In the Beginning…
The waters flowing through the Great Lakes region were magical in the spring and summer of 1958, as the births of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson all occurred within a mere two months of each other. Prince Rogers Nelson was born June 7 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, followed by Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone on August 16 in Detroit, Michigan, and Michael Joseph Jackson nearly two weeks later on August 29 in Gary, Indiana. Each of these musical innovators would become household names, putting their stamp on pop culture in their own, unique ways. While these artists’ styles and work have been compared and contrasted for decades, what’s often overlooked is the impact their formative years had on their young, developing minds, and ultimately their sense of self and worldview.
The precocious trifecta of future megastars grew up in devoutly religious households: Madonna’s family was Roman Catholic; the Jacksons were members of the Jehovah’s Witness faith; and Prince was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist. A foundational religious discipline would easily lend itself to the establishment of a strict and rigorous work ethic later in life. Each of these rising talents would have a pivotal childhood heartbreak, which forced them to grow up quickly and discover creative ways to cope with emotional trauma. At the age of 5, Madonna would lose her mother to breast cancer, never to regain the unconditional love and bond of a maternal figure. And at the age of 6, Michael Jackson would become the lead singer of the Jackson 5, forcing him out of the playground into the working world of show business. Prince’s parents would separate and divorce before he was 10 years old, leaving his family broken and home life scattered.
All three entertainers had strained relationships with their fathers, which would inspire some of their future work: In Prince’s movie, Purple Rain, we see his character grappling with a critical and abusive father and in Madonna’s autobiographical single “Oh Father,” she laments: “You can’t hurt me now, I got away from you, I never thought I would.”
Baby I’m a Star!
Budding stardom was recognized early on for these recording artists.
Michael Jackson stepped into entertainment at the age when most kids are making milestones in kindergarten. Led by his father/manager, Michael grew up on the road, in the studio and on the stage. “I am most comfortable on stage than any other place in the world,” he shared in a 1980 interview on the TV program 20/20. Michael recorded his first album with the Jackson 5, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, at the age of 11. Being a part of the Motown family at an impressionable age allowed Michael to learn from some of the greats — backstage at the Apollo watching legendary James Brown and Jackie Wilson captivate audiences with their soulful singing and breathtaking choreography, and in the studio quizzing producers on how the recording process works. By the age of 20, Michael would produce 15 more studio albums with the Jackson 5, and later the Jacksons, developing and perfecting his vocal style, dance skills and songwriting abilities, before the release of his smash hit, solo album debut, Off the Wall, at the age of 21.
Prince taught himself to play the piano at age 7, the guitar at age 13, and the drums at age 14. And at 14 years old, Prince began performing throughout Minneapolis with a local band called Grand Central. Three years later, Prince would have a masterful dexterity of 27 musical instruments and create his first demo tape of songs that he wrote, produced, performed and arranged himself. This demo would lay the foundation for Prince’s debut album, For You, released two months before his 20th birthday.
Madonna began studying dance at age 14. She was a stellar student, graduated high school, and continued her dance education at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor in 1976. After two years, Madonna moved to the Big Apple, where she studied for a short time with the Alvin Ailey dance troupe and worked as a professional dancer for two years. Madonna added singing to her artistic mix, and began performing as a singer and backup dancer. “I studied very hard on learning how to play guitar, and piano, and drums, everything, and then I started writing music, and I got my own band together, made a demo tape, took it around to the record companies and got my record deal,” said Madonna in a 1983 radio interview with Paris DJ Stephen. Madonna released two disco club hit singles, “Everybody” and “Burning Up/Physical Attraction” before getting a recording contract to produce a full album. Five years after leaving Michigan for New York City, Madonna’s self-titled debut album was released in July1983. She was 24 years old.
For all three rising solo artists from the Midwest, with their follow-up albums, they would skyrocket to global fame, define ‘80s pop culture, dominate the MTV music video landscape with their groundbreaking, uniquely stylized fusion of video storytelling through song and dance, break world records, color barriers and forever influence pop artists for generations to come.
With Michael Jackson’s sophomore solo album, Thriller, he would enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the Greatest Selling Album of All Time (over 65 million copies sold). Michael would continue to break world records, receiving an additional 30 Guinness World Records, including Most Successful Entertainer of All Time. Madonna would receive the Guinness World Record for the Greatest Selling Female Recording Artist of All Time. Prince would be the only one of the three to receive an Oscar for Best Original Song Score for “Purple Rain.” Prince would tie the record for 12 consecutive years with a Top 10 pop single on the Billboard 100 charts in the U.S. Globally, Prince has sold over 150 million albums, Madonna over 300 million and Michael over 750 million.
Working Day and Night
The artistic and creative gifts of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince are innate in their DNA: Michael’s mother, Katherine, was a singer and pianist and his father, Joseph, was a guitarist with his own band, The Falcons, before he began to focus full throttle on developing the talent of his sons. Prince’s mother, Mattie, was a jazz singer and his father, John, was a jazz pianist and songwriter with his own group, The Prince Rogers Nelson Trio. “Prince Rogers Nelson” was a stage name for John Nelson. Prince’s late father said that he had named his son Prince because he wanted the artist to be a musician, like him. And, Madonna’s mother, Madonna Louise Ciccone, was formerly a dancer.
However, the epic success of all three icons would have been impossible without a relentless work ethic and a drive for excellence. “Study the greats, and become greater!” was one of Michael’s many mantras. R&B was an influence for these artists. Both Michael and Prince said that James Brown was one of their inspirations and exemplars — from the command of his band, his trademark original sound, and legendary choreography. And Hitsville U.S.A. struck a major chord with the Material Girl. “Motown is a really big influence with me ‘cause I grew up in Detroit, and I listened to all those old, Motown groups,” said Madonna in a 1983 interview with DJ Stephen on Radio Show.
NBA great Kobe Bryant discussed Michael Jackson’s work ethic in a 2016 Jimmy Kimmel Live interview: “He showed me how he composed songs, how he structured them, how he trained, who inspired him…He walked me step by step through things that he learned from [his influences] and how it made him a better entertainer. How he studied the Beatles, how he broke down every single note and felt like there was a certain emotional connection with each chord. It was just fascinating stuff. I thought I was working hard until I met him.”
In a 2016 ew.com interview, hit-making producer Jimmy Jam shared the following about Prince’s work ethic: “… He out-talented everyone by so much. In sports, it’d be like Michael Jordan. He walks into the gym and he’s the most talented player; that’s how Prince was. He walked in and he was more talented than everybody…He’d come to rehearsal, work with us, go work with his band, then he’d go to his studio all night and record. The next night he’d come to rehearsal with a tape in his hand and he’d say, ‘This is what I did last night!’ and it’d be something like ‘1999.’”
And celeb trainer Nicole Winhoffer told eoline.com in 2014: “Madonna stands as an icon. Her body, work ethic, and persistence is an inspiration to the people.”
“It’s my own style. Unique and original. You won’t see it anywhere else.”
—Madonna, Paris interview with DJ Stephen on Radio Show (1983)
“I strive for originality in my work. And, hopefully it will be perceived that way.”
—Prince, first television interview on MTV (1985)
“My attitude is if fashion says it’s forbidden, I’m going to do it. In many ways an artist is his work, it’s difficult to separate the two. I think I can be brutally objective about my work as I create it, and if something doesn’t work, I can feel it, but when I turn in a finished album – or song – you can be sure that I’ve given it every ounce of energy and God-given talent that I have.”
—Michael Jackson, the autobiography, Moonwalk (1988)
The greatest gift that Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson have given to the world is their unique, artistic voice. Their collective ability to masterfully blend music, dance, live performance, music videos, film and fashion to create artistic expressions that resonated across generations and countries is unparalleled. Their influence on our culture is multi-dimensional, transformative and everlasting. The world before Madonna, Prince and Michael was one in which we’d watch artists sing and perform, and we might sing along to their music. When Madonna, Prince and Michael each had their meteoric rise in the ‘80s — and declared they were originals, were going to push boundaries, yet also perform with a level of creativity and innovation never before seen — they created a deeper level of engagement with their audience and the public. In addition to singing their songs, we began to emulate their dance moves and sartorial tastes. Their appeal was contagious, enchanting, universal and international: black, white, young, old, straight or gay, it was a cultural revolution, unlike any other:
* Madonna had young girls around the world wearing rubber bracelets, lots of lace, and big hair bows. Michael Jackson created a new look: a signature red leather jacket with black trim — the Thriller jacket — which sold internationally. And, how can we forget that purple became the most popular color on the planet, when Prince’s movie, Purple Rain, was released.
* Everyone wanted to perform the Moonwalk, seamlessly and flawlessly, just like Michael Jackson. Who didn’t attempt to do a full split and spin, after watching Prince do it in Purple Rain? Madonna introduced a formerly underground dance style performed at house balls for a mostly gay community, vogueing, to the mainstream.
Madonna, Prince and Michael will always be known as trendsetters and tastemakers. Yet, their bodies of work also move people’s spirits and emotions. Emanating from their creative expression are themes of freedom, rebellion, acceptance, inclusion, peace, joy, fun and romance. In their music and videos, they also tackle controversial topics such as race, religion, politics and sexuality.
Most of all, we find Madonna, Prince, and Michael likable and relatable, because we see and embrace their humanity, complexities and eccentricities. All three of them are cultural misfits, who never quite fit in, but somehow rose to the top and stayed there. They are our American heroes, the underdogs from Midwestern, working-class families who succeeded, against all odds. Prince was the short guy from Minneapolis who embraced androgyny and, despite his stature, was larger than life. In reality, Michael Jackson was shy, alone, and kept to himself. On stage, Michael Jackson was a breathtaking force — dynamic and otherworldly. Two distinctly different personas — offstage and onstage — within the same man. Madonna fought disappointment and loss from her youth with rebellion. She pushed her past aside, moved forward, always robustly, with a propensity for head-turning, over-the-top attire and behavior. In the imperfect, there lies perfection.
Gone Too Soon
With the recent loss of Prince, it is hard to imagine that, like Michael Jackson, the new music will be coming from a vault. There will be no more live performances, cameo appearances, philanthropic projects or political statements to be made. That untouchable trifecta of musical titans from the Midwest were all supposed to live forever, if only to continue the soundtrack for an aging Generation X, much like how baby boomers still have the Rolling Stones. While the legacies of Prince and Michael will be timeless, up-and-coming artists will look to them for inspiration; the Purple One and the King of Pop are the ascended masters and reference points. The pain will linger in knowing that the creative environment that allowed these legends to flourish has vanished.
The industry has changed along with the way music is produced. Songs aren’t as rich as they used to be. Instruments have been overpowered by synthesizers, samples and beats. Auto-Tune has replaced raw vocals in the studio. New and emerging artists don’t have the freedom or flexibility to be daring and different. There is a marketing and promotional formula that must be followed — people aren’t even buying music like in previous decades, so budgets have dwindled for things like artist development. What will the next generation of pop artists look like? Will the pipeline to a recording contract be dominated by reality TV competitions? Could a young artist, who can play over two dozen musical instruments even fathom getting a record deal or complete creative control?
We can never deny that in their heyday Prince, Michael and Madonna, now the surviving member of the trifecta, shoved the envelope and set the bar for trend-setting music makers who came after them. Many may not appreciate or comprehend Madonna’s impact today, but that can’t diminish her influence. What’s next for the queen of reinvention? Whatever is on the horizon, like a prayer, she might just take us there.