Last Thursday, Shonda Rhimes paid tribute to Prince, one of her all-time heroes, by including one of his songs on back-to-back episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. “For me, this iconic spirit was so special, and I was truly shocked at how viscerally and emotional I felt when he died,” Rhimes tells Rolling Stone. “I literally was grieving; it felt really, really personal. Yes, I’d met him, gone to concerts, seen him play at the White House, but this was really intense for me, like I’d spent too many hours with this person in my head. So using him in the show was an imperative. I’ve only ever used Seventies music in Scandal. He sort of bordered on Seventies and Eighties, but I felt like, I kind of didn’t care. I wanted to use it anyway.”
According to Rhimes and her music supervisor, Alex Patsavas, it’s an arduous process to get a Prince song cleared for use — but they managed to get two of them to use two of them in a couple days. “We were unable to predict what was going to happen,” Patsavas says. “But we got clearance in record time.” That meant “Delirious” was featured in its entirety in the episode of Scandal titled “Trump Card,” and the Grey’s episode “Mama Tried” included Prince & the New Power Generation’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Rhimes says she was in the process of choosing songs for the episode of her long-running medical drama when she decided to try Prince after she was rocked by his sudden death at the age of 57 on April 21st.
“They are two of my absolute favorite songs,” Rhimes explains. “We all are absolutely addicted to ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘1999’ — but there are a lot of people who didn’t know Prince wrote ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and didn’t have the version that he sings, which I absolutely love. And ‘Delirious’ is one of those songs that a lot of people know but they don’t know the words to. So I wanted to pick songs that felt familiar but felt specifically Prince to me and [that] people wouldn’t be busy singing along to. You have to pick something that matches the show yet also gives you the essence of who he was.”
Rhimes has been a longtime fan since her older siblings would play his music for her. “I sort of grew up with him,” she says. “When his first album came out, I was maybe nine years old, and you know, it was this black guy with the feathered hair, which we’d never really seen before. I have been in love with him ever since.”
“I think [he] gave a lot of people the freedom to be whoever the hell they wanted to be. If you’re a chubby black kid with Coke bottle glasses and braids in your hair, the idea that you can be anybody you want to be is a pretty powerful thing.”
In fact, although it was nearly impossible to get permission from Prince to use his songs on television or film, this wasn’t the first time Rhimes featured a track. That milestone took place in the fall of 2014 during Season Four of Scandal when she used the song “Controversy.” And it turned out that the admiration was mutual.
“It was this amazing moment, when he sent me this CD of songs that he thought I would like because he was a fan of the show,” she says. “He said he wanted to come by and see me. I was freaked out and very excited. I kept waiting to find the perfect moment, and we ended up using ‘Controversy.’ I remember Alex, our music supervisor, telling me that was the first time in 20 years that she remembered ever being able to clear a Prince song. From then on, he would send pictures of himself and say stuff like he was a ‘gladiator in a suit.'”
For Rhimes, the sudden death of the man she idolized felt personal, and the fact that he was an enigma in so many ways became a source of inspiration for her and others.
“You know why I think he was so important to so many people? I think the very fact that he was so many different things,” she says. “He was short but sexy. He was sort of ambiguously not trying to be any one thing but felt very masculine and all these different things. I think it gave a lot of people the freedom to be whoever the hell they wanted to be. They didn’t have to be defined by any of the labels that people wanted to put on them. I know, for me, that was a lot of what it was. You know, if you’re a chubby black kid with Coke bottle glasses and braids in your hair, the idea that you can be anybody you want to be is a pretty powerful thing.”
It’s why one of her favorite moments was spending time with the Obamas last June for an intimate Prince concert at the White House.
“It was just a casual small thing, and Prince was the entertainment,” she says. “It was a dance party. And I was as far from him as I am from my computer right now. He was playing up a storm all night long.” At a certain point, Stevie Wonder came up and said he wanted to play too — so the artist brought him up. “Stevie sits down at the piano and starts playing Stevie Wonder music, with Prince basically backing him up. And there was this great moment when our eyes met, and he mouthed, ‘Oh my god, can you believe this is happening?’ There he is, playing under this portrait of George Washington and he’s backing Stevie Wonder up. It was the last time I saw him.”
Fans should be on the lookout for more from the late artist in future episodes. Revealing that she has a secret list of about 20 songs that she hopes to use on future work, Rhimes says that it includes tracks from the Purple One that she hopes to use in future episodes.
“There’s a lot of amazing Prince songs that I have on my bucket list of songs that I’ve definitely always wanted to use,” she says. “It depends on if the moment hits me and the spirit feels right for it.”Elton John calls Prince the “greatest performer I have ever seen” in a tribute to the deceased musician. Watch here.