It wasn't as if he hadn't done bizarre things before. After all, this was a man who was said to take late-night bike rides around his neighborhood in the buff. But the collective heave of public puzzlement on June 7, 1993, was nearly audible: On his 35th birthday, Prince laid his pronounceable past to rest with the announcement that he would henceforth be known by a scepterish rune that combined the astrological symbols for man and woman intersected by...well, something horny.
Never a particularly orthodox orthographist as evidenced by song titles like ''I Would Die 4 U'' Prince's decision had the media (and copy editors in particular) howling. Officially, the singer explained his new designation in a press statement by saying: ''It is an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified. It's all about thinking in new ways, tuning in 2 a new free-quency.'' Warner Bros. Records, Prince's distributor, cooperated by mailing out thousands of computer disks bearing digital images of the glyph (which quickly became the preferred term among writers and editors for the symbol) to be used by press outlets in future stories.
Questions of social utility quickly arose. Did he have it changed legally? No. As far as the government was concerned, he was and still is known by his birth name: Prince Rogers Nelson. What about introductions? As he told an interviewer in 1995, ''I get by. I don't need a name as such, really.'' The singer's hometown newspaper, Minneapolis' Star Tribune, polled readers on suggestions on what to call [the Artist formerly known as Prince]. Among the responses: Ambiguity, Mysterious Illness, and, commonly, Pat (after Saturday Night Live's ambisexual character). MTV, for its part, took to referring to the glyph on-air with a metallic clanking noise. Eventually, spokespeople for the singer relented and condoned the use of a slightly more wieldy title: the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
But more than anything, the name change symbolized a break from Warner, with whom the Artist had signed a reported $100 million deal less than a year before. The fit had never been comfortable: The label had tried to rein in Prince's output, concerned that his rapid-fire production pace would oversaturate the market; the Artist responded by accusing Warner of stifling his creativity. Just six weeks before changing his name, Prince ''retired,'' saying he would not record any more new material. Eventually, the Artist and Warner parted company for good, but by that point, the proper pronunciation of an arcane symbol had become the least of Warner's or [the Artist formerly known as Prince]'s problems.
Time Capsule: June 7, 1993
AT THE MOVIES: Sylvester Stallone clings to the top of the box office for the second week in a row with Cliffhanger.
ON TV: CBS' evergreen newsmagazine, 60 Minutes, ticked away at the top of the Nielsen ratings.
IN BOOKSTORES: The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller's romantic weeper, tops the bestseller list.
ON THE STAGE: Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America wins four Tony awards, including Best Play.
AND IN THE NEWS: A mass is held at Arlington National Cemetery to mark the 25th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination.