April 21, 2016

The unexpected death of music icon Prince did what’s seemed impossible of late: knock the presidential camp into at least momentary cable news irrelevance.

As befits this media age, it was TMZ that broke the story, saying that “multiple sources connected to the singer confirmed he had passed.” Once again, an entertainment and gossip specialist that’s often maligned by the mainstream (in part for paying sources for tips) was right on the mark and quickly cited in tweets worldwide as if it were our new Associated Press.

On cable news, Fox News Channel and MSNBC were quickest off the dime, with CNN lagging slightly as it did—what else?—campaign coverage. Soon, though, it was on top of matters, too, with Wolf Blitzer anchoring (he did confuse “Purple Rain” with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” at one point) and even beckoned Larry King, 82, its former longtime entertainment stalwart, for punditry duty.

The New York Times, like most papers, quickly did a story but suggested how an organization that usually has a raft of so-called file obits of the famous ready to go might have itself not been fully prepared. “Full obituary to follow,” it appended in an italicized so-called shirttail to its story. But websites of the mainstream were dominated by quick stories, with some (like The Times) quickly re-running old profiles and, no surprise, Prince’s hometown Minneapolis Star Tribune assembling an impressive mix of the substantive and the lighter, such as a tale of a photo of his junior high basketball team (the photo then going viral).

There were times when you might have thought TV had morphed into satellite radio, as all the networks at some point did something rare: shut up and just play music, in this case video of Prince in performance. It was a lot more alluring than, say, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta speculating on what might have been wrong with him medically. It was rather less informative than speculation on what may happen at the Republican National Convention this summer.

Still, the initial mystery about what happened was self-evident. If there was any unavoidable curiosity, it was the suggestion by one resident of his neighborhood, who was interviewed by a Minneapolis TV station, that at a local gathering Saturday night Prince had asked several people to “say a prayer for him.” It was unclear as to why.

There were multiple versions “Purple Rain,” revealing snippets of a long-ago King interview with Prince, Fox News discovering that its own religion correspondent (Lauren Green) was a childhood friend and, no surprise, lots of music and cultural critics.

One of the most informed was Melissa Ruggieri, a music reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who was interviewed by phone on MSNBC by Brian Williams in his new role as the breaking news specialist anchor.

She’d seen his final two shows in Atlanta and said he sounded a bit nasal but his full music range was still in vivid evidence. His falsetto was there and he was just superb, especially on the piano during his two 90-minute performances.

He’d cancelled those shows the week before and, in fact, she was surprised how quickly he rescheduled them. She detailed his influence, as did some other critics Thursday, especially his melding of rock, funk, pop and soul for a mainstream audience.

“We went such long stretches of time without a Prince sighting,” said Brian Williams, nearly the same age as Prince and well versed in his music, noting the years Prince’s image was associated somewhat with being reclusive.

Over at Fox, Green, who grew up studying classical music, was fascinating in noting how she had no idea, even into high school, that Prince was even a musician. For sure, she didn’t hang with him a lot socially, she said, but she didn’t quite realize the prodigious talent who was her friend.

There was, as befits such moments, lots of emoting, with La Toya Jackson telling CNN, “I’m still shaking…I called my mother when I first heard the news and she started crying.” The mom, she said, was unavoidably also associating the passing with that of her own son, Michael.

CNN’s Brooke Baldwin, though, seemed the most passionate of the on-air personalities. Clearly, she was a big fan (“music nerd,” she unabashedly called herself), followed closely by colleague Don Lemon who was the interviewee on this day as the two discussed Prince’s body of work.

“Tell me a story,” Baldwin implored Michaela Angela Davis, former stylist for Prince.

She was insightful, discussing how Prince mixed sex and religion and might even exit a conversation in mid-sentence to run to a studio to create a song. She spoke of his melding of music genres, his artistic courage and even his revolutionary impulse. Imagine, she said, making a funky song about crack cocaine.

“This idea of how he made spirituality and sex co-exist, he made us deal with it. He unearthed it and put it in your face and made it funky and fabulous.”

Yes, the catalyst was a tragic passing. But after days and days of 24/7 Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, this was a refreshing shift into a popular and entertainment culture that doesn’t get much voice most days.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
More by James Warren

More News

Back to News