IT’S ALWAYS BEEN EASIER to admire the idea of Prince than the music of Prince. Mastering every aspect of music — its making and its marketing — he proceeded, like Amundsen with polar exploration, to develop the tricks of tradecraft that would allow him to function as both expedition leader and captain of his very own vessel, beholden to no one, mastering the mechanics of the most routine and and the most intricate tasks.
It’s always been easy to admire the idea of Prince, because it’s always easy to admire self-sufficient prolificacy. But it’s not always easy to admire prolificacy’s product. At its top, Prince’s music is as good as any that’s ever been made. But beneath that are entire strata of mediocrity that will take scholars years to identify, unearth, and comprehend.
Touré is a Prince scholar, an impressively well-informed and diligent one, but in his new book, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon, he is, sadly, uninterested in explaining Prince’s music. What he’s interested in instead is explaining, speciously, Prince’s appeal in terms of Generation X, pornography, and religion. If these concepts seem to reek of the seminar room, then the language with which he discusses them does nothing to mitigate the impression:
When I speak of Prince’s good historical timing, what does that mean? Well, before we can understand how Prince fit so snugly within the culture of generation X, we have to unpack what that culture was. What was the Zeitgeist of the world that Prince meshed with in order to become an icon? What was the cultural weather for gen X?
His ideas on Generation X are by far the most reasoned and substantial and plausible to be found in the book, taking into account as they do the way Touré’s generation — and mine — was raised to worship celebrities instead of gods, witnessed difficult relationships (of the kind Prince sang about) up-close through unprecedented divorce rates, and was exposed to sex in pop-culture in a way never seen before. “He was the perfect age,” Touré writes, “to be a wise and cool big brother to gen X.” These ideas are perfectly fine, sometimes even fascinating, and they recur, piecemeal, through the book’s subsequent chapters.
But it’s in those chapters where things go dreadfully, drastically, wrong, as Touré devotes page upon page to the Earth-stopping claim that a lot of Prince’s story songs, when you look at them closely, are really a lot like the storylines in pornos. Then, most egregiously of all, he goes hunting at great length for religious symbols to support his claim that Prince wants to be our messiah, and that being our messiah is how he became an icon. Touré doesn’t have to hunt far to find these things — it’s right there in the very song from which Touré’s taken his title.
There’s a danger in taking certain lyrics too literally, and others not literally enough, as one goes about trying to make the facts conform to one’s thesis rather than the other way around. Touré claims he wants to tell us why Prince became an icon, but in doing so not only does he give short shrift to the music Prince made but also to some of his more triumphant crossover cultural moments. So, yes, “it makes sense that the first Prince song [‘1999’ (1982)] to capture a giant audience and become his first monster hit was a song all about apathy and apocalypse,” but it also makes sense that this is just a coincidence. And yes, many may have made their way to Prince because he “was the best in history at articulating himself as a pop star who is a Jesus figure,” but Touré isn’t prepared to tell us how many just thought the Batman soundtrack was totally awesome.
It’s funny, too, because Prince’s crossover appeal is something Touré often understands best. He’s wise enough to know that Prince’s denial of a categorically black identity wasn’t a denial of blackness, just a denial of categorization, perfectly of a piece with his denial of musical and sexual categorization, too; that it wasn’t about shame or pretending to be something one is not, but that “it was about […] insisting on having access to the full breadth of human possibility.”
But, as always, the language with which Touré discusses this and other sound concepts is comically regrettable:
So, just as he’s demonstrated a rare fluidity to slide between rock, soul, pop, and funk, a sonic code switching that has helped him defy categorization and rise to the top of the segregated music industry, Prince has also used his fluency in a plethora of identity idioms to break free of the conventions and strictures of Black male identity.
The reason so many academics write this way is because they either have no choice or they know of no other way. Since Touré does have a choice, and since he does know other ways, it’s just one more peculiar thing about this very peculiar book.
Touré’s primary focus seems to be advancing his thesis about Prince’s purported status as “the most important religious artist ever,” rather than discussing his music.
The clues Touré has hunted down in bringing home this thesis can be a lot of fun, if you’re in the right mood for it. As anyone knows who’s dabbled in academia, it can be exhilarating, both as spectator and participant, to watch even the most ridiculous claims being constructed. And it’s not a sport open only to academics, as the brilliant crackpottery of those Shining-ologists featured in Room 237 reminds us. Touré’s theorizing, outside of his Generation X chapter, never attains anything near that level.
But I’ve always been fascinated by Prince’s music — the top strata of it — and how he made it. Touré tells us about some of this. “In his teenage years,” he writes, “Prince developed his self-reliance and his entrepreneurial sense and mastered a variety of instruments rapidly.” He took a class in high school that “covered contracts, copyrights, demo tapes and more.” He put together a band that looked the way America looked, so they could play in all the kinds of places America came to hear bands play. He understood the power of music videos much sooner than almost everyone else, telling his tour manager Alan Leeds in 1982, when MTV was just two years old, “Alan, what you don’t understand is people don’t hear music anymore, they see music.”
He insisted on an incredible amount of artistic control, but this need for control did not end with himself — it also extended to his band. How they played, how they dressed — on and off stage. Gayle Chapman, the early keyboardist for the Revolution, said, according to Touré, that “at some point Prince instituted a rule about how the band was to dress any time they were in public: The members of the Revolution were to dress like rock stars whenever they went out for any reason.” She said:
If you walk out of your hotel room you were supposed to be in your rock-and-roll garb. Spandex. Naked. Hair. Whatever. Full make-up and spandex just to get razor blades at the hotel shop. You never left your room not looking like you were ready for work. I’d get so many stares. They thought I was a hooker. But he was building an image and not just for himself. Now, we all know that rock stars actually dress in blue jeans and t-shirts like the rest of us sometimes but back then it was like, we were on the road, and we always had to look the part.
Which is a shame, because what this demonstrates is that Prince has not always been respectful of the differences of others — he’s never been about your individuality and freedom of expression so much as his own.
He’s practiced this individuality and freedom of expression with loyalty and tenacity, and a great consistency. “He never spent an inordinate amount of time on one song,” engineer Chuck Zwicky tells Touré:
I’ve worked with artists who will agonize over a single song for many, many days. I’ve never seen Prince do that. He’s got a very, very clear idea in his head about what the song needs to do, what it needs to sound like and he could get through it very quickly. So, typically, a session started with three written songs and ended with three completely mixed songs. He never second guesses himself and he never scratches his head. He never says, I wonder if this is good or not?
Zwicky says that like it’s a good thing, and in a way it is. One reason Prince has made so many more great songs — albeit with a much lower batting average — than D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, or Remy Shand is that he’s never been crippled by the preciosity that stifles so many great artists. Does Prince owe it to his fans to put on the market only the best songs he can possibly muster, or does he owe it to them to produce as many of them as he can, releasing albums — single-, double-, and triple-albums — more frequently than the seasons change? Prince’s answer, and probably the right answer, would be neither. He’s an artist, and he owes them — he owes us — precisely what he cares to give us. And we owe it to ourselves to select, the way we surgically can now, not just what we’re going to listen to but even what we’re going to pay for.
I’d pay a whole album’s price for certain songs — ”Erotic City,” “When Doves Cry,” “Letitgo,” “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance,” “The Marrying Kind” — and will not pay three minutes of my time to so many others, all those Casio-keyboard confections Prince made throughout the 1980s and continues to make today, penny-pop ephemera, many of which have ranked high in America’s hearts and on its charts but do not seem to emerge from some profound place in the soul. Susan Rogers, another of Prince’s engineers, says of his songs, all of his songs, that
Prince was a strong enough songwriter that you could strip his songs down to just the skeleton and you’d have something pretty valid there. You’d have good lyric writing, in some cases great, and you’d have strong melodies. And on top of that he was able to add harmonic progressions that were innovative and smart. Underneath that he was able to add a rhythmic foundation that was great. He taught me that you should be able to strip out everything except the bass and drums and maybe one rhythm instrument and it should sound like a record. He was so smart, he truly understood how each piece needs to function. It’s rare for music makers to really understand that.
But some of us demand more from our music than something that’s “pretty valid” and that “function[s].” And, anyway, it gets nowhere near explaining the ineffable soul Prince is able to breathe into his songs when he’s not busy not-scratching his head and not-second-guessing himself and not not-asking, “I wonder if this is good or not?” Call it God if you want to — Prince himself certainly has — or talent. Prince’s best songs, including the ones I’ve mentioned above, manage to be homages to his predecessors — to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and George Clinton and James Brown; to guitar virtuosity and familial camaraderie and playful soulfulness and high-energy danceability. He wrote “Erotic City” after attending a P-Funk concert, and with its mischievous lyrics, roboticized interludes, and enthralling tempo shifts, it’s no wonder. The jangly guitar figures in “Circumstance” could have been grafted from Brown’s band in its prime, and not in the all-but-literal way Brown’s riffs always used to get grafted in rap music, but in a way that suits Prince’s specific needs and sensibility. The guitar in “The Marrying Kind” is pure Hendrixed-out virtuosity. And “When Doves Cry” and “Letitgo” are both living testimonies to the kind of searingly intimate and idiosyncratic autobiography that Marvin Gaye and others helped bring to soul music — to pop music in general — in the 1970s, just before Prince started making his first records. Prince has been able to take these influences and others, and make them answer to his own claim. That’s the real source of his appeal, and that’s why he became an icon.
It’s certainly not something you can reduce to a tray of coded religious symbols. Touré does his subject no favors when, in the final paragraph of his book, he tells us:
Years before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince knocked on America’s door through his music. He came to the door holding a guitar and an umbrella while concealing a Bible. He flirted his way inside the door and told us he had a dirty mind and was controversial, and then he sat down in the living room on the good couch. And, when America’s guard was down, because we thought we were having a conversation about sex, Prince eased out his Bible and said, let me also tell you about my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
Thus Touré has managed, in just a couple hundred pages, to reduce Prince to a pesky proselytizer knocking on our door selling smut and salvation, rather than building him up to what he really is: one of America’s most singularly dynamic musicians and cultural figures. He’s done it by writing, instead of a book about why Prince became an icon, a book about why a selective reading of Prince’s lyrics and interviews can reveal certain religiously iconic signifiers and themes. If this is your kind of book, then Touré has written the book for you. He’s written a book that tells us everything about why Prince might be construed as someone preaching in our living room, and virtually nothing about why we originally made the sin of even letting him in — and, much more to the point, why we let him stay there.
Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large. He’s written for the Paris Review Daily, Library of America’s Reader’s Almanac, The Millions, The Rumpus, and others.