There's a Lot to Admire in 'I Would Die 4 U', and a Lot to be Wary of, as Well

by Evan Sawdey

7 April 2013

I Would Die 4 U is a fascinating curiosity, filled with great ideas, mixed messages, and a woefully ignored thesis. It's great for fans, good for casual observers, but mere trivia for just about anyone else.
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I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon


US: Mar 2013

There are the books that come off as detailed sessionographies, books which attempt to try and capture the psychology of such a unique, complicated man, and books that attempt to search for meaning in his each and every song. With Touré‘s I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon, a bolder analysis is undertaken: how exactly did Prince become an icon? Was it from his sheer musical virtuosity or was it in part because he spoke to a rapidly-shifting American culture at the time? Touré sums up his argument thus:

“Prince had much to say on the issues of irrepressible sexual impulse and our innate spiritual needs, as well as apathy in the face of the apocalypse. His messages fit generation X. He was talented, yes, but, crucially, he lived a life that uniquely prepared him to understand the gen X experience and layered that songs that spoke to the things we cared about—our desires, our fears, our longings, our anxieties—and that is why he became a generational icon.” [p. 10]

While the task that Touré has set out for himself is interesting, the way in which he approaches it proves to be simultaneously fulfilling and maddening, breathlessly weaving together facts and research from a variety of sources while also getting blown off course of his own thesis, occasionally passing off his own speculation as definitive interpretations and eventually just losing the plot entirely as a deconstruction of Prince’s psychology and themes. There’s a lot to admire in this book, but a lot be wary, of as well.

Early on, Touré attempts to describe how the “incidents and institutions that a generation experiences en maze become the generational touchstones that bring together and shape how its members feel about the world,” describing the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well a 9/11 have been touchstones for different generations. For generation X, however, there wasn’t that “big” event on a global scale, to which Touré argues that the big event for such a generation was actually divorce.

Through his somewhat convoluted logic, latchkey kids were able to have more alone time, more than any other in any generation he says, which lead to explorations of sexual realms as well as personal ones, kids being able to have time to expand their minds with music or drugs without any adult supervision. So great is his conviction on this issue that he even invents the adjective “latchkeys” at one point in order to get his message across.

So while linking kids’ free time to that of Prince becoming and icon is a bit of a stretch, he makes far greater strides when noting how Prince’s early shows—wherein he wore heels and fishnets and made badass rock music for crowds expecting some more vanilla-sounding urban R&B—made him hard to categorize, leading some to even hate him on his looks alone. However, he was a provocateur, and helped stand out in a great way. He makes a great effort in noting how with the advent of MTV and Michael Jackson’s breaking down of color barriers in pop music, Prince found a perfect place wherein to shine: playing straight ahead white rock and mixing it with his own unique soul flavor, detailing how Prince’s early touring with Bob Seger lead to the Purple One closely examining the structure of Seger’s songs, out of it coming a little tune known as “Purple Rain”.

The single best point that Touré makes in the entire book involves him discussing how Prince’s own unique (and overt) take on sexuality helped speak to an era that was still adjusting to recent societal upheavals of sexuality, and with Prince being the most explicit artist out there in the mainstream (by far), he had the ability to do what few pop stars of the era were able to genuinely do: intrigue people.

“He pushed the envelope both sartorially and lyrically. Prince asked, in the song “Controversy,” “Am I straight or gay?” and didn’t answer. He did answer elsewhere on that album, on a song called “Uptown,” a story song where a woman asks him “Are you gay?” He says, “No. Are you?” If sexuality can be plotted as a continuum, Prince was dancing in the middle, along side Michael Jackson, while most other men in pop music were on the edges, leaving little doubt who they were going home with.” [p. 72]

The above is an excellent point that further illuminates Prince’s appeal in an era where 9½ Weeks can be a box office success. What’s more difficult is the points he makes about multicultural mixed-gender band lineups and how they parlay into people’s commercial acceptance of them, at one point citing two “mixed gender” groups as being the White Stripes and the Dead Weather, both of which feature the same frontman. While Touré is able to conjure quotes out of the likes of former manager Alan Leeds, Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink, and the iconic Dez Dickerson (all of whom have been completely open to talking about their time with Prince in numerous other publications and all of whom provide reliable, thorough, and detailed accounts of their working with his Royal badness), and tells an incredible tale (via engineer Susan Rogers) about the song “Wally”—easily the most song he ever wrote—was soon deleted after recording it, as if it was almost too personal, further illustrating his need to keep a distance from those real, interpersonal feelings he has, again illustrating his intrigue and allure at the time.

Yet Touré‘s other points are notably less successful, such as his moment-by-moment recreation of playing basketball with him personally or addressing multiple accounts of how women he dated noted how much he liked to bathe them, using it sometimes and foreplay and sometimes doing nothing but bathing them before dismissing them. While this may certainly give a look at his psychology a bit more, it has absolutely nothing to do with his earlier thesis about generational appeal, the book occasionally devolving into gossipy side-bits like this, addressing details that, while fascinating for Prince fans, remain tertiary considerations towards the book’s greater points as a whole. “This is not a trifle,” Touré notes after detailing how the number seven populates itself in a great majority of Prince’s work, often to be construed as deliberate reference to God. Actually, Touré, a trifle is exactly what that point is.

Even in the rushed conclusion of the book, Touré spends time addressing the fact that Prince did an excellent job of mixing the spiritual and the sexual in a way that few other people did, but still is not able to completely harness these notions onto greater goal about how Prince was able to become a generational icon. If this book was aimed at confronting the psychology of Prince or advertised itself as being an “insider’s scoop”, there could be some merit in justifying its existence, as regardless of what the title says, a majority of Touré is able to dig up is fascinating, even if it does feel a bit gossipy at times. As it stands, however, I Would Die 4 U is a fascinating curiosity, filled with great ideas, mixed messages, and a woefully ignored thesis. It’s great for fans, good for casual observers, but mere trivia for just about anyone else.

I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon


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