For 14 years, The Artist Formerly Known As "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" — who was born with the name Prince Rogers Nelson — was merely known by his first name: Prince. Starting with his 1978 debut, For You, the funk singer published 13 albums under that one-word moniker, including his quintessential record Purple Rain… until 1992, when he suddenly and inexplicably changed his name from "Prince" to an unpronounceable symbol (seen above). With the tragic news this Thursday that Prince has died at the age of 57, you may find yourself looking back on his storied life and career and wondering what Prince's symbol meant, where it came from, and why he adopted it in the first place.
For something that became so iconic, Prince's symbol apparently had a very utilitarian beginning: as a tool for contract negotiations with his label, Warner Bros. According to Rolling Stone, the label wanted Prince to slow his pace — he had released an album every year since his debut except for 1983 — for fear of flooding the market. Unwilling to acquiesce to their request, Prince actually increased his pace, and it became not uncommon for him to release two albums per year — and in one case (2004), three. The title of the first album in this new wave, released in 1992, was the infamous unpronounceable symbol.
The following year, Prince doubled down by officially changing his stage name to this same symbol. In the words of Rolling Stone, Prince employed this symbol "largely to mess with [Warner Bros.]," it being so difficult to reproduce. The label was forced to send out a mass mailing of floppy discs containing a whole new font for publications to use when writing about their artist. (If you don't have the font in question, the closest you can come to typing the symbol on most computers is: O(+> .) Many people didn't even try, simply referring to the singer as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" — a name that stuck. And, since TAFKAP had copyrighted the symbol as "Love Symbol #2," the album in question became widely known as the "Love Symbol Album."
But what did the symbol actually symbolize, other than a frustrated artist's clever subversion? It derives from a combination of the symbols for both male and female, and it supposedly "entered his consciousness during meditation," according to a report by The Independent. Given that — and the fact that he named it the "love symbol," — it's clear that it had a much deeper meaning to Prince than a simple negotiating tool.
In fact, the symbol meant so much to him that he continued to use it long after he changed his stage name back to Prince… which he did in 2000 when his contract with Warner Bros. finally expired. But "Love Symbol #2" had already become so iconic that it was difficult to disassociate the artist from the symbol, so he kept using it in his jewelry, his album artwork — even his guitar (as seen above). It's hard to think of a more appropriate symbol for a musician with such an eccentric and androgynous style
Now, with Prince's unexpected passing, it's also hard to think of a more appropriate symbol for us to use to express our love for the legend than his own "Love Symbol #2."
Images: Warner Bros.