MTV’s annual Upfront presentation is a time for the network to unveil new programming and celebrate innovations. This year, the festivities fell on Thursday, April 21, just hours after the world lost a deeply cherished artist—Prince Rogers Nelson. MTV – so long positioned at the center of the musical universe – quickly updated its presentation to honor one of the greatest innovators in music history.
Viacom Music and Entertainment President Doug Herzog took the stage at Skylight at the Moynihan Station, a historic New York City post office-turned production center. With Prince’s signature symbol and a purple glow cast over the majestic arena, Herzog paid tribute to the icon.
“Even though we’re still processing the news and remembering the enormity of his legacy, I think it’s clear to remember what he was: a once-in-a-lifetime artist whose music touched all of us and will be missed dearly by everyone around the world,” Herzog said.
Prince was a prolific songwriter, and his melodies transfixed the collective soul of America. Songs like Controversy and Sign o’ the Times challenged intolerant views on race, sexuality, and poverty. Let’s Go Crazy was about loving every last minute of life. His countless hits proved music could be both profound and buoyant. Stevie Wonder told Rolling Stone, “Prince’s music was so picturesque that even I could see it.”
Generations of soul-searching teens listened to his words and felt connected to something for the first time, especially in the LGBTQ community. MTV News reporter Marcus Patrick Ellsworth writes how Prince’s I would Die 4 U transcended gender norms.
“It’s one of many Prince songs whose lyrics hold deeply personal significance for LGBTQ people,” wrote Ellsworth, “Especially those of us who grew up feeling like outsiders because of our sexual identities.”
Prince made it okay to be silly, depressed, flamboyant, and spiritual—often at the same time. He made it okay to have an unpronounceable name. He made it okay to evolve.
MTV was home to many of his groundbreaking entertainment moments. The premiere of his 1984 rock drama, Purple Rain, was captured in an MTV Special. The fledgling news channel filmed Prince strutting down the red carpet in a metallic purple suit holding a red rose. When the reporter asked Eddie Murphy why he was at the premiere, Murphy simply proclaimed, “’Cause Prince is bad!”
Prince’s 2004 MTV Unplugged performance showed a more subdued, intimate side of the artist. He sang stripped-down vocals to Cream, wearing an unassuming black suit—although his acoustic guitar was still purple. In an MTV interview from the same year, Prince spoke eloquently about the power of music.
“I feel like music is a blessing; I don’t feel like I’m working,” said Prince. He described songwriting as an eternal learning experience, and expressed hope for upcoming generations of artists to use their lyrics to counter societal woes. “We’re going to have to talk to one another.”
MTV’s logo turned purple late Thursday evening, and the network aired his music videos all night along with the Upfront tribute.
Prince was no stranger to the BET stage, either. He made numerous appearances at the BET Awards to perform, and accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
“There is a change in America that’s going on right now,” said Prince at the time he accepted the award. “Everybody can feel it. We’re going to be a beacon to the rest of the world.”
BET Networks ceased regularly scheduled programs starting at 1 p.m., shortly after news broke of the singer’s death. Instead, the network celebrated and mourned the loss of an icon for 48 hours with a marathon of the dynamic artist’s videos. Fans watching the marathon tweeted their own memories of the artist with the hashtag, #BETRemembersPrince.
“The news of Prince’s passing weighs heavily on our hearts,” said Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks. “He was a musical prodigy, a beautiful spirit and fashion provocateur who influenced American culture. With a career that spanned four decades, his contributions to music are immeasurable. His influence transcended race, gender and religion. He was unapologetic about his individuality and was the embodiment of what it means to be a true artist. Because of that, he was magnetic to the world. Prince was the personification of black excellence. Icon. Legend. Innovator. Friend. His legacy of brilliance and creativity will forever live on. We will remember him and miss him dearly.”