Prince and Michael Jackson: The Rivalry and the Revolution

Joseph Vogel
Essential Michael Jackson and Ultimate Prince album covers

Deemed As polar opposites by the media, part of what made the Prince v Jackson rivalry so compelling was their similarities.

It would have been the showdown of the decade, an epic song-video exchange between the two towering talents of a generation. The Gloved One versus the Purple One. The King of Pop versus His Royal Badness. Michael Jackson versus Prince.

The pop stars met to discuss the proposed standoff in late September, 1986. Earlier that month, Jackson’s groundbreaking 4-D sci-fi film attraction, Captain EO, premiered to packed crowds at Disneyworld and Disneyland. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (and produced by George Lucas), it demonstrated, among other things, Jackson’s considerable standing in the industry. In the aftermath of Thriller, artists, filmmakers and corporations alike were jumping at the chance to work with him. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. After months of working on the set of Captain EO, the artist was now busy recording songs and conceptualizing short films for his highly-anticipated new album, Bad.

Prince, meanwhile, saw the release of his own music film, Under the Cherry Moon (and accompanying soundtrack, Parade), earlier that summer. A stylized, black-and-white romantic dramedy set in the beautiful French Riviera and directed by Prince himself, the film failed to make a splash at the box office (or among most critics). Its artistic ambition, however, was clear and it yielded Prince one of the most successful singles of his career with the funky #1 hit, “Kiss”. Upon his return from France, riding a creative high, Prince went to work on a collection of songs intended as a three-LP album entitled Crystal Ball, which was later consolidated into the critically acclaimed masterpiece, Sign O’ the Times.

In 1986, then, Prince and Michael Jackson were at the top of their respective games, the musical equivalents of Magic and Bird. Both were coming off massive, record-breaking albums in Thriller and Purple Rain. Both had built up legendary mystiques by rarely granting interviews and cultivating eccentric, constantly shifting images. Both kept their audiences guessing. No other '80s stars -- not Madonna, not Bruce Springsteen, not Bono -- evoked the same level of fascination from the public.

This public interest, of course, only grew when it came to their cryptic relationship with each other. Throughout the '80s hundreds of articles ran with sometimes real, but mostly fictional scoops about their rivalry. A National Enquirer story in 1985 claimed Prince was using ESP to drive Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, crazy.

In most articles comparing the artists, they were depicted as polar opposites: Jackson was the innocent man-child to Prince’s licentious rebel. Jackson was the polished, sophisticated prodigy from Motown, while Prince was the raw, self-taught genius from the streets of Minneapolis. Jackson was the mainstream, commercial juggernaut, while Prince was the alternative, avant-garde challenger. Jackson was magic and wonder; Prince was sex and transgression. It was the 2.0, in many ways, of the rivalry between the charming Beatles and the bad-boy Rolling Stones.

There was obviously some truth to these distinctions. But they were also simplifications. Indeed, part of what made their rivalry so compelling was their similarities.

Both were born the same year, just months apart (Prince on 7 June, Jackson on 29 August), in the summer of 1958. This was only a few years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, ushering in the Civil Rights Era. When Prince and Jackson were three years old, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. When they were five years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. The music of Motown, “the sound of young America”, permeated the airwaves. It was a time of profound changes and possibilities.

Both artists came out of tough midwest cities: Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, a steel town just south of Chicago; Prince was from North Minneapolis, Minnesota, also known for its gritty industrial character. Their first homes -- on 2300 Jackson street and 915 Logan Avenue -- were modest starter houses out of which their parents dreamed big dreams. Like Gary, North Minneapolis was predominantly African American, but unlike Gary, it was part of what local reporter Neal Karlen called “the whitest metropolitan area in the country.”

Both artists’ roots were in the South. Jackson’s parents were from Arkansas and Alabama; Prince’s were from Louisiana. Two generations removed from slavery and still struggling with the pervasive inequalities of Jim Crow, they migrated north, along with hundreds of thousands of other African Americans, looking for opportunity. Both Prince and Jackson’s fathers were strict disciplinarians who worked long, arduous hours to support their families.

Joseph Jackson was a crane operator at East Chicago’s U.S. Steel company and often worked overtime to put food on the table for his family of 11. Young Michael remembers him coming home after a long day at work exhausted. His only escape was music. Joseph’s rhythm and blues band, The Falcons, practiced in the Jackson family’s small home into the late hours and often played local clubs, hoping to catch their big break. When it became clear to Joseph that this was unlikely to happen his own dreams of making it were invested into his children.

Prince’s father, John Nelson, had similar dreams of making it as a musician. A talented jazz pianist, he played around Minneapolis with his band, The Prince Rogers Trio. Like Joseph Jackson, however, he also worked tough manual labor to pay the bills -- in his case, at a Honeywell plant in Minneapolis. Music was his passion, but the realities of his life made it impossible to fully devote himself to it. Prince grew up watching his father’s disappointment and anger at being unable to realize his dreams. Like Joseph, however, he invested in his children. "I named my son Prince,” John Nelson acknowledged, “because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.”

Such aspirations, of course, came at a cost. Both artists experienced abuse and rejection from their fathers. Jackson was infamously forced to rehearse and work like an adult from the age of eight, while Prince was kicked out of his house as a teenager. Both tried desperately to earn the love of their stoic fathers; indeed, in part because of their troubled childhoods, Jackson and Prince worked tirelessly at their crafts. So great was their obsession that it sometimes precluded close, long-term relationships. The music came first. And both were near-messianic in what they felt they could accomplish with it.

The list of similarities goes on: both were lonely, sensitive, sponge-like children; both idolized James Brown, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder; both were “crossover” artists, who believed in musical fusion, and surrounded themselves with racially diverse collaborators; both believed in making music visual; both played liberally with notions of race, gender and sexuality, redefining what it meant to be a man; both were private (sometimes reclusive), rarely granted interviews (especially in the '80s), and created seemingly impenetrable mystiques; both were deeply spiritual, and identified at some point as members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith; both built grand gated personal utopias (Paisley Park and Neverland Ranch); both fought tooth-and-nail against their music labels and the industry as a whole over principles of fair compensation, corporate exploitation, and creative control; both experienced significant commercial and critical declines in the United States in the wake of scandals; and both died unexpectedly and tragically in the midst of artistic comebacks.

In addition to these similarities, however, was another important one: their competitiveness. Both artists were intensely ambitious and made no qualms about where they felt they belonged in the pop hierarchy. They were keenly aware of each other’s albums, tours, awards, and records, and whether they publicly acknowledged it or not, they privately conveyed a desire to match and surpass each other’s achievements, especially in the '80s.

Prince watched Jackson collect a record haul of eight Grammys in 1984. That stoked his desire to reach similar heights, to be similarly recognized for his work. “We were watching rough cuts of Purple Rain,” remembers Bobby Z, “and we knew that’s where Prince wanted to be the next year.” Later that year, Jackson observed the phenomenon of Purple Rain. He attended a screening of the movie and attended multiple concerts, all the while plotting his return to the throne.

Years later, Questlove remembers sitting with Jackson and Eddie Murphy on the set of a music video when the conversation turned to Prince. “Eddie [was] like, ‘Yeah man… Prince is a bad motherfucker. I’m glad I’m working with you, but another dream I have is working with him too.’” And I don’t even think that Mike knew the camera was on him and he goes, ‘Yes, he’s a natural genius.’ And then four beats later, Michael says, ‘But I can beat him.”

This competitiveness was on full display in a now-legendary game of table tennis between the stars in December 1985. Jackson showed up with his bodyguards at Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood, where Prince was putting the final musical touches on Under the Cherry Moon. After some small talk, Prince challenged Jackson to a game of ping-pong. Jackson had hardly played before but said he’d give it a try. Work stopped in the studio as people gathered around to watch the two superstars play.

Prince went easy at first, but before long his competitive streak took over and he began slamming the ball past (and at) a hapless Jackson. “He played like Helen Keller!” Prince later joked to friends. Jackson recovered by chatting up Prince’s then-girlfriend, actress Sherilyn Fenn. “Michael knows how to handle himself,” recalls Prince’s recording engineer, Susan Rogers, “and he didn't seem to care [about the game]. [He] started flirting with Sherilyn Fenn, who was visiting Prince in the studio. Prince was pacing, but he wasn't going to get into the game of flirting back. They said hasty goodbyes.”

That year, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Prince boasted: "I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn't have got into the business if I didn't think I was bad." Perhaps Jackson remembered the quote when coming up with the punctuating quip for his song-in-progress just months later, Who’s bad?

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