(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.)