Peter Coviello, Is There God After Prince?

Personal Canons: Peter Coviello on Prince, Pavement, and Parenthood

Blending personal experience with popular culture, Peter Coviello seeks to democratize how criticism is understood and practiced in Is There God after Prince?

Is There God after Prince? Dispatches from an Age of Last Things
Peter Coviello
University of Chicago Press
October 2023

There is a memorable scene in Joachim Trier’s 2021 dramedy, The Worst Person in the World, where Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) recounts his life regrets to his former partner, Julie (Renate Reinsve). Terminally ill, he has been revisiting his favorite films by David Lynch and listening to bands of his youth like the deathpunk outfit Turbonegro. Though these cultural touchstones have brought him the comfort of nostalgia, he wonders about their ultimate meaning in the face of his impending mortality.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott has written about this scene in The Worst Person in the World and how it is emblematic of a certain Gen-X perspective, even though the film itself is Norwegian and focused primarily on the life and fateful decisions of Julie, a millennial. Despite these specifics of location and story, what Scott finds resonant is the idea and practice of collecting things and how this accrual of cultural detritus is both meaningful and meaningless. Such individual materialism can provide a sense of identity and connection. But to what end?

Author and scholar Peter Coviello’s new book of essays, Is There God after Prince? Dispatches from an Age of Last Things addresses a similar question about personal taste and its larger meanings. Coviello is a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and he has published five previous books. His scholarship largely concerns 19th-century American literature. However, he has also written about late 20th-century American culture, including a book on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) and the personal memoir Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs (2018).

Is There God after Prince? is a provisional sequel to his memoir through its blending of personal experience with critical takes on music, novels, and prestige television. As Peter Coviello explains in the opening pages, he wants his essays to demonstrate how good criticism need not be the exclusive province of academic life or the privileged feature of elite publications like The New Yorker. Bar banter, midnight arguments among friends, car conversations with children, and impromptu mid-winter dance parties are also life-giving moments of critical exchange and human connection. In a word, Coviello seeks to democratize how criticism is understood and practiced.

Is There God after Prince? goes on to explore this possibility – to offer proof of concept – over the course of two dozen or so essays. Though discussion of music predominates, there are also memorable engagements with baseball player Derek Jeter, philosopher Michel Foucault, author Sam Lipsyte, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and the groundbreaking ’90s television show My So-Called Life. Many of these essays first appeared online in venues like Avidly and Boston Review. His essays, “My Thoughts Are Murder” (on the film Heathers and Henry David Thoreau) and “The Last Psychedelic Band” (on Pavement and middle age), circulated widely.

The title essay “Is There God after Prince?” provides a strong illustration of Peter Coviello’s compelling style. Triangulating between personal recollections of hosting midwinter dance parties in Maine (known as Prince Parties), post-mortem conversations with friends, and academic asides, there is a searching character to his writing that is sustained by an unapologetic passion for the subject at hand – in this case, Prince and his sudden passing in 2016. “His Blackness and his maleness and his straightness and his queerness,” Coviello concludes at one point, nearly out of breath, “all these roles, like the sexiest fucking Emersonian in the history of the world, he endeavors to embody after a new and unprecedented way.” (The man has a gift with/for f-bombs.)

This enthusiasm – or “ardor”, as Peter Coviello often puts it – forms the basis for his critical approach, whether that enthusiasm is based on love or animated by spirited disagreement. For example, “Karaoke for the People” meditates on the contingent, algorithmic logic of our Spotify age through scenes of personal circumstance informed by unpredictable interventions by the Archers of Loaf, Gladys Knight, and Chrissie Hynde’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”. In a different vein, “Joy Rounds First” expresses the comfort Coviello finds in Derek Jeter despite being a passive baseball fan. Meanwhile, “Anthony and Carmella Get Vaccinated” examines inter-generational, Italian American perspectives on The Sopranos – Coviello loves the show, but his parents despise it – to get at issues of family, disillusionment, and brutality in American life.

Indeed, Peter Coviello’s best essays have a family element. The section “Kids” has a sequence on this theme, dwelling on what it means to be a step-parent and then, as fate has it, an ex-step-parent – a rarified category he approaches with good cheer. “When a kid falls off her pogo stick in the driveway,” Coviello remarks, “her first startled cry is not likely to be for her stepdad, no matter the breadth of his care.” Nonetheless, he describes how such attachments fruitfully challenge normative concepts of the family. His training in queer theory by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and other scholars enters the picture though with a light touch, balanced by citations of the Jackson 5, Chance the Rapper, and Third Eye Blind.

There are limitations to this collection. I wish some essays went further with their observations. In “Ghost Stories”, Coviello compares Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968) with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998). “What you’re left with, on both records, is a piece of pure, maniacal exultation,” he writes, “a prayer, you could say, of grieving, violent love for the world.” It’s a gripping appraisal, and I wanted to learn more. Such abbreviated takes may reflect the online origins of many of these pieces, where editors favor concision over depth.

On the other hand, several essays felt less inspired and a bit rote. “Say Chi City” amounts to an extended book review. “Our Man in the Fifteenth”, an essay on Foucault, is absolutely fine but unavoidably academic. “In the Maze”, which discerns the subtext of child abuse in The Shining, is grim and dutiful. For all its insight, it feels antithetical to the positive and frequently hilarious spirit that emanates from Coviello’s voice. This leads to a larger, albeit soft, critique.

Early on, Peter Coviello invokes a dystopian worldview with the idea of “endstrickenness” and with the book’s framing subtitle, Dispatches from an Age of Last Things. Yet, as touched upon, there is plenty of emotional reassurance and even joy through popular culture, as described in this book. The author is not a person who easily succumbs to negativity. As for last things, children and students constantly remind Coviello of the salience of cultural artifacts, and when all else fails, there are the algorithms of Spotify. Nothing is ever completely dead. I’m reminded of Fredric Jameson’s remark that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. 

Much of  Is There God after Prince? was composed during the Trump presidency and the Covid pandemic – dystopian moments, for sure. “My Thoughts Are Murder”, which ruminates on Michael Lehmann’s 1988 comedy, Heathers, is about finding a politics against demagoguery in the present. The book’s afterword, “Exit Wounds”, is about finding a life, or rediscovering life, after these twin, manifold crises, with an affecting set of thoughts on how Coviello and his new wife considered having children. What does it mean, what responsibilities must be actively acknowledged, to bring a child into our world with its inescapable, declensionist narratives?

Still, if the notion of endstrickenness remains incompletely realized, my sense is that Peter Coviello would welcome debate on this point. Approached differently, many of his references intentionally cry out for engagement. Is “Unfair” really the best song to characterize Pavement’s oeuvre? Similarly, does “Harnessed in Slums” by the Archers of Loaf deserve greater attention than the dual threat of “Web in Front” and “Wrong” from Icky Mettle (1993)? Coviello’s provocations seemingly invite the commencement of good faith counterarguments.

Ultimately, the critical project raised by Is There God after Prince? regards the formation of personal canons – the albums, novels, and other cultural items that give individual meaning and grant connections with other people. These canons are, by definition, eccentric. But they are also teachable and transferable, generating new cultural undergrounds with their own secret handshakes and symbolic muted horns. 

“Give me an intricate thing upon which to expend a healthy quantity of scrutinizing imagination and I will give back to you something you might have reason to love,” Coviello concludes in the book’s final pages, summarizing the essential role of the critic. There is an anti-elitist heart and a democratic soul to Is There God after Prince? Our objects and collections may not save us from our mortal fates. Yet, despite this hard truth, they provide comic/heroic narratives, danceable soundtracks, and indispensable human connections until we get there.