Stereogum spent their week digging through the strange idiosyncrasies of the 90's. As time passes, the 90's look more and more like the biggest outlier in music industry history. Sales and profits were at a never to be repeated all time high, thanks to overpriced CD's nearly monopolizing the format and consumption of music. Artists that sold out arenas in the 70's and 80's took the decade off (with few exceptions such as the Rolling Stones and U2), reformed or reconnected with their audience in the 00's and went right back to selling out arenas and stadiums again. The list goes on.
This conversation with Len's Marc Costanzo is the most honest and refreshing interviews I've seen in a while. We like to think of musicians as creative geniuses who go to great lengths to cultivate their art. But sometimes great songs just happen by complete fluke. Constanzo gets it, he's under absolutely no illusions about his place in the music business. He's an ordinary guy who liked writing music and getting wasted with his friends, and not necessarily in that order. He wrote "Steal My Sunshine" (helped by one of the best ever uses of sampling to really make a pop hit click) and couldn't be more humble about the complete unpredictability of it all. No marketing strategist could have come up with this path to success. Nothing could have been planned, not the inspiration for the song (the atmosphere at a rave), not the unthinkable sums of money given to them for filming the video (most of it spent on flying himself and his friends to Daytona to wreck shit while also wrecking their brain cells, filming everything as they went), and not the bonkers (but commendable) decision to fuck off and head home in the middle of their 200-date world tour because they were tired of being stars.
He doesn't complain about getting labeled a one hit wonder whose art wasn't appreciated in its time. In fact it's the opposite -- "when it goes that fast off one single, and you have no other singles -- we knew there was no other single. We were surprised there was even one single." It feels like almost anybody could have written this, one of the best singles of the past 25 years. Maybe anybody could have, but Constanzo actually did it. Sometimes that's enough. Sometimes it's not about being the most talented, or the most consistent, or the most business savvy, it's about dumb luck timing and doing one good thing before anyone else thinks of it.
So how did Len fall ass backwards into one of the most fondly remembered singles of the decade, and the infinitely more ... everything really ... Prince struggle to sell records after 1991?
I've been thinking about this a lot since Prince's death last month. I'd long since assumed that Prince's commercial appeal went downhill for the same reasons that other 80's mega-icons' careers did -- failure to adapt his music to the changing tastes of music fans. Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna all remained superstars until 1991-1992. Each new music video was an event, and their albums still sold well. By 1995, they all seemed like relics from a long forgotten time. In Prince's case, he lost the rock crowd because his glitzy persona and outlandish costumes and stage performances seemed shallow next to the dour seriousness of 90's grunge and alt-rock. He lost the hip-hip and R&B crowds because he never really embraced hip hop, and insisted on forcing 20 minute funk jams down people's throats rather than court the R&B fans that adored him in the 80's.
Is that really correct however? Listening again to "Gett Off", "Cream", and "Diamonds and Pearls", I was reminded of not only how massive those songs were on video music channels and radio, but also of how much they sounded like the R&B and New Jack Swing that remained popular well into the mid-90's. He recorded plenty of R&B cuts later in the decade that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Boyz II Men album. Prince was one of the most versatile superstars ever -- could he really have failed to recognize and adapt to the changing tastes of his fans?
This 1998 interview with Prince (in his "The Artist" phase) from BET finds him speaking with a clear head about his problems with Warners, in language that sounds far more reasonable today than it did then. He spoke of wanting to market his music directly to his fans via the internet. Who else had that kind of foresight in the 90's? He spoke passionately about corporations increasing their control over him and his art, and needing to break with his record company (and his past identity!) in order to harness his creative potential. At the time many people thought he was setting fire to his career and biting the hand that fed him, but in a post-Occupy world, his sentiments would be met with a lot more sympathy.
This wonderful oral history of Prince in the 90's, from David Brown writing in Rolling Stone, gets closest to the truth. Prince's fans didn't get bored of him and start listening to G-funk instead. Rather, he stopped trying to market himself (and cut off contact with record companies and managers that would have been happy to do it for him) and dared his fans to follow his lead. He recorded albums with women he picked up at clubs. He eschewed most of his best known hits and channeled his inner James Brown, becoming a ruthlessly strict bandleader. Writing "SLAVE" on his forehead and changing his name to a symbol was kind of the last straw. He could have been ghostwriting slow jams for every major R&B act in the 90's, but he no longer wanted that kind of career. His anti-corporate actions prevented people from appreciating his music based on its merit alone. Casual fans could have taken to his new material, but Prince the man had become too much of an oddball to take seriously. It would actually be another ten years before he became comfortable with his legacy and went back to playing all his old hits again.