Let's get the sad, factual part out of the way: Prince, the exceptional and exceptionally famous songwriter, singer, and producer, died earlier today at age 57 at his home in Chanhassen, Minnesota, according to multiple reports.
"First responders attempted to provide life-saving CPR, but were unable to revive the victim. He was pronounced deceased at 10:07 a.m." That statement, reported in Prince's obituary in The New York Times, came from Jim Olsen, the sheriff of Carver Country in Minnesota.
The author of that obituary, music writer Jon Pareles, noted that Prince--born Prince Rogers Nelson--was "a wildly prolific songwriter, a virtuoso on guitars, keyboards and drums and a master architect of funk, rock, R&B and pop, even as his music defied genres. In a career that lasted from the late 1970s until the arena tour this year, he was acclaimed as a sex symbol, a musical prodigy and an artist who shaped his career his way, often battling with accepted music-business practices."
It's the last part of that paragraph that should matter to you, if you're an entrepreneur or a creative or anyone whose brand is at least partially based on pushing boundaries and distinguishing yourself from competitors who are scared to ruffle feathers.
One example will paint the picture. On his 1984 masterpiece, Purple Rain, the song "Darling Nikki" begins:
"I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine"
By today's standards, it's nothing outrageous. By 1984's, it was something else. Especially for an artist on a major label. It was the reason Tipper Gore became a crusader for warning labels on albums. It was a sign that times had changed, in terms of explicit lyrics. When the Who sang about masturbating in the song "Pictures of Lily" in 1967, they never mentioned the act verbatim. The Rolling Stones implied masturbation with their album title Sticky Fingers in 1971, but the word remained unsaid. One year later, Chuck Berry would cover a song called "My Ding-a-Ling," which was full of phallic innuendo but nothing explicit.
Songs like "Darling Nikki," one of the only unreleased tracks on the hit machine that was Purple Rain, are one reason Prince became a legend. He was an actual artist, concerned with cultivating a brand as a canny subversive whose music would still make you shake your ass.
In an industry dominated by singers who can't compose, he sang and wrote superbly; in an industry dominated by studio recording "acts" who can't perform live, he made epic albums and put on legendary concerts. And at these concerts, he didn't just sing. He danced. He played instruments. He was the total package. As such, he could've played it safe and counted his money. Instead, he was constantly pissing off (and pissing on) the industry mainstream, with songs like "Darling Nikki." He also wrote songs with titles and subjects like "Soft and Wet" (1978), "Head" (1980), and "Jack U Off" (1982). The fame and fortune he achieved with Purple Rain didn't change his mentality. In 1991 he performed a song called "Gett Off" on the MTV Video Music Awards wearing assless pants.
In short, he had no respect for censorship of any type. The entrepreneurial takeaway here is all about the branding benefits of pushing boundaries. For example, you can make a case that any startup pushing legal boundaries is a startup worth paying attention to. Thomas Goetz, founder of venture-backed health care tech startup Iodine, made this very point in a column for Inc.'s October issue. "Many successful companies have thrived by crossing into dangerous territory," he writes.
Facebook has time and again pushed the boundaries on privacy, in the interest of building more connections for its users (and more revenue opportunities for itself). And Uber, everybody's favorite example of a no-holds-barred company these days, has willfully flouted local laws and regulations in its haste to conquer new cities and countries.
Those are two prominent examples. There are more. In 2014, a report by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman indicated that Airbnb's New York rentals had violated zoning and other laws. Aereo raised $100 million in funding before the Supreme Court hammered nails in its coffin. And not a week goes by, it seems, without someone challenging the legality of fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, both of which boast billion-dollar valuations.
The point is this: As frightening is it can be to feel as if the fate of your brand depends on the scales of justice, that very dependence is also a positive sign. It indicates you've hit on something pervasive and vital enough to be the province of judges and lawmakers.
"Your new thing can't be merely better than the status quo; it needs to be so great that it is sought out over the old, familiar thing," writes Goetz. "To do that, your new thing must be more than provocative; it must be dangerous."
Lyric after lyric, song after song, performance after performance, Prince demonstrated an understanding of just how powerful such provocations could be. Other artists could pretend that dirty talk and dirty acts didn't exist. Prince stayed true to his muse, which was what any artist's or entrepreneur's should be: Subversion in the interest of truth.