4 u. Follow her on Twitter.