Prince Rogers Nelson doesn’t do things by halves. The singer and musician was one of the most gifted performers to have ever graced the spotlight and it was a talent which followed him throughout his life. Through his time in high school, where he was already as cool as can be, through his musical career and right up until he passed away in 2016, Prince, it’s fair to say, was born an artist. With a name like Prince bestowed upon you at birth, how can you not be?
It was a powerful name for a powerful performer but when Prince felt like his back was against the wall and he had nowhere else to turn, he chose to use his name as a way to attack his oppressors in one of pop’s most famous acts of defiance. The singer, then at the height of his fame, chose to remove his name and instead go by either a symbol or ‘The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’ usually simply shortened to ‘The Artist’. The moment was a reference to how Prince and other performers were known on their contracts. Despite a career littered with landmark occasions, this one is arguably the singer’s defining off-stage moment.
“The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Brothers was to change my name from Prince to (symbol),” Prince once explained in a press statement. In 1993, Prince was facing a difficult working situation. The situation had been on the run of his life, releasing album after album of high-quality avant-garde pop, all of which was growing him a feverish fanbase. But it was this issue than his label Warner Bros took issue with — he was simply releasing too many songs.
Since the release of his debut album For You in 1978, Prince had been on a prolific run of records, releasing a new album every year bar one in 1983. The marketing arm of Warner Bros had begun to grow concerned that such a plethora of records (no matter that the run included 1999, Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times), would saturate the market to the point of no return and that Prince would, essentially, outstrip the demand for his songs. As such, the label were keen to ensure that Prince released fewer albums and addressed the problem in 1993. It’s a quite baffling set of circumstances.
Naturally, Prince disagreed with the decision and took direct action to fight the apparent oppression he was under as an artist. He began his tirade by performing with the word “SLAVE” written on his cheek which, as one can imagine, caught a bit of attention from the press. However, perhaps because the elaborate stage costume is part of the Prince package, it didn’t pick up much steam on the issue. It wasn’t until Prince changed his name to a symbol that things kicked up a notch.
In a statement, Prince was clear to point the finger, name names and generally hold Warner Bros to account, clearly intent on being as evocative as he possibly could by way of defeating the stranglehold they had on his work. “Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth,” he wrote in a statement, “Warner Brothers took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music I wrote.
“The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Brothers.” He decided, therefore, to ensure that the point really stuck, the singer changed his name to a symbol. While the two monikers were used by the press, despite them being offered a floppy disk containing the glyph (the closest one can get to on a keyboard is O(+>), neither landed sufficiently enough to replace his name and that was all part of the point.
The symbol’s message has been endlessly interpreted. Some say it’s a mix of female and male love signs as a hint to Prince’s androgyny while others have made comparisons to ancient Egyptian ankh and even the crucifix. When you note these two themes of religion and sexuality it’s hard not to arrive at The Purple One, such was his own personal cocktail of life.
“It is an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified. It’s all about thinking in new ways, tuning in two a new free-quency,” claimed Prince, relishing his opaque thinking. Later the singer would suggest that the symbol was inspired by his two backing dancers Mayte Garcia and Tara Leigh Patrick (AKA Carmen Electra) and came to him during meditation. However it arrived, the point being made is as pertinent today as it was in 1993.
Prince had been signed up to a contract he was unaware would restrict him so badly. The idea that Warner Bros had a handle on his music before he could even make it was too much to bear. Prince chose to stand up to his record label bosses and fight for not only artistic control but personal freedom. He did it with one of the most obvious acts of career-flagellation and with the kind of control that confirms his position as pop music royalty.