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The revolutionary genius behind Prince's iconic aesthetic

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08:  Recording artist Prince speaks onstage during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Recording artist Prince speaks onstage during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It's been a year since Prince died at the age of 57, but culturally we're still processing what his loss means for music. For those who grew up in a pop music world so shaped and altered by him, it can be easy to overlook how revolutionary the artist, a.k.a. "the High Priest of Pop," was in his heyday.

But that's only because he pioneered a performance style that's become mainstream — one that continues to influence artists today.

The substance of Prince's talent — he was one of the best guitarists and vocalists in rock history — has long been overshadowed by his iconic performance aesthetic.

Musically his style tended toward an electric blend of soul, blues, funk, jazz, and classic rock that was all his own. On stage, however, the cultural takeaway was always that Prince was sex. Both before and after his massive, culture-changing landmark, 1984's Purple Rain, Prince was sex.

Prince embodied sexual autonomy

Where other black male performers before him had been unable to break away from having their images ruthlessly sexualized by the media, Prince changed the game by owning his body and persona onstage to an unprecedented degree.

From the overt solicitation of albums like Lovesexy and songs like "Cream" to lyrics like "Baby, how u wanna be done?" from "The Continental," there was nothing coy or suggestive about Prince's preoccupation. He consistently skipped the innuendo and went straight to the main event. His refusal to self-censor was a revelation for much of rock culture; speaking of his influences in 1995, Brian Eno noted:

I've been thinking a lot about the kinds of artists who don't censor their own work. I can think of three conspicuous ones: Picasso is one, Miles Davis is another, Prince is another. They're all people who just put it out, and I think they have almost no critical self-censorship. They say, "Let the market decide; let the world decide."

Prince was bold, unapologetic, and riveting. Onstage he was a whirlwind of zoot-suited, open-shirted narcissism, a hypnotic, genderfluid frenzy of gyrating pulsating energy. He was one-part glam-rock, one-part heavy metal, and all parts Prince. If Madonna's stage persona transformed and liberated the female pop performer of the '80s and '90s, Prince was her male counterpart.

Again and again the media fell back on the label "flamboyant" to describe him, as if Prince's sheer stage presence swallowed up the public's ability to assess his musical talent.

In 1990, Rolling Stone compared him to a vampire, noting his non-existent sleep schedule and the adornment of "a crucifix necklace big enough to scare off Nosferatu."

By the time he recorded songs for the famous Batman soundtrack in 1989, Prince had almost crossed over into the realm of camp. But while few other rock stars could come back from changing their name to an untranslatable symbol — and then changing it back again — Prince consistently stayed cool.

Prince's success combined artistic innovation, stage presence, and consistent musical fusion

Offstage, Prince was a full-fledged industry pioneer. Not only did he seamlessly take a broad hybrid of musical styles and make them into a unique, chart-topping career, but he insisted on having autonomy over his own records from a very early age.

When the internet started to creep into the edges of pop culture, he was one of the first to fuse the music industry with technology. For 1990's "Love Machine," he combined electronica with Silicon Valley. He was experimenting with CDs and online music distribution long before the rest of the industry caught up to him — a fact that makes his later well-known dislike of YouTube and Spotify seem either ironic or prescient.

Artistically he collaborated with the performing arts and did combos with everyone from Tom Petty to Chaka Khan. In every part of his life he embodied a fusion of elements. Both musically and stylistically he merged rock 'n' roll's hardcore past with its postmodern pop future. And nowhere did they come together more fully than onstage.

More than any performer since Freddie Mercury, Prince embraced and united the subversive, queer aesthetics of glam performance culture with historical rock roots.

This performance of "Purple Rain" illustrates Prince at his most iconic: No other performer in recent rock memory could wail soprano notes at the top of his range like an elegant chanteuse while simultaneously rocking out on lead guitar. Few would even dare try.

In an age where male artists like The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye, Adam Lambert, Mika, and Frank Ocean (who just posted his own touching tribute) regularly mix and match performance styles with heady falsettos and infusions of hard rock, we have the Purple One to thank. When it came to teaching rock 'n' roll how to flaunt it, Prince truly was his own revolution.