If anybody is going to write a readable, comprehensive book on the ideology of Prince, it’s going to be Joseph Vogel. This Thing Called Life: Prince, Race, Sex, Religion, and Music is indeed such a book, and follows closely in the imposing footsteps of Vogel’s other two major works—one meticulous labor of love for Michael Jackson’s solo music career and one that resurrected critical interest in James Baldwin’s ’80s-era material. When Spike Lee wanted to make a movie about Jackson, he invited Vogel to consult. Talking about Prince is no leap of faith for someone so skilled at talking about the King of Pop.
This Thing Called Life focuses on precisely the vagaries of that. It isn’t a biography or a discography, so readers looking for the basic facts in chronological order will need to go elsewhere. Still, those who are not well-versed in anything but Prince’s hits will find Vogel’s work a perfectly good starting point for delving into the big questions raised by Prince’s career. The book is organized thematically into seven chapters on politics, sound or music genre, race, gender, sex, religion, and death. Each chapter ultimately resists temptation to take the easy way out by concluding with some definitional stance on what Prince believed.
The fact is, Prince is an enigma. It isn’t because we don’t know the facts of his life. It isn’t for a lack of scholarly analyses of his lyrics or his interviews. It’s because he was perhaps most at home when he was deliberately constructing his own mystique, and he went through several clearly identifiable career phases where he would shrug off one mystery in favor of a fresh one. To a significant degree, Prince cultivated uncertainty about his own race, gender and sexuality, relying upon these constructions of his identity to undermine cultural assumptions and open minds to a more unified consciousness amongst his fans.
At the same time, he often said or did things that alienated his listeners. At times, such as the death of Michael Jackson or the election of Barak Obama, Prince’s silence was deafening. At other times, such as changing his name to the unpronounceable “love symbol” or his religious conversion to Jehovah’s Witness, Prince was setting a new trajectory that his audience had trouble following. The virtue of Vogel’s approach is that he draws together evidence from the disparate strands of the artist—his personal life and band personnel, lyrics and music composition, performances and interviews—to create a convincingly smooth and solid but by no means stable or stale portrait of Prince as a creative and deep thinker.
Instead of cherry-picking facts and quotes, Vogel lets Prince’s legacy shine in all its vague and erratic splendor. Moreover, these awkward and conflicted threads are themselves celebrated and are perhaps the very thing that made Prince so great. It seems that when the final bell is rung, the mystique of Prince was his most consistent trait. Vogel is equipped for a successful dive into the many fields where Prince was able to cultivate a middle way or third space for himself, and he also conveys how Prince’s pioneering in this way remains even now a radical and rebellious prospect for musicians.
Although the author is crystal clear on each separate facet of Prince’s identity and the evolutions of his self-construct, there’s a secondary layer of theorizing that Vogel does skip out on. This Thing Called Life amply demonstrates, for example, that Prince selectively deployed his own light-skinned blackness for various reasons. But it would have been interesting to read Vogel’s somewhat more speculative take on Prince’s strategy at these moments. The author seems to take great pains to rely upon interpretation of available interviews, and of course Prince was hardly fond of announcing the reasons why he was doing whatever he was doing except in the most cryptic of terms. Despite these difficulties, there may be a bit more room for Vogel’s own analysis regarding the extent to which Prince’s calculations were deliberate and some clarity as to Prince’s sense of strategy. He seemed to loathe hypocrisy, yet obviously, Prince himself held contradictions with ease. Some additional distinctions on the intentionality there, however unfounded in quotable sourcing, might have been valuable.
Even so, This Thing Called Life provides a lot from which to chew. It doesn’t rely upon the urgent tones of fervent fandom that often accompany first books to market after a music icon has passed away. It clarifies why people become so obsessed with Prince, as well as the parts of his own image over which he attempted to exert the most control. It provides a contextualization that implies Prince’s work will continue to be ahead of its time for quite some time, and it’s simultaneously a “warts and all” treatment that doesn’t stoop so low as to traffic in gossip or petty rivalries. Vogel neither glorifies Prince nor apologizes for his failings, thus successfully resisting the inclination to posthumously box in an artist who spent his whole life exploding out of other peoples’ boxes.