In his new book, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon, journalist and author Touré suggests and explains certain fundamental reasons why the legendary musician has transcended the context of his craft to ultimately achieve a far more profound cultural distinction.
“It’s one thing to be a star or a superstar, and quite another to be an icon,” Touré maintains. “To become an icon you’ve got to have something more than talent. It’s not just talent that will propel you to that higher level. It’s a deeper connection with the generation that is really buying the music at that point.”
In the book you write about how Prince has explored both spiritual and sexual themes in his music. For a while now, though, I’d say since Emancipation was released [in 1996], he’s seemed to have trouble reconciling the two. What’s your take on that?
That’s a classic sort-of Black music trope. You see a lot of artists playing with the spiritual and the profane either in a career or in a song or in an album—Ray Charles, Al Green, R. Kelly, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, on and on and on. Prince wrestled with that—trying to do both, trying to combine both—within a life, within an album, within a song a lot of the time. The period you’re talking about, if memory serves, he had become a Jehovah’s Witness at that point and bringing a very overt spirituality back into his life made it a little trickier to reconcile his past wildness. There has always been a push and pull and a desire to have both. And there’s a sort-of pre-Christian understanding that you can worship God through sex. It doesn’t have to be two separate things, like you have to hide your bedroom from God or something like that. It can be all wrapped in one. And he was really pushing for that.
You write about how Generation X—Prince’s core audience—has certain shared references and shared musical icons that we admire, and yet we were the generation that was introduced to consolidated radio and genre-specific radio stations and playlists.
Every generation has those shared touchstones, but I’d push back against your assertion only because MTV was the biggest radio station in the world as we were growing up. And MTV was not segregated in the way that radio is and it was entirely integrated once they started playing black music. You would get a rock song, then a rap song, then an R&B song, then another rock song. They had Yo! MTV Raps and Headbangers Ball but their playlists were incredibly integrated.
There’s a lot in the book about how Prince transcended gender and racial and ethnic boundaries and stereotypes, but what’s intriguing is that he did those things in an era—predominantly in the ‘80s—that saw the rise of Reagan and neo-conservatism, the PMRC and Focus on the Family. There were so many resistant forces that were against him and other artists who were considered on the edge.
That was definitely there, but I think whenever you see a major movement—a major cultural or sociocultural movement—there’s going to be a corresponding counter movement. There are going to be people who will push back against that. I mean, if you look at the history of today 20 or 30 years from now and you could say, “Well, there’s 31 state legislatures that have laws against gay marriage, so at that time they were against gay marriage.” No, that’s the counter movement. The movement toward gay marriage, toward marriage equality is very strong and only gaining strength. We have a president who’s in favor, we have a strong majority of Americans who are in favor, and the tide is moving quickly toward marriage equality.
So it’s important not to just look at the counter movement; look at both. There was definitely a movement toward opening society, being more open to people who had been oppressed, who had not been part of any sort of power previously. When you see the multiculturalism movement and the PC movement, it’s trying to open America up to other than white men. Now, the movements you’re talking about are very real but that’s a counter movement trying to put the genie back in the bottle, which of course is impossible.
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon is published by Atria Books.
Touré is also the author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means To Be Black Now and Never Drank The Kool-Aid, a compendium of essays that were originally published in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and Playboy, among others.
He is currently the co-host of The Cycle on MSNBC.