Written (Better) Elsewhere: Prince in Harper’s

Hilton Als, in the December 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, offers up “I am Your Conscious, Your Love: A Paean to Prince”.  The article navigates the dynamic between adoring writer and iconoclastic performer as both grow and respond to the demands of the world(s) around them. The article both educates about Prince and helps to (re)-create the world in which Prince was received and enjoyed.

Now, before I get to the article you might be wondering why I am reading Harper’s . If you don’t know the periodical, you should try it out (and if you do, you’re probably not wondering why…). It is easily one of the best written, best edited and most contemplative mainstream publications in the English language.

But, as always, my reading of this (probably elitist and left-leaning) monthly has deep roots in personal history (perhaps also anticipating my openness to this particular article). Our late father was a voracious reader. We always had subscriptions to weekly news magazines that my father referred to as rags with terrible writing, good for pictures and browsing at best. He extended this snobbery to newspapers. The local daily was rubbish. The closest acceptable newspaper was the Boston Globe.

(That still didn’t stop my father from getting in a car accident while attempting to negotiate cigarette, coffee and the local daily at an intersection. He also feared not having something to read so much that we used to get into terrible fights over merely possessing Newsweek. Eventually, we actually had to get two subscriptions.)

I never really thought much about this video. The song? Can’t forget it

To the end of his life, my father was always reading—in the car, on the toilet, at meals. When I grew up and moved away, I got hooked in NYC on The New Yorker and, after far too many mishaps during air travel, I discovered Harper’s as well. Since my father was about as non-materialist as one can get, a gift of magazine subscriptions to him on his birthday made perfect sense.

After he passed away, my brother took over the subscriptions. To this day, we talk about Harper’s. In an age of the digital format, we both still like to carry that monthly publication around, to bend it back and forth, and to pour over its strangeness and surprises.

Much better than the actual year

I was happy to encounter Als’ article especially because I had just been thinking about Prince during the Thanksgiving holiday. In particular, I recounted to my wife an absurd memory that has nothing to do with Prince (entirely) and more to do with me.

When I was in college, I ended up taking a series of courses emphasizing literature, ethnicity and identity—especially memorable were two courses on Caribbean Literature and African American novels where we read theoretical authors like Fanon alongside varied authors like V. S. Naipaul, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison (followed by more recent authors like Junot Diaz).

The professor of these courses managed somehow to referee difficult conversations that explored race, personal identity. Although the campus population was primarily white and jewish, these classes were much more multi-cultural. Conversations frequently hit upon the overlaps between racial identity and pop culture.

Early Prince is so old that he isn’t on Youtube

On the same day that I was shocked that the browner students in class were always incredulous at the skin tones of television’s Cosby family, the professor asked us what we thought about Prince. I looked around, and asked what she meant. She clarified by asking what we thought of Prince’s navigation of his blackness.

I stopped the class by almost stuttering: “Prince is black?” (Yes, I was/am that naive.) The Prince I knew was the Prince of “Cream”, the man who changed his name to a symbol and wrote “Slave” on his face. I didn’t think of him as any color at all. When I thought of Prince I thought of an unmistakable sound, the color purple, and costumed guitars.

Every time my wife (who isn’t white) hears this anecdote she is incredulous. She forgets that I never watched MTV and grew up in the second whitest state in the Union. To me, Prince was just a crazy, flamboyant pop star. His race never seemed important to me (at least).

But, as Hilton Als discusses, his race was important to his art and to his audience. Als’ memoir is successful because it reveals the inextricable connection between the personal and the critical, the political and the private, and the memory of the music with the milieu of the time. Als blends his recollections of Prince’s work and performances with his personal politics and development as an artist through a narrative that sets Prince’s shifting and (d)evolving personae in relief with his own relationships and obsessions.

While this article doesn’t tell us all that much new about Prince (and the roughly contemporary interview with the artist is only half-reported and even then obscured), it does evoke remarkably well the symbiotic relationship between artist and audience member, between musical expression and the enjoyment thereof.

If Als goes a little too far in the final part with his apostrophes to Prince—where the artist becomes at once interlocutor and putative lover—it succeeds throughout by providing a subjective and intense response to a musician whose current state is so disarmingly foreign to his more famous one.

Little Red Corvette

This article is exactly the type of writing I love about music; it is exactly the type of thing that inspired me to dare to write about music, even if I do it haphazardly and poorly. Oh, and after reading it on the plane as I returned home from thanksgiving, I turned to my wife and said: “Did you know that Prince was gay?” And she looked at me and asked what was possibly wrong with me.

That’s love, right?

What about you, my brother. Have you read Als’ piece yet?

8 comments on “Written (Better) Elsewhere: Prince in Harper’s

  1. professormortis says:

    Reverse of your situation: a read a memoir (was it called Honkey?) written by a white guy from educated, liberal parents that grew up in a project due to various circumstances. He reports that, around the time of “Another One Bites the Dust”, he and his (predominately African American) classmates were crushed to find out that Queen was a band of British white guys. I think without MTV this sort of thing was easier.

  2. originaldrummer says:

    Believe it or not….I am a pretty big Prince fan. At some point in college I discovered the song Purple Rain and the movie Graffiti Bridge…..a very good looking girl started making out with me while watching this movie….from that point on I was hooked. I even dared to see Prince in concert in 04 in Boston. I once heard someone say Prince is everything Michael Jackson wanted to be. It’s true. Prince is head and shoulders above Michael as far as music goes. as for oddness….its a tie.

    • theelderj says:

      I never realy thought of comparing MJ and Prince–not because the idea isn’t good, but because I never really put MJ in the same category. Don’t get me wrong–he was a consummate performer and put out some great songs–but I never really thought of him as an artist. Good voice, great dance moves, bizarre personna, but dependent more on collaboration than someone like Prince.

      A Prince concert in 2004? I am envious.

  3. […] talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape […]

  4. […] transition in the music kept us in a state of suspense. After Nelly? Some James Brown. And then? Prince. the songs were blended together, we didn’t have a moment to think. And we didn’t want […]

  5. […] talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape […]

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