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Prince and Michael Jackson: The intense rivalry

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For anyone who grew up with his songs and saw him as a source of vitality, lust, genius and hours of head-spinning music, his passing is just about irreconcilable. For a musician who was intensely private, he was also someone we thought we knew, and he seemed like he would keep touring and making music forever.

Both artists came out of tough midwest cities: Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, a steel town just south of Chicago; Prince was from North Minneapolis, Minnesota, also known for its gritty industrial character. Their first homes—on 2300 Jackson street and 915 Logan Avenue—were modest starter houses out of which their parents dreamed big dreams. Like Gary, North Minneapolis was predominantly African American, but unlike Gary, it was part of what local reporter Neal Karlen called “the whitest metropolitan area in the country.”

Both artists’ roots were in the South. Jackson’s parents were from Arkansas and Alabama; Prince’s were from Louisiana. Two generations removed from slavery and still struggling with the pervasive inequalities of Jim Crow, they migrated north, along with hundreds of thousands of other African Americans, looking for opportunity. Both Prince and Jackson’s fathers were strict disciplinarians who worked long, arduous hours to support their families.

both idolized James Brown, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder; both were “crossover” artists, who believed in musical fusion, and surrounded themselves with racially diverse collaborators; both believed in making music visual; both played liberally with notions of race, gender and sexuality, redefining what it meant to be a man; both were private (sometimes reclusive), rarely granted interviews (especially in the ‘80s), and created seemingly impenetrable mystiques; both were deeply spiritual, and identified at some point as members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith;

both built grand gated personal utopias (Paisley Park and Neverland Ranch); both fought tooth-and-nail against their music labels and the industry as a whole over principles of fair compensation, corporate exploitation, and creative control; both experienced significant commercial and critical declines in the United States in the wake of scandals; and both died unexpectedly and tragically in the midst of artistic comebacks.
Prince and Michael Jackson had a rivalry that was very real, at least to Prince. Sometimes musicians’ fights are driven by the press, or made up to sell albums or newspapers. But Prince really meant it, didn’t he? It tapped into who he was and wanted to be.

It was a real rivalry. I know from people who were friends with Prince that he cared very deeply about the competition with Michael Jackson, the rivalry with Michael Jackson. You notice that “1999” and “Thriller” came out within a month of each other. And “1999” is Prince’s best-selling album to date – I think it sells two million copies before “Purple Rain” comes out. I think it’s the fifth best-selling album of that year. It’s a big success for him; he’s moving upward. He’s at least doubling the audience he’s had previously.

But Michael Jackson goes to the stratosphere and has the biggest album of the year and the biggest album of all time. And [Prince] is like, “I gotta get to that! I gotta be the biggest dog! I gotta get to that!”

Both artists were intensely ambitious and made no qualms about where they felt they belonged in the pop hierarchy. They were keenly aware of each other’s albums, tours, awards, and records, and whether they publicly acknowledged it or not, they privately conveyed a desire to match and surpass each other’s achievements, especially in the ‘80s.

Prince watched Jackson collect a record haul of eight Grammys in 1984. That stoked his desire to reach similar heights, to be similarly recognized for his work. “We were watching rough cuts of Purple Rain,” remembers Bobby Z, “and we knew that’s where Prince wanted to be the next year.” Later that year, Jackson observed the phenomenon of Purple Rain. He attended a screening of the movie and attended multiple concerts, all the while plotting his return to the throne.

And at one point, Michael sent Prince a song called “I’m Bad,” with hopes that Prince would jump in it and they could collaborate on the song together. Prince was so offended at the notion of Michael Jackson doing a song called “I’m Bad” – in a world where Prince existed as an actually bad person – Prince re-recorded the song, and sent it back to Michael, like “Here’s how you should have done it.” It was kind of a superstar way of saying, “Fuck you.”

This competitiveness was on full display in a now-legendary game of table tennis between the stars in December 1985. Jackson showed up with his bodyguards at Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood, where Prince was putting the final musical touches on Under the Cherry Moon. After some small talk, Prince challenged Jackson to a game of ping-pong. Jackson had hardly played before but said he’d give it a try. Work stopped in the studio as people gathered around to watch the two superstars play.

Prince went easy at first, but before long his competitive streak took over and he began slamming the ball past (and at) a hapless Jackson. “He played like Helen Keller!” Prince later joked to friends. Jackson recovered by chatting up Prince’s then-girlfriend, actress Sherilyn Fenn. “Michael knows how to handle himself,” recalls Prince’s recording engineer, Susan Rogers, “and he didn’t seem to care [about the game]. [He] started flirting with Sherilyn Fenn, who was visiting Prince in the studio. Prince was pacing, but he wasn’t going to get into the game of flirting back. They said hasty goodbyes.”

That year, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Prince boasted: “I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn’t have got into the business if I didn’t think I was bad.” Perhaps Jackson remembered the quote when coming up with the punctuating quip for his song-in-progress just months later, Who’s bad?

Alan Leeds said that as a teenager, [Prince] was not working and planning on being a musician – he was working and planning on being a rock star. That’s what he wanted for himself.

When he was a little bit older, he had a three- or four-year argument with [bass player] Larry Graham over Jehovah’s Witnesses. Larry Graham quote-unquote won, and Prince said, “Okay I see it your way” and became a Witness. He took it very seriously. I have people who said he was going around Minneapolis, knocking on doors.

Experiencing divorce, familial dislocation – that’s a huge experience for Generation X. We’d typically call them a “latchkey child” – but he was more an abandoned or homeless child. It was a dire situation even though he worked his way out of it.

There was obviously some truth to these distinctions. But they were also simplifications. Indeed, part of what made their rivalry so compelling was their similarities.

Bob Marley Three little birds


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