Prince is notorious for shunning the media, refusing to do interviews and being reclusive. This past year, however, he has been showing up at some very mainstream spots: "Saturday Night Live," "American Idol," and this Friday he will perform on "Good Morning America."
What is going on?
Music industry experts generally agree that since he splashed onto the music scene in the 1980s, Prince's catchy melodies and ability to parse androgyny with hypersexuality, have made him an icon. According to Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Tamara Conniff, who scored a much sought-after interview with the singer, he can do whatever he wants.
Although Prince performed the song "Satisfied" from his new album "3121" on "American Idol," he refused to meet with any of the contestants or participate in onstage banter following his set -- raising the ire of judge Simon Cowell.
"He'll do it on his terms, and 'American Idol' wanted him on so they're willing to deal with Prince and do what he wants to do," Conniff said. "You cannot convince Prince of anything -- I think he just woke up one day and decided: 'Yeah, I want to do some TV.' Like anyone, he likes being relevant."
Prince's "3121" debuted at No. 1, and during its first week sold 183,000 copies, even though it is not getting played on the radio. Conniff attributes the sales to loyal fans and to the people who are curious to hear the album after the "American Idol" and "Saturday Night Live" performances.
When Prince became embroiled in a legal battle with his record label, Warner, in 1994, he became increasingly inaccessible to the media. He also made music that was so experimental it pushed him to the margins of the industry. Prince drove himself into further isolation with the 2001 ode to his new Jehovah's Witness faith, "Rainbow Children," and the all-instrumental "N.E.W.S.," released in 2003.
Some industry experts think Prince is making a concerted effort to re-enter public consciousness and forcing himself to take gigs from which he would usually recoil.
"Nowadays, he has been trying to be more relevant," said Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla. "He does the kind of stuff that it's pretty clear that it's not his idea. He's stopped short of pandering. If he made a record that was like southern hip-hop with a lot of rappers on it, that would be more embarrassing. If he did a killer summer tour of entirely "Purple Rain," it would be insane, but he won't stoop to that level."
Greg Tinjerina, 28, grew up listening to Prince and rediscovered Prince's music while in college, when the innuendo and eroticism were no longer lost on him. When he entertained people, he said he put on his Prince mixes because "the music was cool, it had a good rhythm ... it seemed to always be a crowd pleaser."
"There was a boldness to the songs back in the day," said Tinjerina, of New York City. "Now it's more of a nostalgia thing from the good old days."
The 1980s was a decade characterized by big sounds, big clothes, big hair and big personalities. It was the perfect time for an artist like Prince, now 48, who wrote songs that pushed the boundaries of pop.
Today the pop music scene is characterized by rap and hip-hop artists who outdo even Prince's infamous nods to eroticism. Syrupy sweet singers like Aaron Carter or Hillary Duff are hugely popular with preteens. It's an industry, Conniff says, that is stretched thin by the sheer number of artists out there and the influx of technology, which has caused album sales to plummet.
In today's "weird music climate," according to Conniff, it's difficult for one intriguing personality to capture a vast audience's attention like Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson did in the 80s.
But Jonathan Nice of Prince's hometown, Minneapolis, said people should appreciate Prince for his versatility, not just the music he made 20 years ago.
"A lot of people appreciate the new music because we all know that he's got this vault full of new music, so everyone's excited when he releases [something new]," said Nice, 30, who founded a Web site for Prince fans, www.princefams.com.
"You got some people -- I think it's a minority, though -- that are still stuck in 1984 and think of Prince as the 'Purple Rain' guy, and I think they are not appreciating all the music that he can create." "'Purple Rain,'" Nice adds, "was primarily a rock album, and that is not all that he is capable of."
Prince the Legend
"I think Prince is respected as a historical figure and as one of those guys who, when he's gone, no one will replace him, says Harvilla. "We may never see that combination of extreme talent and erratic behavior again."
Prince's new album has been getting decent reviews, but according to Harvilla, it does not compare to songs of 20 years ago like "1999," "Purple Rain" and "Little Red Corvette." By the sheer force of his celebrity and intrigue, he wills the public to pay attention.
"We're willing to listen to Prince whenever he wants to engage us," Harvilla said. "We're willing to put him on magazine covers."
Prince's music is almost impossible to define -- Harvilla tried and called it "cartoonishly erotic funk pop --
and that's oversimplifying it."
But Prince's wide-ranging style is what, in many ways, has made him successful as a crossover artist. Harvilla said that after Michael Jackson, Prince was the second black artist to be played on MTV and be embraced by the white youth of the era.
His influences are as diverse as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, and his music resonates with people with all kinds of tastes. Songs like "When Doves Cry" are still known and loved today. That song in particular has been covered by numerous artists like Ginuwine and the late Aaliyah.
"Even hardcore rock 'n' roll dudes will say they love Prince and mean it sincerely, says Harvilla. "He's one of those artists. He's up there with Springsteen."
The 2004 release of "Musicology" thrust Prince back into the limelight, and he did the unthinkable by performing "Purple Rain" with Beyoncé at the 2004 Grammys. He received a Grammy nomination for best male pop vocal performance in 2005, but the public will always clamor for "1999" or "Raspberry Beret."
"It's always really hard to live up to the expectations of the past, because people are emotionally vested in it. Musically, from an innovation perspective, Prince is as relevant as ever," Conniff said. "He's so creative and he inspires new musicians."