Thursday, January 9, 2014

I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon by Touré

[GUEST REVIEW by JAKE AUSTEN] (Atria) One way that being a diehard Prince fan is similar to following a sports team is you often find yourself rooting from your heart rather than your head. Despite the brilliant artist crafting some of the most memorable music of the last 35 years, his legendary creative fertility has resulted in almost 40 full-length releases, an inordinate amount of them double, triple, and in once case, quintuple albums. This resulted in stretches of songs, albums, and even a few years, in which you desperately want to get behind what you’re hearing, but the best you can do is hope the next song hits it out the park.
I don’t lead with this to suggest Prince’s lesser works eclipse his masterpieces  – he’s such a captivating composer that I’ll gladly rationalize multiple spins of Jehovah’s Witness-themed jazz, or Available Only at Target three-disc sets for the satisfaction of the occasional winner. I bring it up because I Would Die 4 U, Touré’s study of the Prince’s life and work, invokes a too familiar feeling.  As I turned the pages I kept reminding myself how intelligent, charming, and talented the author was, and kept hoping the next track would get better.
The good news is it eventually does, but the bad news is the cultural critic and TV personality commits early to a desperately shaky hypothesis. His first misstep is opening with a definition of “icon” that includes the (debatable) criteria that one must be “the mirror and shaping force…the thermometer of an era.” The problem with that is Prince became a superstar through monumental talent, cagey provocation, and intense drive to succeed on his terms. His voice was magnificently his own, not that of a generation, and while millions followed with fascination, few emulated. Prince profoundly influenced electronic instrumentation, moderately influenced fashion, and was a groundbreaker in getting warning labels on CDs, but he did not create a nation of androgynous futurists going to school in panties and trenchcoats. People were captivated by Prince because he was one of a kind, not a prototype.
Sticking to this generational theme, Touré spends lengthy passages awkwardly defining generation X (of which Prince was not a part, he was a late term Baby Boomer). Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell, the author surveys data and trends, leading to his bold, and off topic, declaration that the defining aspect of gen X was divorce.  What this has to do with Prince’s complicated childhood, with blended families, parental abandonment, and a strong support system amongst teachers and friends, is unclear.
Questlove, the Roots’ arranger/drummer, is very likely earth’s #1 Prince fan, so when he endorsed this flawed work as the all-time greatest Prince book it would have puzzled me, if, sadly, he wasn’t right. Because of Prince’s enigmatic persona, dense thicket of recorded material, and questionable CEO skills that left trails of sour grapes and non-disclosure agreements, it’s difficult to figure out how, what, and even why to write about Prince. Reading through the choppy, awkward quotes from prior trade books and the jargon filled rhetoric from the Prince-themed dissertations Touré cites makes the lengthy, insightful quotations he coaxes from Prince’s former colleagues more impressive. From an engineer’s heart-wrenching account of Prince recording his most personal song, then wiping the tapes clean, to an icky play-by-play of Prince’s lovemaking technique by an alleged former paramour, Touré’s skills as an interviewer shine. Add to that more access to Prince’s peers and co-workers than any prior Prince prose-maker has enjoyed, and the fact that he’s met the man (I would have been delighted if the book was a 150 page account of the day Touré shot hoops with the Minneapolis Genius), and Questlove’s assessment seems on the mark.
Drag the hinky generational theory to the trash, and I Would Die 4 U becomes pretty solid. Touré deftly explores his subject’s dealings with sex, race, gender, and faith (inherently titillating topics), allowing him to geek out about lyrical themes, numerology, and even bathing habits. This sometimes reveals truths, sometimes generates semantic exercises, but all of it is executed with authority and joy that he can’t muster while trying to relate Prince’s motivations to the Zeitgeist embodied by the teens in John Hughes’ 80s films.
After speaking to a number of close associates who insist Prince savvily marketed himself in his early days with lascivious antics, and a demographic spanning multi-racial, co-ed band, Touré ends the book with a lengthy study of Prince’s spiritual lyrics. These expressions of faith (going back to an un-ironic recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” in his otherwise mischievous 1981 manifesto “Controversy”) are certainly not marketing tools, and the author concludes that what ultimately has driven Prince from the beginning was a desire to spread the Gospel; the high heels, buttless pants, and joyful incest songs all ruses to get you to open the door for the prosthelytizer who wants to help you get to Heaven. “Prince’s message was a pitch perfect for gen X,” Touré writes, “but, at the same time, it was thousands of years old.”

He’s at least half right, and the book is nearly 2/3 good. Which is a much higher batting average than Touré's subject has enjoyed. And that guy’s an icon!

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