For popular music, 1958 was arguably the greatest year from a number of perspectives. It was the year that Billboard began publishing its flagship singles chart, the Hot 100 – a chart that, to this day, is the premier indicator of which songs are the most popular across the United States.
And three artists who would go on to dominate that chart two-and-a-half decades later were all born that year: Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.
Two of those artists have now left us, with Prince passing away on Thursday, April 21. Only Madonna, who turns 58 in August, remains.
This article is about the two deceased legends: Prince and Michael – two iconic musicians who shared that common birth year and who were unequaled in what they accomplished in music. They were often compared with one another and were arguably in equal parts connected and disconnected…both artistically and personally.
This article examines their connections, their similarities and their differences (from a fan’s perspective) and recounts the inseparable nature of Michael’s and Prince’s concurrent successes and the inevitable comparisons that went along with them…mostly done by the loyal fans of each artist.
MJ and Prince: In common
To begin, Michael Jackson and Prince certainly had their similarities. For instance, aside from their common birth year, both were born upper Midwesterners who came from very humble beginnings.
Both had musical fathers whose influences were instrumental in their careers.
Both were slight in their physical statures, but became giants among giants in the music industry.
As they came of age, both were at times sexually ambiguous, yet women (and a few men) swooned over them. Both made it emphatically clear where their interests lie, but we fans chose to confuse the issue and continue the controversies anyway. (And, at least one of the two artists didn’t seem to mind.)
Both had their beginnings in R&B, crossed over to pop and added funk and rock elements to blur the color lines in music like few others had before them.
Both sold millions on top of millions of records worldwide, helping revive a music industry that before 1984 had been struggling financially.
Prince and Michael were each one-of-a-kind and incomparable musicians, yet we compared them to one another without regard for those two facts.
Why? Well, mainly it’s what music fans do, rightly or wrongly. But maybe it was also because it was just so unimaginable that not one, but two black superstars could emerge from their humble beginnings to become two of the most talked-about, most emulated, most respected and most incredible musicians of a lifetime…at the same time!
That 1958 Beginning
One preceded the other in birth by just under three months. On June 7, 1958, Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis, MN. Just 82 days later and 450 miles away in Gary, IN, Michael Joseph Jackson was born on August 28.
Prince took to music at an early age, particularly when his parents separated, because he didn’t think he would be good at anything else.
Michael was thrust into the spotlight by his father – also at an early age – as part of the Jackson Five. We all know their success story and how it served as the launchpad for MJ’s unimaginable solo career.
Then there was Thriller and Purple Rain
Twenty-six years after their births, the two unwittingly conspired to transform music like perhaps no other black musicians had before them and possibly none have since.
That was 1984, when MJ’s Thriller spent the first 15 weeks of the year at number one and Prince’s Purple Rain spent the last 22 weeks at the top. (The fifteen weeks in between those two reigns were shared among the Footloose soundtrack, Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports album and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, making 1984 still the year with the fewest #1 albums with just five, mainly because of the lengthy Prince and MJ stays at the top.)
Of course, Thriller was a holdover from 1983 where it had already spent 22 weeks at the chart pinnacle, and Purple Rain would add two more #1 weeks in 1985. But the symbolism of their bookended 1984 chart dominance cannot be overlooked.
The end of Thriller’s reign and the beginning of Purple Rain was not a passing of the torch, per se, as both artists continued to thrive well into the next decade and beyond. Instead, it was the crowning achievements of both artists – to this day their greatest commercial triumphs – and a sign that not only were they here to stay, but black music and music in general would never be viewed in the same confining ways as they had been up to that point.
That Thriller and Purple Rain nearly coincided was merely fodder for later comparisons between the two wonder kinds that would prove to be silly, unfair and often without merit.
Yet we delighted in their concurrent success so much that the comparisons were inevitable, especially for music fans of my generation (people who are just now turning 50) who’d never witnessed such a black presence in music.
Yes, we had lived through disco and caught the tail-end of Motown’s heyday in our childhoods, but we were hardly old enough to really indulge in either one.
By the time my friends and I reached high school in 1980, disco was dead and Motown was on life support.
By our sophomore year in 1981-82, pop radio was relegated to adult-contemporary, rock and country music – most of it by white artists. The few blacks that did crossover were usually holdovers from an earlier generation (e.g., Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder)…true legends, yes, but they certainly didn’t do it with the kind of fervor, excitement or impact that MJ and Prince would later bring.
By the time we were graduating high school, we had Prince and Michael.
Jackson and Prince brought with them a level of energy and excitement to the music that, during their primes, not even their white counterparts could match. The excitement of Thriller had been preceded by the sheen of Off the Wall and was followed by the mastery of Bad.
Purple Rain’s boldness was preceded by the raw energy of 1999 and followed by ’80s psychedelia with Around the World in a Day, Parade/Under the Cherry Moon, and the expertly funk-infused Sign O’ the Times (in rapid succession, mind you).
All were legendary albums that collectively sold millions and kept both artists at or near the top of the pop and R&B charts for the better part of the decade.
By the time they both reached their 30th birthdays in 1988, MJ and Prince had firmly established themselves as eighties icons who were not only the two biggest black stars in America, but two of the biggest stars in the world, period. (By that time, Madonna had also etched her place as the biggest female star on the planet, further cementing the importance of 1958’s products in popular music.)
So compare them we did
Regarding MJ and Prince, we marveled at how – chronologically at least – Prince’s ’80s success paralleled that of his 1958 “birth-year brother” Michael, even if it lacked some of the King of Pop’s commercial accolades, as MJ’s fans would quickly point out.
Prince’s fans would counter that he was the better overall musician because, unlike MJ, His Purple Majesty could read music, could play instruments, pushed the envelope lyrically, and wasn’t afraid of commercial failure…all the ingredients of a true musician.
Sure, MJ created great music, they’d say, but he admittedly couldn’t read it, instead opting to beat-box or hum the tune while an accompanying musician translated it to instrumentation during the creative process.
Prince, however, had created an entire sound – the Minneapolis Sound – which would later be emulated by the likes of MJ’s own sister, Janet.
They’d add that, while Prince produced nearly all of his own hits, Michael’s comeuppance happened only after he linked up with über producer Quincy Jones.
MJ’s fans would duly note that, but counter with the fact that the synergy that Jones and Jackson created in the studio was powerful and legendary, and that Jones’ studio wizardry and his cadre of professional musicians could not have created that magic with just anybody.
The fans’ competitions would continue…
While MJ was a known perfectionist whose quest for that next Number One record was legendary, Prince seemingly went where the groove took him, especially in later years.
To wit, when Prince achieved his greatest success with his band the Revolution between 1984 and ’86, rather than continue with the formula, he fired the band and moved on to the next thing, not knowing (or maybe even caring) if he’d ever sell ten million records again.
Where MJ thrived on structure and syncopation (both in his music and his dance moves), Prince was more raw and spontaneous.
As a case in point, the Purple Army would point out that Prince embraced his sexuality – even the ambiguity of it – while Michael tended to ignore or shun the very notion of sex (“Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana”). As a manifestation of this difference, Prince didn’t mind having self-proclaimed “Nasty Girls” (Vanity, Apollonia) on his arm, while MJ preferred the safer route, often being seen with the likes of Tatum O’Neal, Lisa Marie Presley.
Jackson’s fans would pull the ultimate trump card that MJ broke down racial barriers a year or so before Prince exploded, suggesting that we wouldn’t be talking about either artist had it not been for MJ’s groundbreaking albums (both Thriller and Off the Wall before it).
And most Prince fans would reluctantly concede that Michael’s music videos were far superior by most comparisons (plus we can at least still see them on the Internet).
But all of these comparisons were made while it became increasingly obvious that neither MJ nor Prince were in direct competition with one another, that was just us silly fans fighting.
In reality, the two artists – for as similar as they were with the common birth year, race and gender – couldn’t have been more artistically different. Their differences were often glaring ones that allowed them to coexist in a way that neither artist’s success detracted from that of the other.
Perhaps their biggest similarities lie in the notion that both were consummate pop artists in their own right, making our idle fan-biased comparisons – while convenient given the synchronicity of the artist’s lives and careers – seem frivolous.
Prince and Michael forever in a class of their own
Instead of the comparisons, both Prince and Michael should now be remembered for their unprecedented accomplishments, both individually and collectively.
Both revolutionized the music industry at a time when the industry itself was ripe for a revolution. In the early MTV days, their videos for “Billie Jean” and “Little Red Corvette” were the first two black videos to be featured in heavy rotation on the mostly white video channel. (MJ’s “Beat It” would be third.)
Their iconic albums stand as the two longest-running number one albums of the ’80s at 37 weeks (Thriller) and 24 weeks (Purple Rain) each.
And both artists overcame tremendous odds at a time when black music was given minimal promotional support from record labels (marketing pushes were limited to R&B stations and low-budget promotional videos that only received play on late-night specialized TV programming).
Prince and MJ changed all of that, with both musicians blurring the racial lines that had previously divided us musically, both being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before their 50th birthdays and both giving us a musical legacy that will live on forever.
And now both icons are gone, both living to see their 50th birthdays, neither making it to 60.
Like supernovas, their lights dimmed too quickly.
Maybe now they’re in that proverbial Rock and Roll Heaven, admiring the legacies they created and saying, “yeah…we DID THAT!”
And no doubt they’re both likely agreeing with us…what a great year 1958 was!
Thank you, Prince.
Thank you, Michael.
To see a DJRob ranking of Prince’s best songs, click here.