I'll state the obvious: the man knew how to work a personal brand, all right.
How much of that had to do with his soulful, holistic expression of self, of the artist he was and the artist he had ambitions to become, and how much was media-savvy calculation, we may never know.
In this media age, maybe the line between artistry and calculation has become permanently blurred.
Who were the Big Three in terms of grasping their own image as pop stars and how to project image, evolve image, even (when they had to), annihilate their image and make a public transformation?
David Bowie. Madonna. Prince.
Bowie was the pioneer. Though never a "pop music" star on the order of the others. But, like Prince, his assumed personas were tied to his musical evolution and the very intentional artistic statements he was out to make.
For Prince, those statements were very organic. They never felt like positioning, or trendspotting.
There's a great story in WIRED about the (in)famous symbol that Prince foisted upon the world (and the bigwigs at Warner Bros.) back in 1992, when he disavowed the name "Prince". The part I love most? What Prince's creative director at Paisley Park said about it:
“I get grief for it all the time from people who are like, ‘Can’t you just clean up that logo,’ ” Monson says. “But it was supposed to be that way; he didn’t want it to be perfect.”
Which was, of course, perfect.
There's a great Prince story a colleague of mine told me.
This guy, a skilled designer and diehard Prince fan, was selected to attend a New Year's Eve concert bash in Minneapolis at Paisley Park, back in the early nineties, put together by Prince after he'd become The Artist Formerly Known As.
My designer friend and a few hundred others got to watch their hero perform a killer set at midnight. Then he and his band left the stage.
An announcer said, "Prince has left the building," or something like that.
The lights came up and most of the fans filed out. But my colleague and a few others stuck around.
Because there wasn't any Prince. Not since the spat with the label had started. They knew something was afoot.
Lo and behold, the lights went down again. The entire backdrop and stage set vanished, revealing new ones. And guess who rolled out and played into the wee hours for the people smart enough to stick around, the ones who proved they were true fans, the ones actually listening to him?
Is that branding, or marketing, or just being faithful to the people who've stayed most faithful to you?
Why should there be any difference?