Let me begin this column by just saying this—2016 has been an awful year in terms of the artists we love dying. Alan Rickman! Phife Dawg! Maurice White! 2016 is out for blood, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, arguably the two most important solo artists not named Bob Dylan in the last 50 years.
Despite not being contemporaries—Prince was 57 at his death, Bowie was 69—they are fundamentally of the same ideology: appearance mattering just as much as the music, being slippery in terms of style, and refusing to rest on their laurels, constantly pushing ahead towards something new—though the results of this were not always ideal. So now it’s time for the ultimate test—which is best for you?
Now, due to the insanely prolific nature of both artists, I am not even going to pretend that I have listened to all their work or seen everything that they do. I am also, in the interests of fairness and full disclosure, much more of a Bowie fan then a Prince fan. But I shall do my best to give you a definitive answer as to which of these icons of the last two centuries will have the better legacy. That being said, here we go:
Musical Ability: Prince wins this one. It is not even close. While he and Bowie were both multi-instrumentalists, Prince essentially was his own one man band in the studio, playing 23 instruments over the course of his life and writing complex, interesting melodies for all of them. Not to mention he was a master of the guitar as well, as seen in his legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bowie, for all his gifts, was never one to write a transcendent solo.
Lyrics: Bowie. For all of Prince’s gifts, the one thing he was average in was his wordsmithing. Sure, he was able to write good hooks and one-liners, but even his great songs like “Raspberry Beret” are fundamentally forgettable lyrically and emotionally. Meanwhile, Bowie was able to write “Heroes” as he was signing it for the first time, not to mention how albums such as “Station to Station” and “Hunky Dory” are full of excellent lines and stories in a way Prince could never hope to match.
Style: I am really tempted to call this one a tie, but I think I have to give the advantage to Bowie here, simply because he was a master of style. From the Kabuki glam of his early career to his soul influenced suits and the Tilda Swinton cosplay at the end of his life, it was clear that Bowie moved through several different types of styles. Prince always looked like Prince, and he looked amazing while doing so, but Bowie looked like every cool person that had ever existed.
Collaborations: Bowie, Bowie, Bowie. While Prince was great in supporting younger artists like Janelle Monae and Esperanza Spalding, Bowie was the ultimate collaborator, working with such artists as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Nile Rogers, Arcade Fire, James Murphy and modern jazz giants such as Donny McCaslin. This is the downside of Prince playing everything himself—and indeed, Prince would often play everything on other people’s albums, which is not a good look. If you want an artist who has obviously been everywhere, Bowie is your man.
Movies: This is actually trickier than it looks, for though Bowie has appeared in far better movies than Prince did over his life—“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” alone are all classics—he has no equivalent to “Purple Rain,” which is explicitly tailored to Prince in every regard. “The Man Who Fell To Earth” comes closest, but there is no Bowie-composed score, so whoever wins depends on what you are looking for: the music or the person—though do not even think of watching “Under the Cherry Moon” or “Graffiti Bridge,” as they are both atrocious no matter how good Prince’s soundtrack was for them, which is in no way essential like “Purple Rain” is.
Conflicts: Prince wins this one-handedly. While Bowie did get punched in front of an entire restaurant by Lou Reed on at least two occasions, Prince often seemed like he was born to troll people, from his legendary 80s rivalry with Michael Jackson—which Prince won in the long term pretty easily—to yelling “Sexy never left!” after hearing Justin Timberlake’s classic “Sexyback” for the first time, to covering one of the Foo Fighters’ worst songs at the Superbowl just to prove a point. Prince set the gold standard for rivalries and shade.
Albums: And here we come to the trickiest one, something that I expect to get some complaints about here, and I have to be honest: Bowie gets it pretty handily. This is not to discount Prince, who from his first self-titled album to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” has one of the greatest eras in pop history, crafting classic after classic. But the simple problem is Bowie just has more of them. Over a 13 year period from “The Man Who Sold the World” to “Let’s Dance”—bar a pretty average covers album—Bowie jumped from style to style over 12 albums, from hard rock to avant garde to dance music. Even in his career, Bowie has only about four albums out of almost 30 that you can truly call bad, while Prince, who has a much larger output, has almost as many bad albums as he has classics. Even their final works “Blackstar” and “HITNRUN Phase 2,” are a total blowout, though Prince was not consciously crafting his final work.
So I have to admit, Bowie gets my vote, but really, there’s no reason for you to pay attention to the enormous amount of words I have written on this subject.
Some of you will choose Bowie, others will scoff at me and go for Prince. Though I must admit…that is the ideal scenario. We are able to appreciate these artists whenever we want, and choosing one does not erase the discography of the other. Listen to both, and while you do, look up in the sky and consider if Mars is ever purple in the right light.