Prince’s Lifelong Fascination with Names is a Clue About Why He Dropped His

Prince gave Denise Matthews the name “Vanity.” Photo credit: Paul Natkin

Prince loved naming people. Denise Matthews became Vanity. Tara Leigh Patrick became Carmen Electra. Mark Brown? Brownmark. (Clever, huh?) Paul Peterson became St. Paul Peterson. Thomas Elm became Tommy Barbarella. Mayte Garcia almost became Arabia but resisted (good call).

Prince gave himself a number of aliases and pseudonyms, from Alexander Nevermind to Joey Coco to Jamie Starr. But for someone who clearly was happy to name almost anyone, it’s unclear if he enjoyed being on the receiving end of a nickname. His family called him Skipper. For a time, and to Prince’s dismay, his neighborhood friends called him The Great Gazoo. But of course, some nicknames are flattering and endearing, while others can feel hurtful. The nicknames Prince gave, at least the ones I mentioned, are more an invention — a vision for the persona and image that person could embody. Tara Leigh Patrick brings to mind a charming Irish lass. Carmen Electra could be no one but the glamorous actor and model that she is still today.

Even surnames were a source of fascination for Prince. Of the surname “Johnson,” he said that his best friends and worst enemies all had the same last name. Presumably, he was referring to his friends from childhood, brothers Keith and Kirk Johnson (Keith is a minister who married Prince and Mayte, and Kirk is a drummer who became Prince’s right-hand man in managing Paisley Park). In the enemy category, I’m guessing we can put C.J., the columnist for the Star-Tribune who was Prince’s #1 critic, at the top of the list.

To name someone is to bring them into existence, in some ways. As a parent, one of the great joys is naming your child. In the book of Genesis, Adam names the animals as part of the creation story. There is something beautiful about giving someone their name.

I believe Prince’s reverence for names is part of the reason why he was so pained at the abuse of his own name at the hands of Warners. And as someone who was deeply hurt by harsh criticism, it might have felt like sweet relief for Prince to tell himself “that’s not me” when people would critique “Prince”‘s work. Because Prince was an artist who worked from the inside out (meaning, all of the music came from inside him, rather than being pieced together externally by a cadre of musicians, producers and the like), Prince’s music was uniquely personal. His music was like no one else’s in terms of the notes he chose and the arrangements he created. Criticism of this was a criticism of Prince’s heart and soul! No wonder he might want to distance himself from it.

Finally, I think Prince saw himself evolving beyond a name. You could argue that a symbol can evoke meaning on more levels than letters can. At least for a time during the period when he identified himself as the Love Symbol, from June 7, 1993 to Jan. 1, 2000, Prince was communicating on another level — something the general public didn’t grasp at the time.

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