Prince and David Bowie both passed away within a handful of downright terrible months, and so, the forbearers of the modern chameleonic pop star are gone. Madonna, the other primary point of reference, soldiers on, though on recent albums, it’s felt like she’s chasing the trends rather than setting them. What does this horrible aberration mean, on a cosmic level? Who is our Prince? Who is our Bowie?
There are a lot of unnecessary value judgments to make. For instance: Are you willing to call Beyoncé the closest thing to a Prince, when Prince played all 27 instruments and wrote the entirety of his first album? The question is myopic, and does a disservice to what makes today’s most exciting pop star so good: her voice, her interpretative abilities with a song, and so many other elements. But Beyoncé feels like the front-runner in a race started by Bowie and Prince, which, with the help of Madonna’s shape-shifting, had become a cottage industry in Top 40 pop by the emergence of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Costumes had to be changed; buttons had to be pushed.
The question is not so much who is our Bowie or Prince of the moment, but now — in a post-Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus universe — who isn’t trying to be them, in one way or another?
There’s almost the expectation, these days, that major pop artists will try on different genres, and make their own bizarre amalgamations. For instance, beginning a couple of years ago, pop artists began to reinvent themselves, one by one, by appropriating Southern rap/trap gestures, from Beyoncé’s “7/11” and “Drunk in Love,” to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” with Juicy J, to Rihanna’s Travis $cott-concocted “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Today, trends set off ripples in pop, finding the major icons of the genre — and the producers and songwriters behind them — scrambling for ways to one up each other. And themselves.
What we miss, perhaps, is the effort to come at things from a totally different angle — but maybe, by now we’ve used all the angles up. Prince and Bowie dying, so unexpectedly, so close to one another, is cause for both a lot of grief, but also reflection over what their legacy truly is. In the past 24-plus hours, a younger generation of people — who take streaming availability for granted — have had to accept that there is an essential artist who really didnt want to make his music available in the most widely disseminated medium. If they dug deep, they’d even realize that there is a whole slew of Prince albums you pretty much can’t hear outside of CDs you have to obtain from third-party sellers — or you can actually hit one of the world’s two or three extant non-chain CD stores. Prince’s isolationist practices make Kanye’s The Life of Pablo rollout seem like small potatoes.
Prince’s insistence controling the distribution of his products — and all elements of their creation — meant that his business model mirrored his art almost too appropriately. He somehow managed to push music forward while remaining detached from the musical landscape at large — and eventually the industry — embracing the new sounds going on around him (advances in hip-hop, especially) without being beholden to them. And now, people will still forever have to seek out his work on his own terms — that is, until someone overturns the rules of the game, and grabs up his copyrights.
Prince’s discography, over time, mirrored a general tilt in pop music to stylistic amalgamation, and resurrection of retro styles. His recent albums, and most things post-The Black Album are full of winding, collage-like music. Today, artists like Janelle Monae and Esperanza Spalding, most recently, have embraced this kind of songwriting — composite, fidgety structures which throw numerous, incongruous ideas at the wall within one track. Sometimes, the line holding the music together is concept and narrative, more so than unifying elements in the music itself.
The essential Prince, though, is present in even his wilder, more diffuse music. He was replaying or developing the essential Prince stylistic kernels as he was grafting other layers on. As pop albums become more and more collage-like — collections of maximalist hits, worked on by numerous producers with their own signature sounds — one wonders who might offer a fresh central kernel into the mix, rather than be the best at wearing many hats.
The most exciting artists to cross over onto the pop charts are coming from the field of hip-hop, and the best pop producers are rising from that realm as well: The nexus of Future, Young Thug, Metro Boomin’, and Mike Will Made-It are exerting the most dominance, in terms of forward-thinking musical style. Kendrick Lamar — though he usually channels pre-existing, traditionalist musical idioms — is inspiring a generation of rappers to think on a more ambitious. Kanye, for better or for worse, continues to achieve this. But, much like Madonna and others before him, he is starting to take more cues from others, rather than setting trends — often, even recruiting the younger artists who inspire him.
Yet hip-hop, roughly 40 years into its existence, still sadly retains a stigma which has prevented it from crossing demographics and musical bias on the same level as artists like Bowie and Prince. One hopes that these bridges can be burned down, just as many of us hope that the country could band together an elect a president who is either a female or a socialist. But the future remains unclear, and we lack a committed iconoclast who can truly pull everyone together — well, except for, possibly, one. As in politics, the bet-hedgers and frantic mask-changers tend to do better.
It will take someone who isn’t afraid to not to be a Prince or a Bowie — with a new, self-assured vision — who will ultimately take their places.