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Music

Revisiting Prince's most controversial performance of all time

@SamWKemp

It had been one hell of a year. Seven months prior to his appearance at the AMAs, Prince had released his album Purple Rain to rave revues. He’d also starred and performed the film of the same name, released a music documentary, and hit the top of the US Billboard charts.

By January of 1985, all of Prince’s hard work had paid off, and he ended up being nominated for no less than ten categories at The American Music Awards. The evening would see Prince up against some of the biggest names in the music world, including Michael Jackson, whose 1982 album Thriller had remained in the charts until 1984 and been certified as the best-selling album of all time that same year.

But, on that night, Prince was the king, and he took home the AMAs for favourite pop/rock album, favourite soul/R&B album and favourite soul/R&B single (for ‘When Doves Cry’). Mr Jackson, on the other hand, went home with nothing. However, the highlight of the entire evening was the moment Prince gave what has come to be regarded as one of the most iconic performances in the history of the AMAs. But it had been preceded by a controversial decision that would follow Prince for some time.

Prince took to the stage in one of his classic outfits: a sleek, glass-like green and white suit over his signature white-ruffed shirt. He looked like Louis XVI on a trip to outer space, mesmerising the audience with a blistering rendition of ‘Purple Rain’. It was a performance that showed Prince at the very peak of his game, one that seemed at once effortless and technically flawless. Everything from the harmonies to the guitar work is perfectly honed, leaving room for Prince to push his vocal performance to such levels of passion that he leaves the room stunned. It’s almost impossible to watch and not feel something in yourself unravel.

But after the performance, Prince stayed behind when everyone else was heading over to A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Quincy Jones had invited the likes of Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, and Bob Dylan to the studio in order to discuss the ‘We Are The World’ single, one designed to raise money for poverty-stricken families on the African continent. Almost all of the biggest names who had been present at the AMAs had agreed to contribute to the single, but not Prince. It was a seemingly baffling decision, which made him very unpopular. So why did he decide not to contribute?

There are several answers to that question. It could have been down to the fact that Prince was very particular about his studio environment. He’d always recorded alone and likely didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of being surrounded by other artists. He liked to have complete control over his recording – writing, recording and mixing all of his own albums. Handing over that control to someone else must have made Prince feel pretty uneasy.

But the biggest reason behind’s Prince’s controversial decision was much simpler than that. To put it bluntly, he just didn’t think the song was very good. In Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain, Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had joined Prince onstage for his performance at the AMAs, said: “He felt like the song for ‘We Are the World’ was horrible,” going on to add that Prince “didn’t want to be around ‘all those muthafuckas.'”

Whatever the reason was, Prince’s manager was right to believe that the decision would spell bad publicity for the singer. Prior to The American Music Awards, almost everyone knew that Prince had rejected Quincy Jones’ offer, and it made him stick out like a sore thumb.

Prince’s manager was so concerned about the negative press that he started telling people Prince was feeling ill before the AMAs had even concluded. He didn’t want his client being seen as the only artist not to be joining Jones and the rest of the ‘We Are The World’ gang in that silver limousine.

But it wouldn’t make any difference. For years afterwards, Prince was treated with – at best indifference, at worst scorn – by high-profile industry members. But he didn’t bat an eyelid. For Prince, artistic integrity came before all else. And if hanging on to that integrity meant being controversial, well, then Prince was happy to make that sacrifice.