Prince Rogers Nelson
A literary look at a creative, musical poet, philosopher, and storyteller
Extracts from the book by
Literature, as a form of art, a tool of history, and a medium to convey information, has a more powerful impact when combined with the medium of music. Both literature and music are direct representations of what is going on inside the human soul, its emotions and thoughts. Also, both have the ability to reproduce and convey the human trinity of mind, body, and soul in its most primary, primitive and original form with minimal loss in translation. Besides aesthetic pleasure, this is the value of literature and music.
Over the past eighty (80) years, the combined medium of literature and music as popular music has reflected, affected, impacted, changed, molded and shaped the very essence of social, political, economic and religious value beliefs and sentiments, not to mention the interpersonal relationships, romantic and platonic, of mankind. One of the most influential and vivid example of these musical poets, satirists, philosophers and storytellers is Prince Rogers Nelson. Over the past twenty-one (21) years, Prince Rogers Nelson has single-handedly affected the deviation or, in many cases, total change of a mass populous' ideas and beliefs of sexuality, racism, and religion, not to mention his lifelong dedication to freedom, independence, creativity and music, helping to define a place and system of lifestyle for a new generation of citizens based on cultural relevancy and love.
My interest in Prince dates back to 1980 and the Dirty Mind album when I was ten. I knew of the first album and had danced to the second, but it was not until Dirty Mind that I understood that this guy, Prince, was a special talent with his finger on the pulse of the new, young African American individual. Or, as I conceived of it at age ten, this funny looking guy is really cool. I was drawn to the music and the controversy. One must understand what it was like to be a young, black male, growing up in the Mississippi Delta within a highly religious, conservative and academic family. In this type of setting, concepts of self and society are rigid and ground into the psyche early and often. Before I had any concept of who I was, I was already quite knowledgeable in the concepts of the black southern baptist church, Martin Luther King, Jr., the unified, unilateral politics of black America, and the belief that a good job is the goal of life. Until age ten, I had not begun to develop, to any degree, any concept or notion of what or who I was as an individual or what I truly believed for that matter. For me, God was not the God of Love but the God of Judgment. Martin L. King, Jr. was not a man but an archangel, untouchable and inaccessible. The Black race was not a people but a movement, and all of my actions were to be scrutinized and judged accordingly. However, all of this was to change in 1980.
Ironically, Prince's existence speaks directly to the movement of African Americans acquiescing/assimilating into the larger culture and losing more of their culture/Africanisms. So then, Prince's work and career is a record of the integrated African American, the misguided struggle for individuality and the subsequent counter- reaction by hip-hop.
Prince represented those like myself who had no real knowledge of African American history and accepted life in a vacuum with no historical road map of how we got to the eighties and no understanding of where we needed to be going. In high school, I believed that nothing like Prince had ever existed before him. I now realize that the Tom Jones album laying amongst my mother's collection of Motown, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson should have been an sign of the marriage of white and black culture for the purpose of creating popular music.
So, then, Prince represents the new, integrated artists who have accepted the European notion of art and judge the value of art on its ability to be universal -- that is espouse some notion of the universality of mankind while selling a minimum of records. In this notion, high art or good art is not art that merely articulates a particular experience, but is an art that is able to make that particular experience palatable to the larger society. This often means a watering down of African American sensibilities -- not that he is guided by maliciousness but more a misunderstanding of what it means to be integrated. Prince is, for the most part, integrated. He grows up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the black population is about three percent of the population. Prince had accepted the notions of success on the terms of living in an integrated society, which means, as Langston Hughes asserts, that African Americans have an "urge ... toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible" (Gates and McKay 1267). To get the white dollar, you must become as white as possible. This is the constant battle of popular black art; how does it make money and not lose its black essence, which is often in revolt of the larger white society?
It is this notion of individuality, no matter how oft times warped or prevented, which resonates in Prince's work. It is accepting the notion that the eighties was a time for the struggle of the black individual -- a time when he would break out and free himself of all the chains of race, class and gender. This is why Prince's work spoke to so many of us. For people of my father's age, it was the music, the way that Prince's music signified the history of black music. Prince is the greatest musical alchemist of all times, excluding maybe Wonder. When people of my father's generation hear Prince, they undeniably hear every black musician who came before him. As for my generation who did not know the history and only used it as a superficial credit card to justify our music to our parents, what we heard in Prince was his ability to rebel. He gave us the voice to rebel against race, class, gender, and, ultimately, reality. Those of us who really took the ride thought that Prince had the secret to reconstructing reality. This is what made him a metaphysical poet. Prince was a middle class kid. The most urgent and tangible issue for middle class children is finding, identifying and asserting self as an individual. A capitalistic society teaches us to make our individual mark upon the world. As Karenga asserts, we think of ourselves in the context of "'me' in spite of everyone [and not] 'me' in relation to everyone" (Gates and McKay 1975). This is what the shift in the Civil Rights Movement produced.
Ironically, this shift is what allows Prince to build off the work of Wonder and Sun Ra to become one of the few African American metaphysical poets of the eighties. This is more evidence of the African American's ability to make something out of nothing. Even in his misguided attempts, Prince is able to refashion the medium of lyricism, specifically in his refashioning of the sex metaphor, or sex as a metaphor, or sex as a manifestation of our metaphysical concerns and anxieties. Prince's concentration in the individual would ultimately progress to a discourse on human evolution -- how does one evolve to one's highest state? Prince abandons the physical to embrace the spiritual, using sex and sexuality as the liaison or bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. His divorce from race, gender and class allows him more aggressively to pursue the issues of the metaphysical in secular concerns as not embraced in popular music by African American artist before him. So, with Prince there is the good and the bad, the focus an the misdirection. In Prince's lyrics and his career are all the things African Americans hate and love about themselves. He is the African American dichotomy.
If it is true that black music is black history, then Prince is an irrefutable part of that history --representing the post-Civil Rights era when African Americans began to struggle with their new found freedoms and with Ellison's notion of invisibility on an individual level. This caused them to be pimped by the capitalistic machine, which made the middle class feel like they were special Negroes because of their educational and economic achievements. Prince represents this dichotomy of blackness -- simultaneously loving and hating yourself, affirming and denying portions of yourself at different periods for the purposes of day-to-day survival. This means being black enough for affirmative action and white enough for the country club. Integration created an African American who sought to be something other than African and as American as possible to survive. Prince represents the diversity of the African American struggle and the diverse art that the struggle produces. He also represents the sometimes narrow and self-defeating practices of survival, such as the strategic need to water down one's Africanness when necessary. In doing so, his career, much as the lives and ideologies of black folks, fluctuates.
There are two types of poetic ideals. The first type is the poet who has a definitive view of the world and uses his talents to promote that view, attempting to persuade others to accept or adapt that view. The second type is that of the more skeptical or conflicted poet who spends his time struggling internally with himself and the world. The truth is that there are no absolutes, and most poets fluctuate violently between the two poles. The latter type, no matter how much we tend to deny it, seems to be more engaging and entertaining for us. Not only is the artist struggling to find some sense of self, he often does so by questioning all that we know to be real or true. His subjective struggle often leads to our objective questioning. This is why we like the tragic hero -- i.e., the tragic mulatto, struggling for place and being. We like this because we have all struggled with place and being. This love for the struggle is why so many love hip-hop.
Hip-hop presents the inquisitive artist, struggling for place and being, presenting grand and exaggerated metaphor and imagery to reclassify and revalue our values, thus reconstructing our lives. This is why Prince was so popular from 1980-1987. America was struggling with an identity complex, just as it is today. When the eighties roll in, blacks and whites are still psychologically cruising from the civil wars and mental scars of the sixties and early seventies. The fatigue was so heavy that most Americans were willing to accept peace or even the illusion of peace at any cost. Specifically, African Americans wanted so desperately to be accepted into the American system that they would accept a false illusion of pseudo-integration as some type of validation that their hard work, labor and struggle was not in vain. Therefore, the eighties were about style. The "me" generation was dead set on "gettin' theirs."
It was something about the eighties that caused people to feel like leisure, luxury and excess was a right and a privilege that Ronald Reagan was going to give them. This desire for leisure, luxury and excess was most evident in the music of big hair, big clothes and lofty ideals of a gender bending, multicultural world of dionysian pleasure.
This exaggerated, overstated style of popular music was the society's attempt to heal its inner scars and battles by polishing up the exterior. We do accept that the boom of the music video plays a major part in this, but the society, itself, was asleep at the wheel, hoping that "big brother" or "Father Reagan" would somehow steer it to safety and glory. Of course, it did not work, and America woke to the midnight screams of hip-hop and grunge. Still, Prince represents America's ill-fated attempt to dream our way to utopia instead of working our way to peace. The difference is that in a dream, you must awake. When we collectively awake from a dream, we all feel embarrassed that we were even on that journey. So, we have attempted to dismiss summarily the eighties and anything associated with it. The reality is that there was something missing or conflicting within enough of us that allowed the dream to last for almost a decade. Prince was one of the sandmen, leading us through our reverie, covering our eyes with visions of our pseudo-utopian selves, simultaneously appealing to our carnal and ethereal desires. With Prince, we thought that we could have it all. By the end of the eighties, we find that we are too conflicted to have anything other than the chaos of an overly industrialized world that exploits our fear and pain instead of easing or removing them.
Like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Prince envisioned listeners who would not merely accept the art on traditional terms. He was competing with the technology of the day, most specifically synthesizers and video. As Walter 44 Benjamin asserts in his essay, "The Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," "when there is a change in how a work of art can be reproduced, it has a direct and profound impact upon how the work impacts the public. (Benjamin 221). The synthesizer had two direct impacts, one on economics and the other on vision. The affordable home synthesizer of the 1980s allowed more individuals the freedom to make music. Because it was specifically designed to mimic a wide variety of instruments, it allows one person to articulate his vision more freely. As Kashif asserts, "The synthesizer is one device that allows you to make a myriad of sounds and orchestral textures that are a unique and whole new palate of sounds" (Kashif, 2000). This allows an individual who may not be skilled in a variety of instruments or may not have the money to pay a lot of musicians to achieve the vision in his head without the economic restrictions or limitations of the past. It must be noted that while Prince is using the synthesizer, he is also playing the guitar, the bass and the drums on almost every single and on every album.
Through the vision of Stevie Wonder and Sun Ra, Prince uses the synthesizer to play with and accompany himself like very few have been able to do. In fact, what Prince does is aid in making the synthesizer an instrument in its own right. Rather than just mimicking sounds with it, Prince used to synthesizer to create other, unique sounds. This opened many doors of possibilities. Thus, the synthesizer reduces the struggle of one musician attempting to orchestrate, coordinate and articulate his vision through several other musicians. This, then, opens the door for many more young people around the country to gain access to a music career. By making the musician both producer and artist, the synthesizer also goes a long way to continuing the move of the African American musician from the collective, community experience to the individual and 45 singular experience. Though Wonder was a master of the synthesizer, he continued to keep strong relationships with musicians to ensure that the music was able to move pass his singular, individualized notions to connect with a larger collective.
This phenomenon of moving from the collective experience to the singular experience also happens in the literary field with a more severe effect. The home computer, the Internet and advanced and complex software make self-publishing a very affordable and self-fulfilling endeavor. While it made way for more voices to be heard, self-publishing lowered the quality of work by writers because it removed them from the writing collective. The major tool of the writer is the workshop, where he and his work can be worked and reworked hundreds of times before it goes to the public. With the home computer and access to a wide market through the Internet, the workshop, unfortunately, is frequented by fewer and fewer writers, while their work is being seen by more and more readers. Not only does this negatively affect the writer's quality of work, but it also lessens the work's ability to speak to and for a particular group or collective. This can be seen in Prince's work. As he became more and more isolated, his work stopped speaking to a mass of followers as it did when he was regularly mingling with a collective, when he was one of the people. Technology is a double-edged sword that partly propels Prince to fame and partly causes his downfall. In this regard, he becomes a tragic figure, where his greatest asset is also his fatal flaw. His musical ability and desire to be a one man band allows for quick access to a mass public, but his inability to build long term relationships causes his work to lose some of its tangible essence. By 1990, twelve years after he started and five years after he was the biggest commercial star on the planet, Prince is perceived as being out of touch. ...
Prince, unlike Stevie Wonder and Kashif, grew up psychologically isolated from his peers and traditional African American culture. His city's small population of African Americans narrowed his African American experience, as it relates to the experience of other African Americans across the country. Additionally, his drive and desire to be a musician further narrowed his normal childhood experiences. "Prince played football and basketball and all those other things, but even at a young age music consumed him. By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, he was spending more time alone in the studio than he was with his peers" (Willie, 2000). Prince has been alone in the studio since the age of fifteen and had a recording contract by the age of nineteen. This reality greatly changed his relationship with his peers. He became the leader. Even at fifteen, being the leader means becoming somewhat distant, if not isolated, from those you are leading -- at least in Prince's Westernized notion of leadership. Adding to this was the ability of the synthesizer to give Prince complete autonomy, which often completely isolated him from his peers. The synthesizer allowed him to indulge his personal fantasy of creating his isolated, utopian world.
Adding to the isolation of Prince brought on by the synthesizer, Warner Bros. also influenced his divorce from society by catering to his rock iconism status. Warner Bros. is attracted to the individuality of Prince because he is their own little "one man band." They would not have to pay as many musicians, which is an ironic concern since any costs or expenditures that are required to make or sell a record are deducted directly from the profits of the primary artist. Still, with one artist, there is less overhead, creating a greater profit for the company. Because of financial considerations and the ability to have single artists produce whole and complete sounds on their own, the singular, 49 individualized sound was becoming the trend in popular music, as evidenced by Mtume, Kashif, Ray Parker, Jr., and Lionel Richie who all left successful bands to pursue solo careers in the early eighties. Also, the synthesizer opened doors for African American female songwriters like never before. Patrice Rushen was able to maneuver around the "good-ole boy's" hurdle because the synthesizer allowed her the freedom to work independently and write songs that were not hampered by male egos or interference. Just as the new economic reality of Reconstruction produced the solo bluesman who was no longer confined to a group on a plantation and could now roam, alone, from place to place, the new economic reality of the synthesizer and the advent of music companies being run by accountants produced the rise in producer driven music, which is singular and individualized.
By 1980, music was becoming more and more disposable because the synthesizer greatly enhanced the ability of more and more individuals to mimic popular trends and adhere to the beckoning call and whim of music companies. Although Disco is one result of this trend, the synthesizer accelerated this trend in the eighties. By the eighties, music had become a commodity, first, and an art, second -- no longer an intricate part of a culture that created, defined and maintained the culture. Record companies and magazines perpetuated this by elevating the producer to the role and status of artist. The producer would create the art and then plug in artists as interchangeable, disposable parts. Thus, the producer became a cultural icon like never before, further perpetuating this singularness or individuality in sound and style, which was just perfect for the video age. Once you have a sound or a product to sell, you need a face or an image to make that sound or product tangible and "real" to the public. Along with the synthesizer, Prince was also making music in the video age, where image was and 50 continues to be everything. It is easy to talk about how the video age killed music by making style more important than substance, but we must consider the impact of economic concerns. No matter the reason for making art, one must generate some capital if being an artist is one's primary profession. One must strike a balance between making art for financial purposes and making art for aesthetic/artistic purposes.
We see Prince engaging in this battle throughout his career. He employs the technique of shock to both sell records and get the public's attention, which can be two different reasons. The former represents the use of shock to make one's work a cultural phenomenon because it either surprises or rebels against something in the culture. In the case of being rebellious, the work is usually rebelling against the sense of decency or right and wrong of the older generation that the younger generation seems to have some natural inclination to do. The later, to get the public's attention, in concerned more with using shock as a Trojan horse, getting the public's attention in order to supplant a message in them once you have their attention. Dirty Mind and Controversy are excellent examples of this. Dressed in a raincoat and underwear, Prince was using the imagery of the new video age to gain the public's attention. His explicit lyrics were also used to cause controversy and gain the public's attention. Yet, cloaked beneath the sensationalism and controversy was an artist who had something to say, and his message related directly to the sensationalism and controversy that he was creating.
Through the use of sensationalism, Prince is questioning the society's obsession with sensationalism. 'I just can't believe all the things people say. Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" First he gets the public's attention by projecting his sexuality in an ambiguous, 51 androgynous manner and by lying about his race in three separate periodicals (Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and the New York Daily News) from January to March, 1981. In each interview, he changes the racial mix of his parents. Then, after having established his elaborate facade, he questions why the public is drawn to look. This is great marketing and an excellent way for Prince to define himself before society can, by raising and directing, if not controlling, the discourse of identity.
Realizing that society changes as rapidly as technology, Prince uses sensationalism and the video to compliment his lyrics. As new technology is invented, old technology becomes dull to the public's senses. The trick is to continue to create art that does not become dull to the senses. The struggle of the artist is to balance the art of sensationalism with the art of one's craft. As Barbara Christian asserts, the oral poet walks a thin line. He must create an art that emotionally engages and solicits an immediate response from his audience, which, at the same time, does not sacrifice "depth, precision, [and] hard strategy" (Christian 22). This is a problem even for Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Benjamin points to this in his essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire."
In his own dandyism, Prince picks up where Baudelaire stops. Through the use of shock in his dress and lyrics, Prince was able to flip the table on the taboos of sex to show that the taboo nature of sex is related directly to racism and insecurity. Prince's use of sex and sexuality was not merely to glorify the personal gratification of sex and sexuality but to show that sex and sexuality are merely personifications or manifestations of our spiritual selves.
Prince challenges our sexual notions and identities as a way of challenging our racial and gender notions and identities.
Of all the books and articles that I have read concerning Prince, Dave Hill's Prince: A Pop Life probably achieves best the goal of analyzing and communicating information while remaining as objective as possible. Yet even he falls short of attempting to analyze fully or accept a genuine belief toward the message(s) of Prince's work and his reconciliation to himself, his music, society and his spirituality. Mr. Hill, as others, becomes entrapped into the story of Prince and sex for sex's sake or sex for the sake of becoming a rock god, which has more to do with capitalistic connotations than artistic or spiritual connotations. For Prince, sex is not just for physical gratification. Sex was primarily used as a tool to achieve or show one attempting to achieve some other, higher state of satisfaction and self-completion, if only for a moment. Prince's discourse about sex is related to his desire to say something about life. "I think my problem is that my attitude's so sexual that it overshadows anything else that I might want to say. I'm not mature enough as a writer to bring it all out yet" (Fudger 7).
From For You through 1999, sex, sexuality, and sexual liberation are the primary tools to achieve the fulfillment of life. Great writers seek to create ambiguity through imagery and symbolism in order to convey deeper messages beneath their surface topics. Prince uses sexual intercourse and sexuality as a trope or a metaphor for man's metaphysical self. Prince's concentration in sex has been 380 rooted in his belief of the duality of man, meaning that man exists as a dual being, flesh and soul, physical and metaphysical, psychological and emotional. Man is by nature a dichotomy, and sex/sexuality is the axis on which this dichotomy revolves. Sex may be the ultimate metaphor for the dualism of man and the act to connect the two. The act of sex allows mankind to transform its state from creation to creator and allows two to become united as one. The act of sex also has the ability to provide, even if an illusion, the states of love, shelter, belonging and companionship, comforting the natural anxieties of fear, loneliness and insecurity, providing the illusion or false sense of completion. It is through the use of sex and sexuality that Prince is able to discuss the issues and concerns of humanity's struggle to understand and reconcile itself to its dichotomy and evolve to a higher life form.
In the beginning, Prince is able to use the Christian dichotomy of sex and guilt to his advantage. Since the Puritans came to America under the guise of freedom of religion yet proved themselves to be one of the most oppressive and hypocritical forces known to man, America has been a country obsessed with sex and controlled by guilt, living under the umbrella of hypocrisy as a natural by-product of their existence. The Puritan religion established the blueprint and the standard for social behavior, which saw sex as an act of procreation and not for pleasure. In stark contrast, however, it would also be the slave holder offspring of the Puritans who would create and fashion a double standard toward sin and sexuality through their perverse relationships with slaves.
By refashioning this conflict Prince is right in line with the blues aesthetic in the:
Understanding this "objectification of people" through their race and gender, Prince combined his own sense of self and sexuality with the mythology of black sexuality to forge a revolution that he hoped would free himself and others from the constraints of this arbitrarily designed system. He may not have achieved his ultimate, ideal goal, but he was able to build upon the work of Gaye and others to create a "sex metaphor," which has yielded some of the most interesting lyrics and images of popular music by navigating the borders of pleasure/pain, righteousness/sin, normality/ perversion, passion/obsession, ecstasy/despair. If he could not have one without the other because of humanity's innate 382 dichotomy, Prince would find a way to embrace and exploit them all for his own pleasure. His goal is to remove the negative connotation of sex and sexuality placed there by a history of hypocrisy. Even when American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson forthrightly asserted that America must have a separation of church and state in order to protect the rights of all men, America has never been able to break from this rigid, oppressive social structure which was derived mainly from the Puritan religion. This is mainly because leaders such as Jefferson were leading morally double lives and were consumed by their hypocrisy to oppress Africans in order to justify their immoral treatment of them. It, then, is very appropriate that Jefferson is considered one of the founding fathers of America who embodies the very persona of Americanism since both his personal and professional lives helped to cement this blueprint for American perversion and hypocrisy.
The Lyrics of Prince Rogers Nelson can be ordered through any bookstore, or directly from the publishers. Send $30, plus $6.35 for shipping and handling to: Psychedelic Literature, P.O. Box 3085, Jackson, MS 39207
About the author: C. Liegh McInnis is a professor of English at Jackson State University and author of six books, including: Prose, Essays & Letters, and Scripts, Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi. He can be reached at Psychedelic Literature, P.O. Box 3085, Jackson, MS 39207, email@example.com
|Published in In Motion Magazine March 25, 2001.
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