Pop music is obsessed with youth, but it's also obsessed with itself. Result: An endless procession of youthful musicians from pop golden ages who are rapidly becoming capital-h Historic figures. The MTV era's counterculture heroes are now culture heroes.
Bruce Springsteen is an institution. Madonna is an icon. Prince is the kind of guy you have to see when he comes through Phoenix -- not because you love Prince, but because you'll want to have seen Prince. So why will you want to have seen Prince?
Prince is playing four shows at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe on April 30 and May 1. (You've probably heard about them.)
1. You're just a huge Prince fan.
Well, okay. That one's easy enough.
2. Prince is very good at performing live music.
Prince is a conspicuously talented musician, even among famous musicians; that's always been a Prince-coverage cliche. Like you might go see Eddie Van Halen play guitar, or Michael Jackson dance, or Frank Sinatra sing, there's a certain inherent attraction to watching Prince play music that isn't there when you're thinking about whether you should catch Bon Jovi, even if you happen to prefer "Livin' on a Prayer" to "Nothing Compares 2 U."
This has been in effect for as long as Prince has been famous -- even at the bottom of his career, sales-wise, people who were making fun of his erratic behavior or the words Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic couldn't begrudge him his talents.
3. You want to tell people you've seen Prince
Nobody wants to tell all his friends and family members that he's seen Bon Jovi -- at least, nobody feels compelled to do that. But people operate under the assumption that seeing Prince is important. An implicit reason for seeing him is that you will want to tell your grandchildren, let alone your friends, about the time you saw Prince at an intimate concert at the Marquee.
This one has also been in effect for as long as Prince has been famous -- unlike some other acts of his caliber, though, the impression has only gotten stronger over time that you Need to See Prince. Where his contemporaries have slouched toward nostalgia-act-dom, he's remained someone vital, someone you go out of your way to watch.
4. He still looks like Prince
Do not underestimate how important this is: Prince is nearly 55 years old and he still looks, sounds, and acts exactly like Prince. The only simple way to tell when a photograph of him was taken is to fashion-date his hair.Just Prince being Prince in 2012.
Some artists Prince's age won't allow you to forget you're watching a nostalgia act, because they've aged like we unfortunate, normal human beings age -- put on weight, lost some hair, stopped trying to shoehorn themselves into leather pants. They have to cheat on the high notes, they have a new album nobody bought that they'd like to play a few songs from.
Prince has not. Because of that -- because his voice and his face and his unmistakeable style are all intact -- seeing Prince now creates a very powerful illusion that you're just seeing Prince whenever.
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5. You're not sure how long all of this will still be true
The most expensive tickets in live music are usually expensive because you're not sure you'll be able to wait until next time -- or that there'll be a next time to wait for. People sell out enormous stadiums everywhere Paul McCartney goes, for instance, because he's still in remarkable shape for a 70-year-old, and next time he comes through your town he might not be.
Certainly, the chance to see Prince at a venue the size of the Marquee doesn't come around very often. More broadly, though, Prince will eventually not be at the top of his game anymore. One of his strange rifts with his own celebrity might stick; his voice might start to go; he might go from looking and sounding exactly like Prince to looking and sounding really good for an x-year-old.
And when that happens, seeing Prince won't quite be the same, even if you still feel that weird compulsion to have seen him.