Bloomsbury Popular Music - Introduction: This thing called life
This Thing Called Life
This Thing Called Life

Joseph Vogel

Joseph Vogel is Assistant Professor of English at Merrimack College, USA. He is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (2011) and James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era (forthcoming 2018). His work has appeared on numerous popular news sites, including The Atlantic, Slate, The Huffington Post, and PopMatters, as well as in many peer-reviewed journals, including the James Baldwin Review, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, The Journal of Popular Culture, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018




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Introduction: This thing called life

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 1–6

I’m in The Myth, waiting for Prince. The Myth is a nightclub in Maplewood, Minnesota, a suburb about ten minutes east of St. Paul. Capacity is about 3,000 people, including the mezzanine and balconies. I’m on the floor, about fifty feet from the stage. It’s April 2013.

Prince is touring with his new all-female rock band, 3rdEyeGirl. I’ve driven twelve hours, from Rochester, New York, to get here. It’s a long drive, but after the premature death of Michael Jackson in 2009, I’m not taking any chances. Who knows if I’ll ever get to see him perform again, let alone in his hometown? Turns out my instinct was right.

The show didn’t disappoint. It was a relatively short gig of about ninety minutes, followed by another, slightly shorter, show. But it was no nostalgia act. At 54 years of age, Prince could still bring it. Veteran Minneapolis music writer Jon Bream, who had observed the artist in action for decades, described them as “two of his most rocking shows ever in his hometown.”[1]

I remember the electricity when Prince stepped out from the haze of smoke onto the stage, guitar in hand, launching into the opening riff of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The hair stood up on my arms. There he was. The man I—and millions of others—had spent countless hours listening to. The man who gave us “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss” and “Purple Rain.” The man whose creative output was part of our cultural DNA.

There’s something strange about experiencing an artist like Prince in a club. It’s not just that it feels more intimate; it’s more visceral. It’s as if the artist has walked right out of a screen. Suddenly he’s there, in the flesh, right in front of you. I could feel the crowd feel it. The anticipation, the build, and then the sudden realization that he’s actually there. Here. With us. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Prince’s tragic death three years later ignited an avalanche of appreciation, including some of the most thoughtful and insightful literature yet written about the artist. Not that there wasn’t already some outstanding work on Prince before 2016. There were solid biographies by Dave Hill (Prince: A Pop Life, 1989), Alex Hahn (Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince, 2003), and Ronin Ro (Prince: Inside the Music and Masks, 2011), among others. There was also Touré’s slim, but incisive, cultural study, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (2013), Michaelangelo Matos’s excellent 33 ⅓ exploration of the landmark album, Sign ‘O the Times (2004), and Alan Light’s in-depth history, Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain (2015). In addition, some Prince scholarship had emerged, including a full-length dissertation by Griffin Mead Woodworth (Just Another One of God’s Gifts: Prince, African-American Masculinity, and the Sonic Legacy of the Eighties, 2008) and Stan Hawkins and Sarah Niblock’s published monograph (Prince: The Making of a Pop Phenomenon, 2011). Moreover, as anniversaries arrived for major milestones in the artist’s career, some brilliant reviews were written that began to offer greater detail, perspective, and context on his work. In 2014, Roots drummer and music encyclopedia, Questlove, taught a course on Prince at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.

Prince’s death ushered in hundreds of thousands of fresh retrospectives, thought pieces, and analyses. Among the better new books were Matt Carcieri’s Prince: A Life in Music and Ben Greenman’s Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince. The latter book, published almost exactly a year after Prince’s death, offered intelligent, rich, multilayered analysis, laying the groundwork for the type of deeper, more substantive exploration of Prince’s work I hope and expect we will see more of going forward.

In her memoir, The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince, Prince’s former wife, Mayte Garcia, calls for precisely this type of work. “I hope some scholar of music history will write a book that spans the incredible depth and breadth of Prince’s work, all the remarkable people he collaborated with, his influence on the music industry, his lasting handprint on pop culture, and his contribution to the art of rock and roll.”[2] It will likely take far more than one music historian to account for that legacy. Rather, it seems from the already-flourishing explosion of journal articles, panel discussions, conferences, and books that Prince will become a field of study, just as fellow pop icons Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Michael Jackson are. As scholar Jason King writes, “To the degree that nobody blinks an eye when we talk about Mozart or Beethoven studies, it’s not a stretch to say that we need more Prince scholars writing Prince tomes and teaching Prince classes in schools where his legacy emerges as a matter of priority.”[3]

What then, does this book contribute? In spite of the influx of recognition he has received, much about Prince’s creative life, work, and cultural impact remains thinly examined. Prince’s politics, for example, have been written about, but typically in short, 500–1,000-word articles that don’t allow for much breadth, detail, or development. I wanted to dig deeper and flesh out some of the fascinating, rarely explored questions. Why did he initially like President Ronald Reagan? Why did he not vote for President Barack Obama? Why was he obsessed with the prospect of nuclear war? Was he a pacifist? Was he apolitical, conservative, liberal? Each chapter takes a similar approach to a distinct theme: in addition to politics, chapters are dedicated to sound, race, gender, sex, religion, and death. Rather than a traditional biography or chronological account of his work, then, this book is a theme-based exploration of the artist—the first, I believe, to offer a comprehensive look at many of these issues. I settled on seven themes for a couple of reasons: (1) because the number had special significance to Prince (discussed further in Chapter 6) and (2) because these areas seemed to me some of the most compelling lenses through which to examine his life, career, and work.

My title, of course, comes from “Let’s Go Crazy,” the song that opened that incredible show I attended in Minnesota in 2013, and arguably the greatest album opener of all time. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” he tells us in the introductory sermon.[4] That’s what the song grapples with. This thing called life. How do we get through it? Why are we here? What’s it all for? Quite a theme for a radio-friendly pop hit.

His answer, in the song, was the ultimate, defiant carpe diem of the anxiety-ridden Reagan era. Sure, life is a struggle. Sure, the headlines scream of AIDS, crack, poverty, nuclear standoffs. Sure, we’re all going to die. All the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts, to live life on your own terms, to embrace the music, the connections, the beauty within the chaos.

Prince revisited such existential themes throughout his career. He was never an artist geared toward music as mere entertainment or escapism. Like Thoreau, he wanted to “live deliberately … [He] wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life … and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.”[5]

So, this thing called life was his canvas. And that canvas never remained static or straightforward; it was always in flux, always mercurial, fluid, and evolving. This was his revolution as an artist, the creative revolution explored in the pages of this book: his ability to take familiar categories like identity, religion, and art, and destabilize them—make us see them in fresh and unpredictable ways.

Did he contradict himself? Sure, he contradicted himself. Like Walt Whitman, he “contained multitudes.”[6] But like William Blake, he recognized that “without contraries, there is no progression.”[7]

In the 1980s, Prince was often characterized as a crossover artist. The term “crossover” typically references an artist of color who reaches a broader, multiracial, “mainstream” audience. Their “crossover,” thus, is from black to white, or regional to national, or American to global. The term typically carries negative connotations among music writers. It signifies abandoning one’s roots, sanitizing one’s sound, assimilating, selling out for wider, more commercial appeal. The word was in high circulation in the 1980s as black artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston reached unprecedented levels of fame and success. As music historian Dave Marsh wrote in 1985: “The similarity between the crossover dream and the hope embodied by the idea of integration is deceptive. Their roots are identical, but their aspirations are polar. Integration implies the liberation not just of an entire people but of a whole society, while the practitioners or crossover ask only to receive individual liberties.”[8]

Marsh was thus critical of black pop stars like Michael Jackson and Prince for their individual ambition because if its inherent egoism, its exclusivity. He believed that there was no trickle-down effect (as it turned out, artists like Prince and Michael Jackson did at least as much for the music industry as Jackie Robinson did for baseball).

Yet Prince’s crossover success, I argue, rejected Marsh’s terms altogether. He aimed for—and achieved—mass, cross-racial appeal, certainly; but he did so largely on his own terms. He sold millions of records and had dozens of hits, but was perhaps more independent and unpredictable than any artist of his era. He had white fans and black fans (and fans of other races and nationalities), but seemed to captivate, inspire, confuse, disappoint, and please them in equal measure.

Crossover, that is, for Prince, was not about “selling out.” It was about rejecting the binary. It was about being commercially ambitious and having artistic integrity; it was about embracing a sound and style that appealed to black and white; it was about being masculine and feminine, conservative and liberal. As Dodai Stewart writes, “Duality was in his DNA … He was alternately shy and aggressive, tender and fierce, the seducer and the seduced. He could play delicate piano arrangements and destroy a hard rock guitar riff. Even his signature hue, purple, is one color made from two.”[9]

A cross signifies a liminal space, a threshold, an intersection, a meeting ground. This in-between space is where we find Prince. In the chapters that follow, I attempt to flesh out the fascinating tensions in his life, career, and work—what Ben Greenman describes as the artist’s “deep and abiding commitment to exposing internal contradictions in the human experience.”[10] It is a thematic study of Prince, that is, focused on the paradoxes of this thing called life.

[1] Jon Bream, “Prince Is in a Purple Haze in His Heavy-Rock Gigs at the Myth,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 26, 2013.

[2] Mayte Garcia, The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince (New York: Hachette, 2017), 8.

[3] Jason King, “Still Would Stand All Time: Notes on Prince,” NPR Music, April 24, 2016.

[4] Prince Rogers Nelson, “Let’s Go Crazy,” Purple Rain, Warner Bros., 1984. CD.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau (New York: Library of America, 1985), 394.

[6] Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 81.

[7] William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor, 1982), 34.

[8] Dave Marsh, Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream (New York: Bantam, 1985).

[9] Dodai Stewart, “On Prince, Blackness, and Sex,” Splinter, April 22, 2016.

[10] Ben Greenman, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince (New York: Henry Holt, 2017), 5.