Why Prince became an icon

prince-iconNo surprise that a book that attempts to explain why Prince became an icon would generate so much criticism and controversy. Fans who know virtually every detail of Prince’s life are clearly disappointed because there are no new revelations. But they’re reading it for the wrong reason if that’s what they seek. I actually found Touré‘s analysis illuminating in I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon. It’s an imperfect book, but a worthwhile read because Touré really gets you to think.

Touré’s main thesis is that Prince was perfectly positioned to appeal to Gen X. As many critics point out, he pushes too hard to hang his argument on generational factors such as latchkey kids and cynicism. But other factors are surely right on the mark: Prince’s timing with the rise of MTV; his uncanny ability to know what listeners wanted before they did themselves; his obsessive control over image, style and presentation; his multi-faceted talent that united rhythmic perceptivity, singing ability, lyric sensibility and songwriting skill (most musicians are proficient in one or two at best); and, like Madonna, his ability to play provocateur.

Contrary to what Touré claims, much in that recipe would have worked for any generation, but the influence of MTV was huge, as was Prince’s prescient decision to film a full-length movie, the blockbuster Purple Rain. Crucially, Prince was able to exploit the power of visual imagery in the 80s like no one before. Yet if Purple Rain was a key part of the catapult, Touré omits mention of the missteps that were the follow-up films. One of Prince’s weaknesses is that he doesn’t often censor his creativity—apart from instances such as his about-face on releasing the Black Album, there’s not the weeding out that more reflective artists understand—but his output is so prolific that it doesn’t matter.

Touré’s other interesting thesis is that religiosity is much more integral to Prince’s music than many of us give credit. Fans who know every lyric to every song backward and forward won’t be surprised by this, but except for the later music starting in 2001 with Rainbow Children, I had never thought of his music this way. I suppose I just never took the religious references seriously (“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life” seemed to me playful, tongue-in-cheek). The porn-chic persona (to use Touré’s phrase) looms much larger in the public’s imagination than the picture of someone who is deeply Christ-centered. Touré makes the case that there really is no contradiction between the two for Prince. Understanding how Prince emerged from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, and how that played out in his music, it no longer seems as odd to me that he would convert later to become a Jehovah’s Witness. (Although that’s the one question I would love to ask him: out of all the ways one can be Christian, ways that allow for a more humanistic approach to life, why a Jehovah’s Witness?)

The book brought me a little closer to understanding Prince. Not that we can ever fully understand the Enigma, with his prankster personality, the deliberate half-truths and deceptions, the sometimes peculiar career choices and obsession for control, control, control. But in the end, there’s just the music, which will have to stand on its own merits as music, not as a cultural artifact. And, oh, does it stand.

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