Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

(Featured Image: Prince’s electric church in the music video for “Controversy,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.

Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?

Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”

More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?”

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Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods: Prince Essays by Scott Woods, from Amazon.)

Every Prince fan, poet Scott Woods writes in one of the essays in Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, “thinks they are the biggest Prince fan in the world. It is why encounters with fans are sometimes challenging: You can’t tell us anything about Prince, let alone anything that would make us change how we feel about him.” This is both a bitingly funny observation–one of many to be found here–and an accurate assessment of how his book will be received in certain corners of the Princeverse. It’s something of which Woods himself is well aware; as he writes in the book’s introduction, some readers will think his book sucks, “and mostly for the same reasons as most Prince books suck: it won’t tell you anything about Prince that you didn’t know.”

Woods is right; if fresh knowledge is what you’re looking for in a Prince book, then you should probably look elsewhere. But I have to question the philosophy–out of professional self-preservation, if nothing else–that the only reason to read a book about Prince is to learn something “new.” So much of the fandom in the wake of Prince’s passing last April has been about making connections, through shared experiences and shared grief: swapping stories, knowledge, and opinions, not because it’s something we’ve never heard before, but because the act itself brings us closer to one another. A theme that runs through several of Woods’ essays, borrowed from a speech by Wendy Melvoin at Prince’s memorial service, is that making art is a form of communion: “Being creative is how you can talk to [Prince]. If you’re being creative, he will talk to you.” This book, then, is both the long conversation with Prince Woods was never able to have, and one of the most engaging conversations about Prince you’ll ever have with another fan.

And Woods really is a huge fan (perhaps even the biggest in the world). His knowledge of Prince’s oeuvre is deep, and his opinions are as much fun to disagree with as they are the opposite (Seriously, ART OFFICIAL AGE was a “loss?” Controversy was better than Dirty Mind?!). His book, a collection of his online writing about Prince, is clearly meant for other hardcore fans, and it’s at its best when its appeal is narrowest: devoting a whole essay, for example, to the heavily processed Linn LM-1 “sidestick” that is an ineffable signature of Prince’s greatest music (you know it when you hear it). Of course, this means it’s also wildly self-indulgent; probably the longest single essay is a gratuitous (but witty!) beatdown of Kanye West in the wake of L.A. Reid’s ill-fated 2015 comparison of the two artists, which feels even more anachronistic now that Reid’s career is effectively over. But hey–people actually paid money on Kickstarter for Woods to write that one, so clearly there’s something here for everyone.

Whether Little Weird Black Boy Gods is worth its own modest asking price, then, depends on what one expects out of a Prince book. There is no real thesis here–though there are certainly recurring themes–and, again, no new information on the artist (though Woods’ detailed report on his tour of Paisley Park is a different kind of “insider info”). Personally, I’m okay with this, in large part because Woods is honest about his intentions. He’s not trying to make an overarching summation of Prince’s career, as authors like Brian Morton and Ben Greenman have tried (and, arguably, failed) to do; he’s just reflecting on his own experiences as a fan, both before and after Prince’s death. At its best–as in the title essay, one of the most moving tributes to Prince in the wake of his passing that I’ve read–it’s exactly the kind of creative, communal experience Melvoin was talking about in her memorial speech. We’re never going to know everything there is to know about Prince; but books like Woods’ let us know a little more about each other, and by extension about ourselves. In some ways, that’s an even more appealing proposition.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing Little Weird Black Boy Gods (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. See you again soon.

Podcast: Dig If U Will – Part 2 of a Conversation with Jane Clare Jones

Podcast: Dig If U Will – Part 2 of a Conversation with Jane Clare Jones

(Featured Image: Prince emerges from the bath in the “When Doves Cry” video; © Warner Bros.)

A week and a half ago, I recorded what was supposed to be a single, one-to-two-hour podcast with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones; needless to say, we ended up talking for almost six hours, which necessitated us splitting the conversation into parts. In this second installment, we begin with a discussion of Ben Greenman’s new book, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince; but that discussion quickly branches out into more interesting conversations about Prince’s supernatural ability to enter “flow,” his unparalleled understanding of women’s desire, and his complicated relationship with spirituality and religion.

Next week, we’ll dig into another recent book about Prince–the memoir of his ex-wife, Mayte Garcia–and begin to take full stock of our feelings in the wake of his passing last April. If you missed the first episode, you may want to check it out before listening; also, I’m happy to announce that dance / music / sex / romance is now on all the major podcast aggregators (iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play), and available for streaming on Mixcloud. If you like what we’re doing, please do subscribe and leave a review on your service of choice; this will help increase our visibility on the respective platforms. As always, thanks for listening!

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Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

Review: Dig If You Will the Picture

(Featured Image: Cover art for Dig If You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman, from Amazon.)

The first anniversary of Prince’s passing has been an unsurprisingly busy time for publishers. At the end of February, there was Alex Hahn’s and Laura Tiebert’s authoritative biography on the artist’s first three decades, The Rise of Prince 1958-1988. Then, in the first week of April, we had Mayte Garcia’s touching, intimate memoir of her time with Prince, The Most Beautiful. Finally, coming in just last week–ten days prior to the anniversary itself–was Ben Greenman’s Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince. Greenman’s book is neither a conventional biography like Hahn’s and Tiebert’s, nor a personal narrative like Mayte’s–though it does contain elements of both of these approaches. In the canon of “Prince literature,” it most closely resembles two other books: Brian Morton’s 2007 Prince: A Thief in the Temple (later reprinted in the wake of Prince’s death last year), and Touré’s 2013 I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon.

Like those earlier books, Dig If You Will attempts to present an overarching analysis of Prince’s body of work, the bulk of which occurs in a middle section of thematically-grouped chapters: “Sex,” “Self,” “Others,” “Virtue and Sin,” “Race and Politics.” But while Touré organized his analysis as a set of extended, interlinked essays–making it, for me, the most successful entry in this “genre” of Prince books–Greenman can’t seem to settle on an argument; he glosses over the surface of these major themes in Prince’s work, moving on to the next subject just when things are starting to get good. Perhaps, as Questlove suggests in the foreword (between this and Duane Tudahl’s recently-announced Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, Quest has had a busy year of foreword-writing), Dig If You Will works best as a kind of frame, laying the groundwork for deeper dives in the future. But if you’re the kind of hardcore fan who would purchase an extended, quasi-scholarly analysis of Prince’s music, it’s sort of questionable that you would need such a frame in the first place.

This is not to say that Dig If You Will isn’t an enjoyable read–it clearly is. Greenman’s writerly credentials are evident: he’s a novelist, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and has co-authored books with Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. He is, I have little doubt, smarter than I am (he certainly knows more about the oeuvre of William Blake than I do). At its best, his book puts aspects of Prince’s music into fresh perspective, even for someone like me who has also spent the last 12 months fully immersed in the work. His chapter on the “Slave” era is perhaps the clearest explication I’ve read of that thorny period; and the section on Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s concept of “flow” offers a fascinating and plausible theory for both Prince’s near-supernatural focus and (implicitly) the coping strategies that led to his death. But Prince fans, as Greenman noted in a recent New Yorker essay, can be unforgiving; and, while dwelling on minor factual errors can be nitpicky, I suspect that there are a few such errors that the community will find unforgivable. Particularly unfortunate, in light of Mayte’s book, is the misidentification of Prince’s deceased son Amiir by the tabloid-proliferated moniker “Boy Gregory”:  an avoidable mistake made actively tasteless by the accompanying misreading of the lyrics for “Anna Stesia.”

In the aforementioned New Yorker essay, Greenman described Dig If You Will as both a “passion project” and an “opportunistic” one. Both of these descriptors are accurate. Greenman’s passion for and knowledge of Prince are obvious, and some of the most compelling passages are when he’s writing from a fan’s position: recalling his teenage record-shopping experiences in the 1980s, or providing a discography annotated with brief writeups on his favorite tracks, or describing a writing break in which he watches a flock of birds in the sky and waits for them to form, True Detective-like, into the artist’s “Love Symbol.” But the book’s “opportunism” makes it difficult to recommend: it feels rushed and padded, like it could have used a little more time in the oven or a more demanding editor, but was nevertheless pushed out the door to make that all-important mid-April deadline.

For that reason, it’s for the best that the next major Prince book (Tudahl’s) isn’t scheduled for release until November. Greenman, like many of us, clearly had something to work out in the wake of Prince’s death, and I’m glad he did what he had to do; his contributions are appreciated and well worth checking out, especially in this week of sad memories and ghoulish speculations. But at this point, we need polished, rigorous books more than we need timely ones. There isn’t as much money in the former for the publishing industry, of course, but there’s a lot more potential benefit for Prince’s legacy.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing Dig If You Will the Picture (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. We’ll be back tomorrow with another, more conventional post.

(Note: This review was revised and expanded for publication in the Journal of African American Studies. You can access that much better version here.)