Music Features

Remembering Prince, Who Dissolved Gender and Redefined Star Power

A Prince tribute airs tonight in honor of the four-year anniversary of the icon's death.

Prince was born on June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

By the time he died exactly four years ago today, he'd released 23 albums, redefined the color purple, and ingrained himself within the legacy of pop music forever.

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The debate over Ed Sheeran's talent has been raging on for years.

"He falters along this blurry gray line where he is always straddling two states of being," wrote Vice. "At once charming and un-charming, a banger machine and anti-music, good at pop and bad at it, annoying and irresistible…" the list goes on.

Known as "The Sheeran Effect," Ed Sheeran's cheesy brand of buoyant love songs has been a moneymaker for the music industry since the ginger's inception into mainstream success in 2011. "The art of the former couch surfer's appeal when he emerged in 2010 was that he had little in common with the deity-like singers who had been occupying the charts before his arrival," wrote The Guardian. Sheeran's appeal was in his unappealing tendencies. "He growls with the fervour of a 26-year-old man desperate to be sincerely identified as an infant."

Celebs Who Want Absolutely Nothing To Do With Ed

Sheeran's global domination is no accident, and it definitely doesn't have anything to do with talent—though he'd love it if you thought it did. In an interview with Chris Evans, Sheeran was asked whether the disparity between "Shape of You" and "Castle on the Hill," the singer's first new singles in over 3 years, was coordinated on purpose to appeal to two different types of mainstream listeners. "It definitely came into the equation," Sheeran said. "Everyone said [Castle on the Hill] was a Radio 2 single and we need something for Radio 1. So your theory is correct."

In The Beautiful Ones, Prince's newly released memoir, which he was working on vehemently before his death in 2016, the late and great artist all but confirmed Sheeran to be one of a few tried-and-true weapons of the music industry: totally accessible pop, all gimmicks, no substance. "We need to tell them that they keep trying to ram Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran down our throats," he wrote. "And we don't like it no matter how many times they play it."

In fact, Sheeran is so universally despised that everyone from Mashable and Pitchfork to The Guardianand Slate have dedicated entire articles to unearthing the reason for the universal disdain directed at him despite his on-paper success. Every publication is eerily similar in its execution as they discuss everything from his "offensive inoffensiveness," his "tofu music," his "staunch refusal to 'glo up'" to his neediness and inability to communicate with his romantic partners. Sheeran's career would (hopefully) sink without the help of Big Brother, but as mounting accusations of plagiarism threaten to derail Sheeran's "nice boy" image, it seems like he's finally about to be revealed as what he truly is: an industry plant manufactured to cater to the lowest common denominator. Prince can rest easy knowing that authenticity will always triumph in the end.


Why Music Hates Trump: Prince's "Purple Rain" and Pop's War with the President

Using "Purple Rain" is a particularly low blow. Did anyone really expect anything different from Trump?



Donald Trump used Prince's music at a campaign rally, and Prince's estate is not happy about it.

Over a year ago, Trump promised Prince's estate that he would not use any of the late artist's music for his campaign events. But yesterday, "Purple Rain" boomed across the crowds as Trump took to the stage in Minneapolis. In response, Prince's estate posted a photo of a letter that confirmed the President's vow to refrain from using the songs.

Prince fans are as outraged as his estate. As the song played in Minneapolis, protests broke out in the theatre across the street from the rally, which is where the song's original music video was filmed. Now Twitter and the Internet are ablaze with anger, though as usual, the President will likely face no consequences for his blatant disregard of the law and all moral decency.

Prince died in April 2016, months before Trump was elected, but one would imagine that the singer—who openly discussed AIDS, criticized the machismo of the space race, supported Black Lives Matter, and relentlessly fought corporate interests in the music industry—wouldn't approve of 45, to say the least.

Using "Purple Rain" is a particularly low blow. The Trump team's decision to play the song is arguably as insensitive as the time the president played Pharrell Williams' "Happy" mere hours after a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

"Purple Rain" is Prince's number one hit, inextricable from his legacy and persona. It's a song about forgiveness and love and the expansive force that truly great music can be. One needs only to watch the first moments of the song's music video to comprehend the force of the song's meaning; you can see it written all over Prince's face.

Prince - Purple Rain (Official Video)

On the other hand, Trump—as an entity, a symbol, and a politician—is fundamentally hollow, a cheap mutation of garish American greed and corruption. He never fails to dig his claws deeper into all that seems to mean something in this world, and he never expresses an ounce of remorse or empathy.

Using "Purple Rain" in a campaign rally is far from the worst thing Trump has done—encouraging white supremacy and xenophobia, imprisoning innocent children, and denying climate change are contenders for that prize—but it does symbolize something powerful. It also reveals exactly why Trump and music exist in polar opposition to each other. Music is about truth, connection, artistry, and empathy, all of which Trump lacks the ability to understand.

What makes Trump so incompatible with music? Perhaps it's that Trump as an entity is essentially atonal and dissonant. There's no harmony to his way of operating, no beat or rhythm or reason to the spaces he and his administration and supporters occupy. There's no emotional consistency and no resonance to his existence. He stands in opposition to everything that music is and all that musicians tend to stand for (unless you're Kid Rock or Kanye West, tragically). It can't be a coincidence that in The Art of the Deal, he wrote that in second grade, "I punched my music teacher because I didn't think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled."

Is anyone surprised that this man doesn't respect Prince's legacy enough to refrain from using his work against his will? Has Trump ever granted anyone that decency?

In general, musicians want nothing to do with the president. Who could forget the struggle he underwent to garner support for his inauguration, and everything that's happened since? Just this week, in her Vogue cover story, Rihanna attacked Trump in a discussion about gun violence in America. She said, "Put an Arab man with that same weapon in that same Walmart and there is no way that Trump would sit there and address it publicly as a mental health problem. The most mentally ill human being in America right now seems to be the president."

So many other musicians have asked Trump not to use their music that it would be impossible to list them all here. Adele, Elton John, R.E.M., Pharell Williams, Axl Rose, The Rolling Stones, and many more have told him to keep his paws off their work, and hundreds of others have denounced him in their music and personal statements.

Even if Trump did possess an atom of musicality or knew how to listen to a sound other than the grating industrial noise that certainly fills his own brain, "Purple Rain" would be a strange song choice to use for a campaign rally. When describing the song, Prince said that "'Purple Rain' pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain." In another song, "1999," he associated a purple sky with a kind of final apocalyptic revelation, singing, "Could have sworn it was Judgment Day, the sky was all purple."

It sometimes does seem that Trump is a steward of some kind of apocalypse, indicative of some sort of breaking point. It's likely that his rise represents a rupture in American democracy as we know it, marking a final ending to what we knew and the beginning of something else. This could be a very positive thing, if the anger he's churned up carves out space for new visions of justice and equity in the form of the downfall of corrupt corporate interests, or it could mark our further descent into the end times. Either way, none of this makes Trump's use of "Purple Rain" any less troubling. All we can hope for is that Trump and all he stands for faces Judgment Day sooner rather than later.


New Mac Miller Album Sparks Old Questions About the Ethics of Posthumous Releases

Mac Miller's estate just announced the release of another album.

Photo by Manu Ros on Unsplash

Mac Miller's family just released his posthumous album Circles, which Miller was "well into completing" before his death in 2018.

It seems that most fans are in agreement that Circles is a positive release, because it's been approved by his family and Miller was already working on it before his death. Many are celebrating and reminiscing about Miller, who was a beloved figure and an incredible musician.

However, posthumous releases sometimes raise thorny questions, especially when it's not as clear that the artist actually wanted the material in question to be distributed. This summer, a relevant debate ensued when Prince's estate announced that it would be releasing an album of never-before-heard recordings of songs that the late legend wrote and sold to other artists.

Called "Originals," the album was a collection of demos and bootlegs. The songs were selected by none other than JAY-Z and Troy Carter, who sifted through Prince's extensive "Vault" recording collection of demos and B-sides to curate this new album. The LP, which was released on July 19, included many tracks that became hits for the artists who recorded them—like "Manic Monday," recorded by the Bangles, and of course, "Nothing Compares 2 U," which became Sinead O'Connor's signature song.

Still, despite its curators' influence and Prince's incomparable songwriting talent, this announcement raised some questions about whether Prince really would've wanted these songs out in the ether. Each track was recorded as a demo, and it's impossible to know whether their maker was satisfied with any of them.

Prince was a masterful producer, one who insisted on complete control of the record-making process from beginning to end. One of his recording engineers, Susan Rogers, said that "he needed to be the alpha male to get done what he needed to get done; he couldn't spend any mental energy battling with people for dominance or position. If you wanted your own way of doing things, you shouldn't be working for Prince."

"Originals" was not the first album released by Prince's estate after his death—it was preceded by Piano & a Microphone, Purple Rain Deluxe, and Prince 4Ever. These releases were mostly lauded by even the most discerning critics, albeit with some caveats. NPR Music's Ann Powers wrote that she believes if Prince were alive he would "most certainly not" have wanted Piano & a Microphone to be released—but oddly, she followed this claim by arguing that the album's release is not exploitative, because "we understand Prince's creativity in a different way because of it and for that reason, it doesn't feel like a violation, it feels like a gift."

Prince - Purple Rain (Official Video)

Still, others raised the alarm, citing the clearly unfinished, unpolished nature of some of the demos—something that a perfectionist like Prince never would have tolerated. "Will his 'true' fans really care if the finely wrought production that is the hallmark of the best of Prince isn't present here? Is this album selling both artist and audience short?" asks Adrian Yorke, going on to argue that posthumous releases can do a disservice to both fans and artists by providing them with products that do a disservice to their creator's dedication to the quality of their craft.

Continuing to capitalize on the late star's legacy as they have since his death, Prince's estate has also announced that they will be releasing his unpublished memoir, The Beautiful Ones, this fall; the book will combine Prince's unfinished manuscript with photos, lyrics, and other ephemera.

Many fans have celebrated these announcements. Of course, we all want more content from our most beloved artists, and Prince and Mac Miller's legacies deserve to live on into eternity—but a problem arises when it becomes unclear whether material is being released because it honors its creator's vision or because some industry executives smell a profit. How much should estates really be allowed to capitalize on the legacies of the dead, especially when it's likely that the late artist in question would not have wanted their unfinished work to be released?

Similar questions have been raised about Avicii's posthumous album, which has skyrocketed to the top of the charts since its April 10 release. Named SOS—a somewhat unfortunate title for an album by a man who, before his death, outright told interviewers that he was experiencing a mental health crisis due to excessive touring—the album was conceived by the Swedish producer's A&R team merely three days after his passing. Its release came after repeated revelations that suggest Avicii's mental health issues were exacerbated by relentless pressure from his management to capitalize on his money-making potential. On the other hand, the album is a collection of songs that Avicii allegedly "nearly finished," according to The New York Times, and it was released with his father's blessing. SOS will be followed by another album, Tim, to be released in June.

Avicii - Wake Me Up (Official Video)

No matter how many people supported it, this rapid-fire dissemination and hardcore marketing of music that the original creator didn't have the final say over raises questions first provoked by the 2017 documentary, Avicii: True Stories, which features grim clips of the late star lamenting his brutally packed tour schedule. It's disturbing to watch, and disconcertingly intimate—this generates its own ethical grey area—but ultimately, it's more disturbing to consider that the management company that pressured Avicii towards his death is still profiting from their own refurbishments of his unfinished music.

Of course, not every industry executive thinks that demos and unfinished musical relics should be fodder for the public ear. Avicii's collaborator Nick Romero, who has refused to release the demos in his possession, stated that "I don't know if it morally feels right to me to work on songs that the original composer has not approved. I know that Avicii was really a perfectionist, and I kind of feel bad if I put something out not knowing if he wants to put it out."

Similarly, Universal CEO David Joseph famously destroyed all the demos Amy Winehouse had created for her third album—though this didn't stop her estate from releasing the poorly received posthumous collage of deep cuts, "Lioness: Hidden Treasures." The same fate befell Tupac and Biggie Smalls, whose posthumous work garnered better critical reception than Winehouse's, but regardless was still released without their creators' stamp of approval.

Lil Peep's posthumous release Come Over When You're Sober, Part II prompts similar questions. His close collaborator, Smokeasac, crafted that album, and a team of people, including his mother, believed they knew him well enough to create something that would do justice to his legacy—after all, Peep was on a stratospheric ascent before his untimely passing from a drug overdose. Still, when you listen to the album, although it's a masterful work in its own right, you can almost feel the inevitable lack of Peep's definitive touch, an emptiness that feels almost ghostly. Every truly great artist possesses some sort of x-factor, some ability to tap into a force outside of themselves that is at once completely unique to them; and so posthumous releases, especially when pieced together out of incomplete excerpts and spare vocal lines can feel more like Frankensteins than finished products. Even when loving hands craft them, often there's something missing.

Broken Smile (My All)

On the other hand, Lil Peep was already planning on finishing Come Over When You're Sober, Part II before he died—whereas Prince and Avicii had exactly zero say in their newest releases.

We'll have to see if Circles sounds like it's missing some finishing touches from Mac Miller when it comes out. Inevitably, it will—because Miller is gone, and has left a sense of emptiness behind—but in a world where music is saved and sold with increasing rapidity, even when it's unfinished, we need to question who is creating and selling every posthumous product.

Ultimately, it seems that posthumous releases become major issues when they're motivated by big money and greed. When estates and management companies pump out half-baked products simply to cash in, you can often feel it in the quality of the songs—and if ghosts exist, then some industry executives might be in for a serious haunting.

On the other hand, capitalism already has its teeth in so much of the recording industry, endlessly distorting and altering artists' visions in order to sell more records or garner more streams. Still, for people like Prince, whose undeniable vision and power defined and shaped everything he ever released, perhaps fans shouldn't be so quick to celebrate something that maybe should've been left to rest. In terms of Avicii's output, fans should definitely be more discerning before supporting a management company whose obsession with profit effectively caused his death, and who continue to profit off his legacy even after his tragic passing.

Perhaps a better use of someone's posthumous influence is an organization like the Tim Bergling Foundation, started by Avicii's family soon after their 28-year-old son's death. The foundation will "initially focus on supporting people and organizations in the field of mental illness and suicide prevention," and "also will be active in climate change, nature conservation, and endangered species."

In a press release, his family wrote, "Starting a foundation in his name is our way to honour his memory and continue to act in his spirit." Of course, no one knows how Avicii would feel about any of this—but it's likely that the philanthropist would prefer his legacy to generate a foundation that looks to the future instead of releases that remain determined to drain every penny they can from the past.


​Prince: Piano & A Microphone Review

Prince's first posthumous release offers a vulnerable look into the artist's process.

Singer Prince performs in concert. The Revolution, the band that helped catapult Prince to international superstardom is reuniting in his memory.


On June 7th, 1958, the world received the gift of the Purple One, TAFKAP, Love Symbol (unpronounceable), The Artist Formerly Known as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," Skipper (to his family), the one and only: Prince.

After his death in 2016, it seemed unlikely that we'd ever hear new music from the velour-clad icon. This year would have been the Grammy Award-winner's 60th birthday, and while you probably celebrated by blasting "Purple Rain" and rocking your fluffiest shirt, Prince's estate and Warner Bros. Records celebrated by announcing the release of a new Prince album, Piano & A Microphone 1983.

Released Friday, the nine song collection features Prince at the piano in his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota in 1983. By this time, Prince was already on his way to super stardom, having reached the Top 10 list a year earlier with his double-LP 1999. Piano & A Microphone 1983 shows Prince workshopping early versions of songs that were fated to become hits, as well as some classic covers like "A Case of You." The recording is disarmingly informal, you can almost picture yourself holding a glass of wine in the '80s icon's (hopefully purple) living room.

He improvises while the tape runs, moving almost seamlessly between songs like "17 Days," "International Lover," and even an early version of "Purple Rain." A notoriously talented pianist, his playing seems more an extension of his soaring vocals than an accompaniment. For example, the seventh song on the album, "Wednesday," is perhaps the greatest treasure Piano & A Microphone 1983 offers die-hard Prince fans.

In a lilting, almost childish falsetto, Prince sings along to a mournful piano. Suddenly, he seems to grow tired of the slow number and experiments with jazzy, incongruous riffs. While they don't necessarily make sense in the context of the song, these tangents are perhaps the most adequate representation of the pop star's improvisational talent ever to be recorded. The performance is so gloriously impulsive and deeply felt, the listener can almost see the electric impulse of creative genius moving from his mind to his fingers.

The session is intimate and vulnerable, and since we don't know if the singer would have ever willingly released Piano & A Microphone 1983 had he lived to do so, it even feels invasive at times. But deliciously so. Prince murmurs instructions to the engineer, experiments with pitch as he sings, and plays the piano reactively. This is Prince as only a privileged few have seen him: unpolished and embroiled in the creative process. It's just Prince, a piano, an engineer, and you.

Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.

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