Popular music’s relationship with TV is an uneasy one. Pop on TV, particularly in the age of talent shows like Pop Idol and The X Factor, lacks credibility. So why has the global megastar Prince, arguably the most enduring and respected popular music stars of his generation, chosen to embrace the small screen? Earlier this month, he sent himself up with a cameo role in the US TV sitcom New Girl. Next week, the pop/rock icon will appear on The Arsenio Hall Show (March 5). He’ll take over the broadcast, performing multiple songs over the span of the show. In addition to performing, Prince will also sit down with Hall to discuss what’s in store for 2014.
Prince’s appearance on the sitcom on February 2 right after the Super Bowl offered a rare moment to witness his comedic talents. In an implausible plot twist (of the kind my hormonal teen brain used to conjure), Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and her friends end up at a party at Prince’s house. Soon after, Prince becomes Jess’s relationship counsellor, style advisor and table tennis coach. He even gets a plateful of pancakes down her – despite clearly having not ingested a carb himself since 1982. The crowning glory is when Prince, sporting an incredibly funky Afro hairdo, lets Jess duet with him on a snippet of a new song. “He’s trying to make her into a stronger, more courageous, more Prince-like version of herself,” New Girl writer and creator Elizabeth Meriwether told the Hollywood Reporter. “It was actually his idea. … He really has great instincts for comedy.”
It worked. New Girl’s average viewership is around 3.2 million per episode; this one netted 26.3 million viewers. To be fair, it was broadcast in the prize post Super Bowl slot, but its ratings were even a few million higher than The Office in 2009. So here’s the needle off the record moment for me – was Prince, who apparently played an active role in scripting, being led by his creative genius, even fascination with femininity? Or was his business brain behind this deal?
For me there’s no doubt that Prince has aligned himself with femininity from the outset. (Link to interview on Woman’s Hour).
As far back as 1978, he understood better than most that visual branding and marketing are as vital to musicians as their sound. Prince wished to occupy a different space to his pop contemporaries, and for his female fans to also see him differently to other male performers. This possibility, and the fact that he chose to emulate the dandy movement with its long trajectory of political and gender subversion, suggests Prince was intervening directly in debates about gender representation and relations.
His New Girl performance was self-referentially camp, not least with this line: “Anything beautiful is worth getting hurt for. You know who said that? Me.”
Capturing the female audience is key to all areas of marketing now, and Prince may have recognised a need for a different kind of pop masculinity on the part of young women who have no tack with the likes of Robin Thicke and his Blurred Lines song and video. Until very recently, industries like motors, financial services, computers, consumer electronics, home improvements, and travel seemed to have overlooked female customers almost entirely. One of the key characteristics of female consumers is that if they like something, they will spread the word. Every new female fan for Prince creates a spiralling effect. A glimpse at the demographic of the queues waiting hours for a squished spot at his guerrilla gigs in London and Manchester and ensuing social media commentary is revealing. Even young female brand leaders such as magazine beauty editors were tweeting their excitement, which has a cumulative, gendered effect on the purple zeitgeist.
However, Matt Thorne, acclaimed novelist, journalist and Prince biographer believes his prime target’s the youth market:
The recent trip to London seemed especially geared towards younger fans, aimed primarily at people who were prepared to follow Twitter to find out where he might be playing next, and had the time and the stamina to queue for up to twelve hours to see him. But I’m not sure I entirely agree that his band and lyrics are focused solely on young female fans. He’s always played around with gender, and 3rdEyeGirl are essentially a hard rock band, which I think appeals as much to his male listeners as female ones. Some of his new songs do seem to be about the fun of touring with a new female band (Screwdriver, Pretzel Body Logic, etc.), but there have also been quite a few songs that sound like bitter break-up songs recently (Da Bourgeoisie, Ain’t Gonna Miss U When U’re Gone). As always, I think he’s still mixing everything up.
Prince is indeed an expert in creating a sense of event, something musicologists often refer to as ‘liveness’. In textual terms, the WTF casting of Prince as a cameo cultivates a sense that something very original is unfolding before our eyes. It’s a natural continuation of the aural tease Prince began If I was UR Girlfriend on Sign O’ The Times through Mr Goodnight on 3121 to see him then playing a romantic expert on TV. In strategic terms, TV’s an effective way for musicians to reach beyond their traditional audiences. Thorne adds:
Prince has always had an awareness of the big cultural moments in America and often connects his own events to them–throwing Oscar parties every year for a while, etc. The musical act at the Super Bowl this year–Bruno Mars–was comparatively weak, ensuring that Prince’s cameo on New Girl got more attention.
Sociomusicologist Simon Frith has written extensively on the history of music on TV, from Oh Boy to Tweenies. In the Noughties, crossover appeal is key. Take, for instance, the CDs that popped up as soundtracks from TV programmes such as Cold Feet and Teachers. “Here is the circular argument beloved of advertisers: if this is your sort of music then this must be your sort of television; because this is your sort of television this must be your sort of music. The relationship of music and television is not organic but a matter of branding.” (p. 282) Thorne concurs:
“Synch fees have become an increasingly important source of income for musicians in the days of declining physical sales and it’s increasingly common for people to download songs after hearing them on shows. Prince has mainly avoided this in the past and by making an event of this occasion he made it feel special.
Finally, given Prince’s penchant for TV appearances like this plus stints on The View – a US female-led discussion show – might there be more TV/Prince link-ups on the cards? Thorne hopes so:
Aside from the occasional interview/awards show appearances, most of his acting has occurred on videos mainly shot at Paisley Park and seen by a relatively small audience of hard core fans. There was a new gentleness and playfulness to his New Girl appearance which it would be nice to see again, though of course there is a limit to the number of times he can do this and still maintain his mystique.
Sarah Niblock is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University, London, UK. She can often be found on the radio or in a field talking about pop style. She is the author of several books, articles and chapters on visual culture and journalism including Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon (Ashgate 2012), now reprinted in paperback.
Sarah’s book Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon (Ashgate, co-authored with Stan Hawkins) is available here
Matt Thorne’s Prince (Faber & Faber) is available here