Last night’s Super Bowl LII halftime show included a segment where Justin Timberlake sang a duet of “I Would Die 4 U” with a large projection of old and possibly re-edited Prince footage. While many people watching found the spectacle to be emotionally powerful and awe-inspiring, an uncanny piece of a Prince interview from the October, 1998 issue of our sister publication Guitar World leaves no doubt what the late musician would have thought—at least at that point in time nearly 20 years ago—of his likeness being used in that way.
Journalist Serge Simonart interviewed Prince at The Hit Factory in New York City for Guitar World magazine. After talking to Prince about some of his greatest jam sessions and some of his greatest musical influences, Simonart asked, “With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?”
Prince answered, “Certainly not. That's the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing... it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song ["Free As a Bird"], manipulating John Lennon's voice to have him singing from across the grave... that'll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
At that time in Prince’s career, he had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and was going by “The Artist” or as the media often preferred, “The Artist formerly known as Prince.” That was part of his effort to get out of what he considered an abusive contract and business relationship with Warner Bros. Records, where Prince felt disrespected and unable to control his own artistic output. He famously appeared in photos with “slave” written on his face to express the way he felt about other people officially owning his musical recordings.
Later in that same Guitar World interview, he commented on all of that. “Suppose you're a young musician and you want to make a record because you have something to say musically,” Prince said. “Well, the record company usually makes you sign away the rights to your songs. In other words, you become a slave to them in the sense that they own the rights to the master recordings of your music for all time, and you're merely an employee. So if you don't own your master, your master owns you. And what we've been trying to do with the NPG label, what it stands for, is trying to create more freedom, including financial freedom, so that artists control their own genesis and can reach a much brighter revelation.”
For the remainder of Prince’s life (he died on April 21, 2016), he remained staunchly devoted to controlling how his music and likeness was used and distributed.
A cynic could say that the posthumous Prince cameo at the Super Bowl LII was done for buzz and publicity, but I don’t think that was the motivation. Prince Rogers Nelson was from Minneapolis, the site of Super Bowl LII. He did a lot for the city and was synonymous with the city. The people of Minneapolis, along with millions of fans around the world, including Justin Timberlake, loved and respected Prince, and continue to miss him. When the camera panned out from the performance on the football field to show the entire U.S. Bank Stadium, as well as several blocks surrounding it, bathed in purple light in tribute to Prince, it did not feel like a gimmick to me. Like “Purple Rain” itself, it felt like it was done out of love.
Be that as it may, there’s a very strong case to be made that Prince would not have wanted other people to make decisions about using his image and recordings in performances after his death. It may be true that in our technological age, no one alive or dead can fully control their own image. However, no matter how much we wish Prince lived on, the best way to honor his wishes may be to allow him to pass away.