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Prince’s ’80s Reign: Why He Was the Defining Artist of the Decade


Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesPrince‘s shocking death Thursday at the age of 57 reminds us of when he first burst onto the scene: he pretty much ruled the 1980s, along with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. But Prince actually may have been THE defining artist of the ’80s.  As Billboard Senior Editor Alex Gale explains, Prince combined musical styles “like no one had ever really done before.”

“If you look at the sound of the ’80s, a lot of that started with Dirty Mind, which is Prince’s third album,” Gale tells ABC Radio.  “The sound of that album…here’s drum programming, the synthesizers, some of the ’50s influence…the ways he played with different genres, and this was a time, mind you, when black music and white music were very, very segregated.”

“And here comes Prince basically combining white rock music and funk music and soul and all these things,” he adds. “And combining them seamlessly like no one had ever really done before.”

Prince also helped break MTV’s color barrier during a time when the channel played very few videos by black artists.  Of course, his outrageous, androgynous appearance in videos like “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” helped him grab people’s attention.

“He was absolutely a master of image,” explains Gale. “I mean, people weren’t quite sure even what race he was for a little while. [He] absolutely played with gender, and really shocked people.”

Not only did Prince shock with his appearance, he shocked with his explicitly sexual lyrics.  It was one of Prince’s songs that led to one of the biggest controversies of the ’80s — the movement to label albums and songs that had racy lyrics with “Parental Advisory” stickers.

“The song ‘Darling Nikki’ is basically the song that started the censorship wars in the music industry with Tipper Gore and the PMRC,” explains Gale. “He played with sexuality, not just genre. He basically combined the sexual and the spiritual into the same song.”

Of course, Prince’s creative peak came with the multi-million-selling album Purple Rain, and the movie of the same name.

Purple Rain was just a crowning pop culture achievement, not just of the ’80s, but really at any time,” says Gale. “To have an album like that…combined with a movie that really explained almost better than anything else who Prince was…it’s just amazing how those two things combine so seamlessly.”

As Gale notes, “It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, here’s a big album, now we have to make a movie about it.’ They really go hand in hand. You can’t separate some of these great songs from some of these classic scenes from the movie.”  

While Prince was writing, recording and touring right up until his death, he never again dominated the charts and the pop culture conversation as he did in the ’80s, but he remained one of the most respected and revered artists to emerge from that era.

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