In the 1980s, there was no more fierce musical rivalry than the titanic, constantly shifting battle between Michael Jackson and Prince (you know, before one of them became best known for settling molestation lawsuits and the other changed his name to a symbol). It might be hard for people my age (29) and younger to fathom this. At this point, it seems, the battle is long over.
And Michael Jackson won.
He won the popularity contest (Thriller is the best selling album of all-time and has outsold Prince’s biggest record – Purple Rain – by more than 2-to-1). He won the critical contest (MJ won 13 Grammys to Prince’s 7; it’s theoretically possible for the Purple One to catch up, but unlikely). He won the influence battle (aside from Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”). He’s even winning the YouTube battle, mainly because Prince refuses to post almost anything featuring his music (and actively prevents others from posting it, too). An entire generation of music fans who attempt to dig into the past using the internet as their archeology kit just aren’t going to uncover much of Prince’s work. It’s a real shame, because if you ask me, Prince is better.
And it’s not that close.
That’s right, I said it: Prince is a greater musical artist than the Michael Jackson.
But I’m not an unreasonable man. I know that the tide of history has turned against Prince, probably forever. I understand that there’s almost no chance of convincing the current (or future) generations that the squirrelly-looking punchline from that one Chappelle’s Show bit with Charlie Murphy battled and defeated the King of Pop when it came to the only measure that really matters: the music.
That said, I’m willing to hash it out. Let’s see some evidence.
One way to compare great artists is to ask yourself what they did better than anybody else and then determine (A) how rare that ability was, (B) how much better at that thing they were than their relevant peers, and (C) which of those abilities ultimately added more to their legacy.
MJ’s unmatched talent was unquestionably his dancing. Yes, he had a legendary voice (especially in his younger days – to think that “I’ll Be There” is being sung by a 12 year-old is staggering), and yes, he wrote some of his generation’s most instantly recognizable songs, but Jackson’s physical prowess as a performer is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I mean, just… wow. It’s unquestionably impressive, but here’s the thing: dancing doesn’t make it onto the records. Are the videos for “Thriller” and “Billie Jean” classics? Of course. Did they inspire a generation of artists to incorporate theatricality and choreography into their performances? Unquestionably. But all those awesome moves don’t make MJ’s songs (many of which – though fewer than most people think – are admittedly great) any better. We may think they do, because when we hear them, we’re reminded about all the cool context surrounding them, but that’s just us filling in the gaps, making the songs into something more than they really are.
Now let’s consider Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson. What’s his unmatched talent? His voice? Nah. Michael’s got him beat there (though not by much – Prince’s voice is more powerful and versatile than people think, plus it’s got a soulfulness that Michael lost as he aged). His songwriting? Nope. Both are visionaries in the department that redefined what “cool” was during their 80s heydays. No, the only truly unmatched talent Prince possesses – no matter what Charlie Murphy says – is his ability to absolutely shred the guitar. But there are tons of great guitarists, you’re thinking.
Sure, but (Prince’s solo starts at 3:27):
Here’s what you just saw (I’ma break it down for you):
1. An iconic song (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)
2. being played in honor of its recently deceased writer (George Harrison)
3. by some of his best friends AND his son (the skinny dude behind Tom Petty)
4. at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony (surrounded by musical legends and people who knew George personally).
Think about the momentousness of the occasion, and then understand that they didn’t call in Eric Clapton (who played the solo on the song’s original recording in 1968), they called in Prince. Every body else on that stage was either a close friend of George’s or someone who had worked extensively with him over the years (or, you know, his flesh and blood). But not Prince. Prince was a hired gun. You know how, in Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson’s character says of the AK-47: “The best there is. When you’ve absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf*%&$# in the room, accept no substitutes.”
He could’ve said the exact same thing about Prince. Think about the cajones it takes to take the stage in a room full of legends, play a solo originally played by a legend, commandeer the stage from an additional freaking set of legends, and do it so well that everyone secretly wishes they could send you back to 1968 in a time machine and have you beat Clapton into the booth at Abbey Road. If there was a song called “The Devil Went Up to Minnesota” – about Satan challenging Prince to a guitar battle – it would end even worse for the Devil that “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” does.
And you know what else? That stuff made it on the records. Onto “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”.
I could ramble on for another 900 words comparing Jackson’s best songs to Prince’s and explaining how after about the top 10 from each guy, the scales swing so heavily in Prince’s direction that’s mildly embarrassing. To be honest, if I wanted to do this whole thing justice, I probably should. That said, my mom is almost certainly the only person still reading this (and I’m not sure she could identify a single Prince song) – hi Mom – so I’ll wrap it up.
In the end, MJ became bigger than the music. The videos, the dance moves, the trials, the drama, and the staggering level of visibility – good and bad, the stuff outside of the songs colors more of our estimation of Jackson’s legacy than the songs themselves. His death at age 50 (as early deaths so often do) rejuvenated interest in his music and probably put the Prince comparisons to bed as far as the broader public was concerned.
But not me. As great as MJ was in many ways, Prince is a virtuoso who channeled the best of what he had to offer into the music. The results add up to something more than Michael could offer.
I’ll admit that I don’t expect to win too many converts to my cause, but here’s hoping a few of you do some digging. ‘Cause I might be wrong, but I’m not crazy.
Seriously though, if you care, this oral history of the rivalry between MJ and Prince is awesome.