It is not inconceivable that at some point in your life you will be presented with the question "Who do you like better, Michael Jackson or Prince?" And while both of their music looms heavy over the latter part of the 20th century, you will be expected to answer decisively. Quite often, in fact, we are faced with similar questions. Do you like Bernie or Hillary? Do you drink Coke or Pepsi? McDonald's or Burger King?
In the context of popular music, the basic idea is that these sort of decisions say something about what kind of person we are. If you like the Stones more than the Beatles then perhaps you see yourself as something of a badass. Ditto Rihanna and Beyonce. If you like Nas more than Jay Z then you value authenticity over perceived commercialism. If you prefer the White Stripes or the Black Keys, then you might be subject to a uniquely Midwestern brand of state/regional chauvinism. There are even more abstract versions: Dylan vs. Bowie, etc.
For about a decade now, the Northern Lights Lounge has been catering to the people who live and work in New Center, an area that has been in a state of near-constant change. Northern Lights sits almost in the shadow of the Fisher Building, close to both Henry Ford Hospital and the former GM headquarters at Cadillac Place. Once it's completed, it will sit alongside the northernmost reach of the M-1 lightrail, a development that will undoubtedly be good for business at Northern Lights.
For just as long, the bar has hosted the "Michael vs. Prince" party, which is one of the most popular events at the establishment. It is organized by local promoters Corner Productions, and originally conceived by Northern Lights co-owner Greg "Kegger" Visee, who moved to Detroit from Chicago 20 years ago to work promoting the Jose Cuervo Amateur National Volleyball Tour.
Every year the event's organizers go to the audience and attempt to gauge whether Jackson or Prince "won" that year by the sheer volume of the crowd, a barometer that although common is perhaps not the most accurate system of measurement. According to Kegger's records, Jackson is the most popular thus far, having won five out of nine years. All of Prince's wins, however, have occurred consecutively over the past four years.
In attempting to extract some useful conclusions from these results, we should begin by noting that the Michael vs. Prince dichotomy is one that has been presented by the media almost as long as the two artists have been fixtures in the popular consciousness. In the earliest days of MTV, the videos for "Little Red Corvette" and "Billie Jean" were the only two in regular rotation from black artists. And for most critics, the albums Thriller and Purple Rain occupy a similar space in musical history, crossing racial barriers as well as genres like rock and R&B.
But while Jackson can offer Eddie Van Halen as an answer to Prince's guitar shredding on Purple Rain, or recruit Martin Scorsese to direct the full-length feature for "Bad," he will always represent the epitome of Midwestern wholesomeness. Twin Cities' own Prince on the other hand, exists in spite of "Minnesota nice." In the classical language of aesthetic criticism, it is a dichotomy that is set in terms of the Greek deities. And one which Prince is perhaps so self-aware of, that he cast himself opposite a girl named after Apollo in the movie for Purple Rain.
Jackson and Prince rguably peaked in 1991 with Dangerous and Diamonds and Pearls, respectively. But ultimately, Prince's tendency toward graphic sexuality would cement him as the slightly more marginal of the two figures. Jackson's albums would never bear a parental advisory sticker, and his forays into film that followed Thriller are remembered far better than Prince's series of theatrical flops.
But for Detroiters maybe the tacit acknowledgement in Purple Rain — with its sophisticated themes of domestic violence, family breakdown, and religious apocalypticism — that life is sometimes a little more complicated than the basic choice between good and evil presented in "Bad," resonates more deeply.
As for the question of whether the people of New Center, and Northern Lights as a drinking establishment, identify more with Prince or MJ, the answer will have to wait until Saturday evening.
"Michael vs. Prince" happens at 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28 at Northern Lights Lounge; 660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; northernlights.com; $10.
Adam Woodhead is a Metro Times intern.