Prince’s passing feels more significant and deserving of commemoration because his artistry felt so all-encompassing that even his music, in all its purple majesty, couldn’t contain it.
First, a confession: I've never really understood the collective mourning when most artists die. Not to sound callous, but what exactly am I supposed to be mourning? I don't personally know the artist in question. In the vast majority of the cases, said artist stopped making music that mattered to me years before his or her death. The actual act of passing does absolutely nothing to change my relationship to the artist. Bowie's Station to Station sounds every bit as good as it did two years ago or 20 years ago.
But then there's Prince.
In one sense, Prince is very much the typical case insofar as I don't know too many people who had been waiting with bated breath for another masterpiece. And if we're being real honest, the man hadn't made a halfway decent record since the first Bush administration. But for Prince, that scarcely mattered. He remained an impressive live draw -- years after his last hit songs. Yes, in part because he was an amazing live performer (more on that in a bit), but also because he remained, up until the very end, the embodiment of what it means to be a capital-A artist.
We could list all the traits an artist can have -- ability to write, produce, sing, dance, play live, master various instruments, possessing a clear visual and stylistic aesthetic, creating a mythology -- and we can all name successful artists who have enjoyed long careers with only two or three of these traits. Prince was a complete freak of nature in that he checked all these boxes, existing in an artistic realm entirely of his own creation and without peer. Simply put, the man could change his name to an unpronounceable symbol and not have it come across as merely a pompous stunt to force his record label's hand but rather as an honest declaration that his regal birth name wasn't quite superlative enough.
My own personal experience with Prince is fittingly odd. I was enough of a fan to feature “Let's Go Crazy" as the song immediately following the first dance at my wedding. And yet, despite calling Minnesota home for seven years, I never once saw him play a show there, not in a proper live venue and not at his suburban Paisley Park estate. It was always bad timing or some lazy excuse. In fact, I remember first arriving in Minnesota on a Monday in the summer of 2007 only to discover he had played just the previous weekend. “Bad luck," I thought. “No matter. I'll have plenty of opportunities now."
But then Prince went through a protracted period without shows. There were rumors that he was no longer spending much time at Paisley Park or in Minnesota. It wasn't until the turn of the decade that Prince really made his presence felt in Minnesota again, and the city embraced him with open arms, even when he insisted on experimental, hitless jam sessions. I, for one, am still kicking myself that I didn't brave the elements to attend his pajama and pancake party.
The one time I did see Prince I thankfully made an exception -- I'm very glad I did. I had previously sworn off of arena shows after a disastrous experience seeing one of my favorite bands. The sound was atrocious and the crowd was full of belligerent drunks who seemed more interested in the concessions. But when I was living in Atlanta and was given a free ticket to see Prince at Phillips Arena on his Musicology tour in 2004, it was an offer I simply couldn't refuse. He was in his mid-40s at the time, but much to my surprise, he moved around the stage that night with seamless, near-effortless precision.
All these years later, I can't recall much in the way of specifics, but I do remember being in awe of his command of the entire experience. I've never been to a show with as many people in the audience that felt as intimate. By the time he got to the acoustic rendition of “Little Red Corvette", everything had become so slow and hushed, it was like everyone in the crowd had slipped into a trance. To this day, Prince in Atlanta remains the best live show I've ever seen.
Yes, we'll always have Prince's songs and eventually I suspect we'll even have the videos of his incendiary live performances (once the heirs have their say). Less clear is whether anyone else will be able to match his unusual combination of talent, ambition, and vision. Ultimately, I suppose the reason that Prince's passing feels more significant and deserving of commemoration is because his artistry felt so all-encompassing that even his music, in all its purple majesty, couldn't contain it.