Hello! You are now at the third installment of Aux.Out. Book Club, where a group of us read a new or renowned book in the music canon and lay down some of our thoughts. Last time we slogged through the 2012 R. Kelly diary/autobiography/memoir/Yearbook Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. Today, a “biopic” by Touré on the music industry’s most enigmatic, paradoxical, and funkiest people: I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon. Our clutch of readers are:
– Jeremy D. Larson, managing editor of Consequence of Sound
— Matt Melis, senior editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, General Manager at WRGW Radio, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Evan Minsker, Associate Staff Writer at Pitchfork, freelance writer for Aux.Out. eMusic, MTV Hive
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
Jeremy D. Larson: So I keep coming back to the line in “Controversy” where Prince goes, “I can’t understand human curiosity (Con-tro-ver-sy),” frustrated about why people are asking him questions about his race, sex, religion. Touré, and many others before him, writes in utter defiance of Prince’s wish to be an enigma, which, for me, causes the most friction in this book. Whenever he gets too curious, things start to unravel, and that happens at a lot of points throughout the book
But first, you guys, I love Prince so much and I saw him last year three times on his tour and it was the closest thing I’ve ever seen that actually connects music and sex and religion in one show. Has everyone seen Prince? What’s your relationship with Prince and his music because I feel that is a key to where you get on and off Touré’s I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon train.
Matt Melis: I was born in 1983 — the last of the gen X kids that Touré links 2 Prince — but apart from the occasional “Raspberry Beret”, I grew up living a Princeless existence. I know it was different 4 some of my older friends (especially at Halloween). Luckily, I Would Die 4 U isn’t what I half-expected it 2 B — either 150 pages of icon ass kissing or an equally long laugh at an eccentric little man who sometimes needs a camel at 3 a.m. in Minnesota.
Rachel Bailey: My sister, in high school, got really into a couple of his tracks, specifically “Raspberry Beret.” I think I always thought of him as kind of kitschy, especially after watching Purple Rain for the first time. The weird power games his character played on Appolonia – I just remember thinking “this guy is a total jerk. Why would anyone be turned on by this?” Of course, that was years ago.
I’ve never gone through a “Prince Phase,” perhaps because the only part of his career I witnessed firsthand was the more embarrassing stuff, like when he decided to make his name into a symbol. This bio may have had its weak moments, but I do think the cultural context Touré puts Prince into does what it sets out to do, which is give some insight into why this guy reached the heights that he did. It may not have been perfect but it damn sure made me listen to “When Doves Cry” in a different way.
Evan Minsker: I got a chance to see Prince at SXSW this year, which was an awe-inspiring, surreal, great experience. In high school, when 1970s’ rock’n’roll debates at the lunch table were Ramones and Marc Bolan (me) vs. the Eagles and Eric Clapton (them). At some point, when things got too heated, somebody would go, “Hey guys? What about Prince?” “Oh, Prince is great.” Prince was unimpeachable common ground– everybody’s cool with Prince. Purple Rain screenings became a New Year’s Eve tradition. (I miss that tradition.)
Honestly, I could use a more full-bodied education on Prince’s discography– I love a lot of his records, but there are still some gray areas I need to tend to. That’s why I was excited about this biography with its blurb endorsement from ?uestlove calling it “the ultimate Prince book.”
My favorite biographies make me excited to explore an artist’s entire discography. Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey made me actually buy every Neil Young album I didn’t have (up until about 1980, then I ran out of money).
Here’s what I liked about this biography: It did a nice job of providing context for Prince as a person– his childhood, musical obsessions, character, family, etc.– and it made a good case for how these things affected Prince as an artist and businessman.
And that’s it. The book went on to beat me over the head with the glaringly obvious. (Prince writes songs about sex and religion, and sometimes both!) For a short book, it started to feel obnoxiously long. If it was just the first chapter– a really powerful magazine piece– I would’ve been totally on board. The last two portions felt like a quickly bashed out, “I’m on a deadline and I’ve only got one chapter” college thesis that wasn’t carefully proofread and was way too repetitive.
Paula Mejia I think what Evan mentioned about this as a college thesis was spot-on. It often reads like a dissertation or straight out a textbook for, say, ‘Sociocultural Implications of Generational Shifts and Their Relevance Within The Scope of Musicianship, Sex and Surrender in Prince’s Canon’. It would have been good to tone down the analysis, especially with individual songs, down a bit, but the angle presented was one I would have never thought about.
I would have wanted more scenes about Prince’s live work. He spends so much time talking about the narrative behind music videos and song by song analysis, but, especially as someone who’s never been able to see Prince live, wanted to hear more about what that experience is like.
MM: Touré chose an interesting angle by beginning with Steven Van Zandt’s claim that “Nothing is inevitable”–that a lot of things Prince had no control over had to align for Prince 2 B Prince. In this case, that Prince and Gen X clicked like peanut butter and tuna fish. But I’m with Jeremy that trying 2 sum up or encapsulate Gen X in, 2 borrow from Touré’s beloved The Breakfast Club, “the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions” is a bit much. I can just see Brian saying, “In each one of us there is a child of divorce, a latchkey kid, a sex addict, and a Jesus freak.” And amen 2 Evan’s point, 2. At some point, the book turns into an overdone lyrical analysis, an attempt 2 convince us of what we already know–as Evan said, that Prince writes songs about sex and religion. It’s too strenuous 4 my taste.
RB: Agreed to all of the above, except I’m not so quick to dismiss the divorce thing. Not that it was unique to Prince’s generation (obviously), but I do think there is something to the rather sudden prevalence of it, to so many people wrestling with what it meant to them personally without a real precedent to turn to, that made that facet of Prince’s persona so accessible to so many.
But yeah, the latter parts of the book did feel increasingly overwrought.
It seems like biting off an awful lot to take on the task of trying to write a biography on a person so enigmatic that even those closest to him often don’t understand what their interactions meant or the motivation behind the decisions Prince was making. And that was a real take-away for me from reading the interviews with former members of Prince’s band or people from his personal life — he seemed like a really lonely person and virtually incapable of a lot of the kinds of intimacy we all take for granted. If a dude is that bad at being intimate with folks in real life, how realistic is it to think you’ll get to know him intimately through a book?
JL Boy that third chapter — I couldn’t really believe how monotonous talking about his religious imagery was (it seems like it’s the longest chapter of the book). The “7″ thing is just like, come on — if man is five, then the devil is six, then PRINCE is seven, then PRINCE is seven.
I really don’t like how Prince’s career post- Sign O The Times in the NPG period is sort of dismissed as an afterthought. Like Evan said, it’s a part of his catalogue and life I’m least familiar with. As much as I love hearing about Prince at his peak, hearing about Prince when he sort of fell out of vogue, or New Jack Swing Prince would have been interesting for the more seasoned fan. I suppose that has little to do with why he became an icon, though.
What I think this book does do is reflect a trend in pop culture analysis of conflating messiah-figure with egomaniac. Mysterious prolific genius being interpreted as oracular, and not just really talented but also just kind of a dick.
“It is said that Prince did not attend his father’s funeral.”
JL: More stray thoughts on the deification God-complex thing — which may be a sidebar but whatever I think about this a lot — I mean religious and sexual imagery in Prince’s music make him Messiah figure that people can obviously want to get behind. There are tons of musicians who have put themselves willingly up on the cross (Oh The Game) but trying to name sexually explicit, liberal Christ-figures in pop/celebrity culture seems like such a cheap thing. And I don’t think it’s blasphemous or anything, but it just seems false and maybe lazy? It rubs me the wrong way when either the press deifies someone like Prince or Beyoncé or Kanye or artists do it themselves.
Except Lil B. He deserves it.
MM: Regarding the “genius” being a dick comment. Prince fits that mold growing up of “misunderstood” artist off on his own whom nobody “gets.” Fast forward a decade later 2 mega success, and U still have that same awkward person, only now he doesn’t need anybody 2 “get” him… apart from his music. As Kevin Smith says in that clip I linked 2 earlier, “Prince has been living in Prince World 4 quite some time,” where everything revolves around him (which shields him against uncomfortable social situations), and, yes, he looks like a dick at several points because of it. More 2 my interest is the question of whether or not being eccentric, a dick, a bit strange, or an outsider has some link to creating great art. I might B 2 normal, boring, and socially adept 2 ever create something truly great and have Touré write about me.
We live in a society where folks place entertainers on pedestals and regularly see the image of Christ (or Mary) in every item on the IHOP menu. If U can find Jesus in your French toast, I don’t know that I can blame artists 4 striking a crucifixion pose and saying, “See what I’m doing here?”
Tom Waits sang it best: “Come down off the cross / We can use the wood.”
EM: See, I feel like it’s fine if Prince is going to play preacher or messiah or whatever. And he’s doing it in an emotionally healthy way– Marvin Gaye practically tortured himself for trying to find the balance between his love of God and his love of sex. Prince just went for both and didn’t bat an eye.
I just take issue with how it’s discussed here, which just feels like a thin paragraph and a simple idea strung out across an entire chapter.
JL: Maybe it’s because Prince approached that paradox of religion/eroticism with confidence and nonchalance that Touré tries to dissect and ascribe meaning to the contradiction, the one that drove Gaye to the depths. Maybe it’s just a dichotomy we’re not used to, societally? Is that why we feel the need to try to figure out why Prince can be at once sexually liberated and spiritually connected in such a public platform?
Is that why he is Thee Icon?
EM: I think his combination of funky inclinations, “strict bandleader” mentality, sexual freedom, religious devotion, and “hitmaker” status is what makes him an icon.
JL: And his bath fetish.
MM: I think it’s the pairing of high heels and chest hair.
PM: Seconded on the bath fetish. Maybe it’s my repressed childhood Catholic education back in the day, but that made me think that the religion/sensuality duality wasn’t just an act for his stage persona, but rather lived out. It’s an intimate act, but I couldn’t help but parallel this with that biblical tale where Jesus apparently washed his disciples’ feet to express loyalty and humility.
Prince is practicing what he preaches, quite literally.
RB: It’s not surprising that someone who could go for both the sexually explicit and the pious religious thing at the same time without seeming troubled by the cognitive dissonance would be compelling to so many people, considering the relationship a lot of religious people, in my experience, have with sex. In most religious communities that I know of, there is very little talk of how to have healthy sex that feels like it enriches your life, while there is a lot of talk about the dangers and pitfalls. Religion is very rarely “sex positive.” But Prince offers a different view by virtue of his honesty about his relationship with both the spiritual and the vulgar.
I think there is a lot to mine in talking about the religious facet of who Prince is, but it didn’t seem like Touré brought a lot of depth to that part of the discussion.
JL: I think we all sort of think this book came up short with what we *really* wanted out of a Prince bio, but do you think it did a good job of explaining — perhaps to the lay reader — why he’s an Icon? And the deeper question seems to be — is it worth dissecting at pop stars/musicians at length when a paragraph will do? Or is it just this example that culls from so many other previous sources that feels very over-written.
RB: I do think the book started strong, and I think it was Evan who said it would have been great as a long magazine piece. What I’m learning from both this and the Kells bio is that (auto)biographies of musicians are maybe not that exciting to read unless you are an uber-fan of the musician in question. David Foster Wallace basically addressed this, at least as it applied to Kells, in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” What makes a person of exceptional skill imminently interesting is often the same thing that stops them from being able to speak eloquently about their own experience and ability. That was definitely true in the Kells book-case. And I wonder if it would be true in Prince’s case, but it’s hard to say, since he so purposefully obfuscated himself. My guess is yes, though.
And without any additional insight from Prince, this does feel over-written, in spite of Touré’s considerable skill and obvious Deep Thoughts behind this piece of writing. He did do a pretty satisfying job of explaining why Prince became an icon, but it’s just now occurred to me that the real purpose of this book might not have been to explain that at all really but actually to talk about how meaningful Prince’s music and personality have been to Touré personally and then sort of try to extrapolate it into a generational phenomenon. When in actual fact, it’s pretty tough to know why the dude’s music was so important to so many people because they all have reasons and associations equally as complex as the author’s.
MM: Well, it’s not meant 2 B a bio. Similar 2 what Rachael said, I think Touré is a huge Prince fan who wanted 2 find a way to talk about what Prince meant 2 him in terms larger than himself. (John Hughes: We All Grew Up in Shermer could be the next stop.) Nothing wrong in that, but it tires quickly 4 me, and I think he overreaches. Around about the 30th lyrical analysis of the book, I was ready just 2 hear stories about Prince playing hoops in heels.
RB: Speaking of which, that scene in which Touré goes to play ball with Prince was pretty great. The way he talked about working with him on the court reminded me of a time I was interviewing John Roderick of The Long Winters, a favorite songwriter of mine, and he stopped during the interview to thank me for putting together such thoughtful questions.
Part of being a music writer is the thrill of having some of the people you spend so much time looking at and thinking about actually look back at you and think about you for a second and actually see you in a way that very few fans ever get to be seen by the people who help make their worlds keep turning every day through their art. Playing hoops and earning Prince’s respect on the court? That’s like taking it to a whole ‘nother level.
Not a point about the overall book, I guess, but I just thought that scene was touching and also really sad and lonely in the way Prince left without saying an actual goodbye.
JL: I loved the basketball scene — (even though, like, it’s just like this scene (or this scene) I never wanted that to end. In fact, those two little movies are, I hate to say it, kind of more interesting than the analysis in the book.
EM: I agree with all of you about the basketball anecdote, which was probably the best part of the book. It was poignant without overreaching, human without overanalyzing.
I’ve been trying to write “final thoughts” with any weight or meaning, but I think I’ve said everything I want to say.
I’ll stop here: I’m glad I don’t have to be reading this book anymore.
PM: Not to sound like a broken record, but the basketball story was definitely the book’s highlight. I love when interviewers go all in and make a connection with an artist on an entirely different level, through activity that eventually leads to much more organic discourse than a cut and dry Q&A.
In conclusion, Touré’s project is overarching for the 153 pages he attempts to de-mystify Prince, and more times than I liked it felt like a critical theory textbook. Yet the point of view is a titillating one that I would have never thought to pair with the king of funkadelic freestyles (and apparently baths).