What’s In a Name?

The design of the Love Symbol itself had appeared early in Prince’s career, first on the cover of 1999 as a decoration on the first “9” and then notably in still-rudimentary form as a decoration for the purple motorcycle he rode in Purple Rain. The design combined the symbols for male (Mars) and female (Venus), evoked the human body and the cross, and married those opposites in one unified design. Strikingly, the design is not perfectly symmetrical. The symbol is imperfect to me, that gives it a cosmic vibe — not coincidentally, much like Prince himself. In its final form, it became known as Love Symbol #2.

What’s as fascinating as the actual Love Symbol #2 is the fact that the Symbol cannot be typed and cannot be pronounced. In other words, no one could call Prince’s name. According to an article in Guitar World from November 1994, Prince’s employees referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince” or “The Boss.”

A friend of mine who is a college professor and who teaches English as a Second Language was discussing Prince’s name change with me. She drew parallels with her students from Asia whose given names are difficult to pronounce in English. Oftentimes, she said, students make the decision to change their names and adopt an American name. In the process, they shed their old identity and take on a new identity. They answer to a new name. What a jarring experience that must be! And at the same time, it must be oddly freeing. You’re no longer limited by the perceptions that others have of you in your former identity. Anything that was holding you back from your past is gone, and you’ve got a blank slate on which to draw.

“It’s fun to draw a line in the sand and say, `Things change here,'” Prince told writer Alan Light about his adoption of the Love Symbol in Vibe Magazine in August 1994.

Prince said that he made the decision to change his name while in Puerto Rico visiting his then-girlfriend Mayte Garcia’s family. “I followed the advice of my spirit,” he told Alan Light.

Garcia, who went on to become Prince’s first wife, wrote in her memoir The Beautiful Ones that Prince had spent a long time actively questioning everything about the way the music industry interacted with artists.

She wrote, “Ultimately these questions led him to change his name to the unpronounceable love symbol, but that didn’t happen overnight; it was a place he came to after a long, difficult soul search.”

Interestingly, Prince went on to describe a story to Light that indicated it was not only the name “Prince” that was the root cause of his naming and identity crisis. Equally, his surname gave him pause.

Light wrote: “The man born Prince Rogers Nelson goes on to explain, “I’m not the son of Nell. I don’t know who that is, ’Nell’s son,’ and that’s my last name. I asked Gilbert Davison [ O(+>’s manager and closest friend, and president of NPG Records] if he knew who David was, and he didn’t even know what I was talking about. I started thinking about that, and I would wake up nights thinking, `Who am I? What am I?'”

The Love Symbol had first appeared on the cover of his 1992 album that opens with “My Name Is Prince,” but the first album he released as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince was 1995’s “The Gold Experience.” For someone who had eschewed a lucrative Warner Bros. record deal, it seemed fitting that the title track’s refrain warns that “all that glitters ain’t gold.” (No matter that the next year he was photographed for a Versace ad by Richard Avedon, covered in glitter and wearing gold. Prince was nothing if not a mass of contradictions). The album notes included the line, “Welcome 2 the dawn,” an apparent indication that his listeners had arrived at their destination, as compared with previous album covers that used to include the phrase, “May U live 2 see the dawn.” (The circle would be completed with 2014’s Art Official Age, which opens with the line, “Welcome home, class. You’ve come a long way.”)

At the time, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince had declared that he was retiring from the recording studio and would no longer play any of the songs recorded by Prince.

That idea changed when in 2000, Prince’s contract with Warner Bros. expired and the Artist Formerly Known As Prince became the artist currently known as Prince. He returned to form, playing songs across his career.

Alan Light, writing for Vibe Magazine in 1994, asked if the idea of never playing all those Prince songs again made him sad at all.

“I would be sad,” he replied, “if I didn’t know that I had such great shit to come with.”

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