For somebody so prone to being a topic of conversation, Prince was pretty hard to talk about for a while. This wasn’t because of some cultural faux pas he committed, or because his music was too enigmatic to properly understand (although that was often the case). It was because when he changed his name in 1993, it had no pronunciation.
The symbol, which can be seen above and which eventually became known as “Love Symbol#2,” defied linguistic explanation… again, much like Prince’s music. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” is what somebody said once (nobody’s quite sure who), and if that’s true, writing about Prince is also very much like dancing about architecture.
John Hendrickson put it well recently, tweeting that Prince is currently “having his life’s work watered down into shareable content.” There are a couple reasons this happens. The first and most obvious is that the news world moves fast, and everybody’s looking for a unique angle from which to appreciate a fallen legend. That’s completely fair, because there are plenty of vantage points that put Prince in a positive light. He was a diversely and infinitely talented person, and appreciating any aspect of that is a fine way to memorialize him.
The second is that because Prince was such a truly concentrated being, his work absolutely has to be watered down in order to make any sense of it. There’s no one aspect of the man that makes Prince the mythic figure he is, but his unpronounceable name may explain him best, even though it’s barely rooted in language… or perhaps because of that.
“I was born Prince, and did not want to adopt another conventional name,” Prince said in a press release announcing the name change. “The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me, and what my music is about.”
Language tends to use familiar and understandable terms as representative descriptors, because that is the function of communication. However, if Prince was so creatively above the rest of us and really could not be understood, then language would fail to describe him, no? Prince so often resided outside of language that his name subverting that convention only makes sense.
So if the name had no linguistic roots, the only other way to approach it is by looking at what it does and means visually. The glyph is an approximation of a combined male (♂) and female (♀) symbol; chief among the things Prince thought differently about were gender and sexuality. As Frank Ocean wrote in a touching post about Prince following his death, “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity etc.”
Biologically, Prince was a male human being, but that distinction didn’t have to define him, and so often, it didn’t. This isn’t a conversation about the gender binary per se. In fact, the words used to describe Prince are rarely associated with human activity of any gender. He’s often portrayed as “floating” into a room or “appearing” in a puff of smoke, because that’s the kind of presence he was. Human, yes, but in a way much more transcendent and immortal than we had any right to experience.
The music press (us included) sure was thankful when Prince eventually dropped the symbol as his name, but it was also the only way to really capture who he was. Prince was, and forever will be, a symbol of human (or inhuman) potential.