Saturday, August 6, 2016

Book Reviews: I Would Die 4 U

I Would Die 4 U
by Toure
What makes someone become a creative talent? What makes a creative person become a star? And what makes a star become a generational icon? No one really knows. Most of this sort of thing is always discussed in hindsight when everyone is always right. It obviously helps someone's chances of success to be at the right place at the right time but as others have pointed out the harder they work the luckier they seem to become. Toure tries to answer these questions about Prince (this book was published three years before Prince's death). The questions are probably a little too big for Toure or for anyone. 

Prince was notoriously uncommunicative about his private or family life. He either gave deliberate misinformation or simply refused to answer those types of questions. There are only a few times that he discussed his parents or upbringing with the media. And the target audience would have no way of knowing what was fact, what was exaggeration and what was fiction cooked up for marketing purposes. On the other hand Prince lived for music. He may have, purposely or not shared the answers to those questions in some of his songs. That's where Toure, who did get his share of interviews with the late icon, looks for meaning. Toure also looks into Prince's childhood. Toure argues that Prince's dual rejections by his mother and father left him simultaneously craving a stable family situation and utterly unable to engage in any situation where he wasn't in absolute control. Because Prince shared a broken home with millions of Gen-X children, he became an icon of that generation, or so goes Toure's argument. 

Similarly Toure posits that Prince's skin tone and occasional androgyny and cross dressing (despite an apparently fierce heterosexuality) allowed him to position himself as a rock crossover icon in a way that wasn't as easy for darker skinned or more traditionalist black male musicians in a time before rap's explosion. Prince played this up by going out of his way to have backing bands that were mixed by gender and race, something that is quite unusual even today. Prince also used the Purple Rain movie to claim that he was biracial (he wasn't). Prince didn't attend either of his parent's funerals, something which at least hints at some unresolved family issues.

But Toure thinks that one of the biggest reasons for Prince's success and icon status, well besides from a fearsome work ethic, insistence on control and almost congenital obsession with music, was his religious Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing. You can read more about that here if you like but end times apocalyptic imagery, rebirth (often with bathing or water motifs) and the return of Jesus are all over Prince's music. 

Toure concludes that Prince was a musical salesman who lured you in with songs about sex but that his true interest was in talking about God. Toure reveals that some employees at Paisley Park confirmed that eventually, usually in private, Prince would get around to asking everyone about their spirituality and belief in God. It's not stated explicitly but presumably Prince wasn't trying to hire or employ atheists. I think Toure pushes the Gen-X connection to Prince a little too hard. 

The main reason that Prince became an icon for a certain group of people is that he is one of the musicians they were listening to when they first truly discovered the opposite sex. It really is that simple. You can go back to the forties and see teen girls screaming for Frank Sinatra. Fast forward ten years and see a new group screaming for Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. Another ten years and the Beatles have the spotlight. Jump another decade and suddenly Led Zeppelin has the fame. That's the way it works.

Prince pushed the bar further (or lower) than almost anyone else in the eighties. He was one of the reason for parental advisory stickers. Even today there is some of his music that I won't listen to in front of older relatives. Prince's short song about incest ,"Sister", may well have been based on real events. For Prince, Toure argues, sex was a gift from heaven and meant to be enjoyed. In fact it was virtually a sacrament. So there was no reason not to write and sing about it in the same way one would write or sing about any of God's other gifts. This is a short book, which is based on some of Toure's lectures. It's quick easy reading. 

As with most "stars" some of the people Toure talked to didn't have wonderful things to say about Prince. Prince was interested in creating HIS musical vision, not yours. If he didn't think you could assist in that, he wasn't going to keep you around, family or not. And like many bandleaders Prince could be very stingy with songwriting credits. I liked the story of how "Purple Rain" grew in part out of Prince's confusion as to how fellow Midwestern music star Bob Seger's simpler anthems were big hits. I don't think that Toure fully explains Prince. But I don't think anyone could have. Prince resisted oversharing. 
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