Why Prince still matters
At the age of 53, Prince still has the golden touch.
HE'S not exactly the last of the 1980s music giants still standing (but at a reported 157 centimetres he's definitely the shortest). Gone is Michael Jackson, the only man who could compete with, if not outshine, the diminutive Prince Rogers Nelson as a singer, dancer and charismatic performer. But Jackson could never compete as a songwriter or musician: the multi-instrumentalist, self-generating Prince owned that territory.
Long departed are Dire Straits, who once filled stadiums with little more showmanship than a sweatband and the unlikely claim that they got their ''chicks for free''.
While he went righteous he was also going righteously funky.
Whitney Houston gave her last performance in Australia in 2010. Like Prince and Jackson, Houston also crossed over from ''black'' music to pop that was so good and so ubiquitous that even cloth-eared and inherently racist radio and television programmers couldn't ignore it.
Prince Rogers Nelson
Musician Prince and Apollonia Kotero in a scence from the movie 'Purple Rain' which was released on July 27, 1984. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives
The ones left from that near-forgotten age when people bought albums - real ones, not digital codes, that could sell up to 45 million copies - are Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
Madonna and Springsteen have released albums this year: she still striving to be the pop star she was; he still trying to explain and define the moment for people who will never be really famous.
Prince, who has released more than 30 albums (and reportedly has maybe half as many again locked away in his vaults), isn't so sure they're worth the trouble any more. The latest, released in 2010, was given away with copies of a London newspaper.
But he plays more gigs than Madonna and Springsteen put together, including a multiple-night run at New York's Madison Square Garden last year and 21 nights at London's O2 Arena in 2007.
They are long shows in which he dances in high-heeled boots, plays most instruments better than many celebrated masters and sings without any real change to the voice he had as a 19-year-old making his first album by playing and singing every note. This month he returns to Melbourne for the first time since 2003.
But he's 53, more likely to talk God than multiplatform interface and though he put out two quality albums in 2004 and 2006 (Musicology and 3121), he hasn't had a big hit since his 30s and could be considered nothing more than an '80s star. Should we still care?
Hell yeah, says Julian Hamilton, one-half of globetrotting Australian band the Presets, who reckons asking musicians to talk about the influence of Prince is as redundant as asking painters to discuss Michelangelo's impact on art.
''He's that good, he's that important,'' says Hamilton, who describes seeing Prince play in Sydney only metres away from him at the Basement nine years ago as ''one of the musical highlights of my life''.
''He's had a bit of an influence directly on our new album, especially the  Controversy album songs. The way he builds his grooves - where he places his claps, snares, breaths, grunts - it's so tight and dry and very groovy. Again, it sounds so simple on the surface, but when you look closer at what he does, it's very complicated.
''It's like he took all the best bits from P-Funk [George Clinton's pioneering funk bands Parliament and Funkadelic] and James Brown, distilled it down through '80s synths, Latin percussion [and] huge snares, then wrote some catchy-as-hell pop lyrics and melodies on top, plus some ridiculous guitar solos. The result is pure gold.''
For all of the '80s and into the early '90s, that gold was minted in almost every conceivable way. There were substantial sales: 1984's Purple Rain sold more than 20 million copies worldwide; his career sales exceed 80 million. There were tours of guaranteed theatrics: his first Australian tour in 1992 featured a descending king-size bed upon which he writhed amusingly; his last tour had audience members paying well over the odds to sit at a ''bar'' on stage.
As well, there were two films of varying quality: the quasi-autobiographical Purple Rain, which gave him the No.1 album, single and movie in the US simultaneously, and the super-indulgent Under the Cherry Moon, which bombed, though its soundtrack was a gem.
And there was both fame and infamy. Almost from the start he sang out loud what many in his audience were asking: ''Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?'' The answer to the first question was ''both'': his father was African-American and his mother was Italian-American. And to the second it was ''decidedly, if not excessively, straight'' - oh the women he has, and the women he has been rumoured to have, squired! At the same time he was not afraid to tweak your insecurities and expectations of how a man should act and look. His third album wasn't called Dirty Mind for nothing.
Of course, having gone over from the dark side of rampant sexuality and provocative attire to becoming a Jehovah's Witness in 2001, including doing his obligatory doorknocking, there was a price to pay. His new church makes you atone for sins of the flesh, of which Prince presumably had many. This is the man who, while wearing only a black jockstrap and boots under a full-length coat, sang about deflowering a bride on the way to her wedding. Who insinuated into the millions of homes that owned a copy of Purple Rain a song called Darling Nikki, about a woman ''masturbating with a magazine'' who goes on to seduce the poor unsuspecting Prince. And let's not even go near Sister or Cream, except to say that the latter had nothing to do with cakes and the former was not about sharing a cake of any sort with a nurse. Or a nun.
But having rediscovered piety and maybe even purity, Prince declared that if it was naughty, it was nixed on the set list. So for most of the past decade his concerts have been sensual but not sexual, which is nice and all but it does deprive fans of songs such as Get Off, Head, Sexuality and Private Joy.
Then with his 2006 album, 3121, Prince warned us against the ''forked tongue and the treachery of the wicked one'' in The Word, while in the album's final track he urges us all to Get on the Boat - in this case the next ark.
Luckily, while he went righteous he was also going righteously funky on an album that often harked back to his late-'80s glory days rather than the ponderous workouts that had closed out the 20th century.
While rap and the rise of R&B pop left him flummoxed in the '90s and he is prone to declaring that ''I personally can't stand digital music'' and ''all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers'', the man is not some Luddite who wants the music industry to return to some golden age.
This is the artist who after his long-fought-for escape from record company ''bondage'' earned greater profit from his direct sales of subsequent albums online than he had when selling substantially more albums through the record company. ''We made money [online] before piracy was real crazy,'' he told The Guardian last year. ''Nobody's making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google.''
While the fan numbers are down on the stratospheric heights at his peak, many have stuck around, a lot of them even arguing strongly for the quality of not just the recent records but the questionable ones of the late '90s. But the sentiment can be harsh from the devoted who have felt let down.
One online fan advises new fans not to ''bother with anything he's done post 1998''. It says post-1998 Prince is a ''watered down, pale imitation of a man who went from creating sounds to following trends!''
But the Presets' Hamilton is not a naysayer, declaring everything Prince touches ''turns to gold''.
''No matter what he tries his hand at, he nails,'' Hamilton says. ''Everything comes across sounding so confident and polished: his jazz tunes, his soul tunes, his simplest pop songs, it's all so solid. Plus he always sounds like he's enjoying it. He never sounds earnest. Nothing sounds like a struggle. He makes it all sound very, very easy - but any muso will tell you what he does, everything he does, is so very difficult for most of us mere mortals to pull off.''
Prince: Welcome To Australia
Melbourne: Rod Laver Arena, May 14, 15 and 30.
Sydney: All Phones Arena, May 11, 12 and 22.
Brisbane: Entertainment Centre, May 18 and 26.