In February I’ve been focused on dressing the part, but during this final week of the month, I want to explore the second aspect of the challenge — the choice of a symbol to represent oneself and all the questions about identity and naming that it raises.
Back in the year 1993, Prince made a creative and daring choice: He changed his name to what became known as the Love Symbol. At that time, I was in the midst of a New York City public relations career and can recall cringing on Prince’s behalf as he became the object of ridicule in the midst of what was in my perception a PR fiasco.
Today, I see the decision Prince announced on his 35th birthday on June 7, 1993, to release the name “Prince” and adopt an unpronounceable symbol as his name and identity, as the most extraordinary decision in a career that never followed convention. Can you name another person in history who has adopted an unpronounceable symbol as a name? I have wracked my brain and have come up short. Once again, Prince did what felt good to him without caring about other people’s judgment. Now I know Prince didn’t need me to feel embarrassed for him. (And to think I celebrated my own 35th birthday by throwing a party at a wine bar … seems mundane in comparison). Prince’s adoption of the Love Symbol created an aura of uniqueness around him that few artists have been able to achieve.
When Prince shared the news of his impending announcement with his public relations consultant, Karen Lee, she was prescient enough to tell Prince that journalists wouldn’t know how to refer to him if his name was a symbol that didn’t appear on a keyboard.
“What if they took middle C off the piano keyboard?” she asked him. Left to their own devices, journalists would make up something, she told Prince.
Prince dismissed her warnings, declaring that he would change every keyboard in America (and I guess, by extension, the world). In the end, Lee was proven correct. The LA Times was the first to give him a nickname, and other journalists followed suit. Prince’s public image fell off a cliff as he became the brunt of countless jokes and nicknames, with “Symbolina” from long-time Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist C.J. being only one of many.
The fact that Prince took that decision 15 years into his career, at a stage when many stars would be kicking back and enjoying the ride, is all the more striking. Prince, intense as ever, was focused on being an avant-garde performer and not an oldies act. Never one to accept convention, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince continued to make shocking and incomprehensible statements to reporters such as “music should be free.” Free? In 1993, the only way you could imagine getting music for free was: a) shoplifting at Tower Records or b) having someone burn a CD for you. Prince was not only challenging our concept of
A cynical world questioned whether the name change was nothing more than a publicity stunt. As it turns out, it was much more than that. The Love Symbol became part of a master plan.