In short, there is no one like Prince.
He emerged in the late ‘70s as a studio prodigy who made some groovy R&B numbers, perhaps with a little more of a rock emphasis than most people were ready to accept at the time. He had a few small hits, but by the time he released Dirty Mind in 1980, he began fusing genres together in fascinating ways, soon leading to the runaway success of 1982’s 1999 and, of course, 1984’s iconic Purple Rain, which launched Prince into the stratosphere, scoring him #1 hits, Grammy awards, and even an Oscar.
He created the “Minneapolis sound”, using electronic instruments to update funk and R&B, multiple acts sounding exactly like him largely due to the fact that more often than not he was writing and producing the albums for said acts. He played with gender ambiguity, went off on religious fronts during the ‘90s (causing him to lose a majority of his audience during that time), and then, in the 2000s, staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent memory. He’s released hundreds of songs, reportedly has vaults filled with thousands more, and continues to be one of the most enigmatic forces in the music industry today. Few people truly wield the influence that Prince had during his peak, and has managed a fun career of his own even after it.
Of course, this means there’s much to deconstruct, from the personal to the lyrical to the spiritual. With Prince: The Making of a Pop Music Phenomenon (part of Ashgate Publishing’s “Popular and Folk Music Series”), authors Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock tackle a lot of what makes Prince Prince: from his gender-bending early days leading to his appeal/relatability to his female block of fans to his musical prowess to his incredible performance aesthetics. Priced at just under $100, this book is certainly not for the casual fan, but therein lies the problem: given their own admitted bias towards the very end of the book, how can a philosophical inquiry into Prince’s oeuvre actually be practical when the authors are hedging the discussion in a particular direction?
“Prince is a star at the nexus of myraid forces and representations, how demands and truly deserves a rich, multidisciplinary analysis,” the authors mention in the preface, and this much is true. They open the book discussing the weighted meaning of authenticity in today’s world, as well as the basic pleasures which can be drawn from music itself. On page 23, however, things really begin to take off with a section called “I’m Not a Woman, I’m Not a Man”: Ambiguous Prince Takes Center Stage. While it initially simply goes into talking about some of Prince’s traditionally heterosexual iconography (featuring women as dancers and objects in videos and the like), there are some interesting thought pieces to be found about his earlier subversions of the type:
“The star first appeared in Britain in 1982 as a support act for the Rolling Stones. He performed the electronic funk-rock title track to Dirty Mind wearing a G-string, an open flasher-mac, stockings, high-heeled boots and make-up. Backed by his multi-racial band, which featured women prominently, Prince spun and gesticulated boldly and camply, in a style more reminiscent of Mick Jagger, lead singer with the legendary main act, than of the black soul stars who opened the space for his emergence. While it was possible to identify Prince’s historical musical and style influences from his records and his visual signification, his female fans found him a new and original space for identification. It was his heterosexaully-charged yet excessively feminized and dandy appearance and gestures that allowed his female fans to simultaneously desire him and identify with him.” (p. 25)
This, coupled with Chapter 2 (entitled “Inscriptions of Otherness: Dandyism, Style and Queer Sensibility”), does a good job of showing just how effectively Prince played against type, showing himself to be a signifier for people who would identify themselves as “outsiders”, and this, in turn is what helped him stand out in the crowded R&B field of the early ‘80s, himself becoming more of an anomaly than an easily-categorized “rock artist” or “R&B singer”. This, along with chapters on his intersction of the sexual and spiritual (which became far more apparent in the late ‘80s and onward from there) as well as his musicality (including a rather fascinating breakdown of his use of 7th notes on his Love Symbol track “7”), prove fascinating. None of these revelations are groundbreaking, but they assuredly provide food for thought.
Yet the author’s inherent bias towards Prince’s greatness does them a disservice partway through the book. “Despite his heterosexual status, Prince’s visual coding has alluded to gay references in a wider cultural context, notably advertising, further nuancing his appeal,” they say on p.44 before spending all of Chapter 5 doing a scene-by-scene breakdown of how Purprle Rain is a “site of positive identification for young females.” (p. 120). Yet in being a philosophical catchall of Prince’s various influences on culture, certain topics get completely overlooked, specifically the hypocritical nature of co-opting so many gay poses while rejecting homosexuality outright (evidenced no better than in the scene he penned in his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge wherein Morris Day and Jerome accidentally kiss and then proceed to vomit in digust).
In the Preface, the authors say that they draw the phenomenon of Prince through “a system of references that shed light on the history of pop subjectivity”, but in refraing from mentioning his bizarre behavior around the death of his infant son in 1996 or his other out-there positions, they provide a more whitewashed version of his life narrative than a complete one. The book never claims to be a biography and for that we can be thankful (lord knows there’s enough of them out there already), but in assessing his appeal towards females, his dandifacation, and yet not some of his more hypocritical poses, well, it leaves their perspective as somewhat incomplete.“He offered a safe and unique space for anyone to play out their own complex subjectivities in uncertain times, regardless of sex, color, or creed,” they say on page 172, but the truth isn’t as clean-cut as they make it.
Same goes for their analysis of Prince’s live performance during his historic 21 Nights gig at the O2 arena. “We make no apology for slipping into personal conjecture toward the end of the chapter,” they tell us on page 174, “as it is clear from our own research and reading that much more work is needed to develop a critical vocabulary to describe the power and aura of live performance.” While they do a great job of dissecting the British music press’ reaction to the concerts as a way of showing how his own biography and iconography are constantly reassessed through countless tabloids, the diving into the sOmEwhAT ILLEGIBLE internetSPEAk of fan reviews on Prince.org to make their point is a bit of a crass move, as using fans’ reactions—fans who are already predisposed to like a performance by their favorite performer—to make a point feels somewhat insincere, and, again, shows just how weighted the book can be on personal opinion.
Ultimately, a philosophical analysis of His Royal Badness is quite frankly long overdue, and at times, this book actually fulfills that space. At other times, however, it feels like it’s really reaching to make a point, or going to great lengths to highlight issues that ultimately don’t add up to much in the long run of Princian analysis. It’s worth reading, but it’s by no means a new standard by which we’ll be judging all analysis of the Purple one from this point onward.
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