Prince and The Event

This talk was originally presented at the “Prince from Minneapolis” conference held at the University of Minnesota April 16-18, 2018. While it establishes the same arguments I make in the Prince chapter in Nothing Has Been Done Before about why Prince in the 1980s qualifies as an event (as the philosopher Alain Badiou defines the term), I wanted to go into more detail about his music of the 1980s than I could afford to in the book. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize some points from the Prologue and Epilogue, too. Basically this works as a sort of primer on my stance re: Prince and the event and provides some background about writing the book. This is a (much) expanded version of the talk.

Prince and The Event

Onstage at First Avenue, August 3, 1983, here is an event proper: Prince and the Revolution debuting many of the songs that would appear on Purple Rain the following year. In the video of this night, the performance is so electric, so radical, and so complete that the historical narrative I bring with me as I watch and listen—knowing of the album to come, the film, the fame, dozens of subsequent albums, “SLAVE” on his cheek, “Purple Rain” at the Super Bowl—cedes to a overwhelming sense of possibility. I can convince myself that I can feel what it was like before any of that happened, that I can feel the potential we mark with the word “new.”

After Prince died, my mourning led me to believe that maybe Prince had taken the new with him. That’s what we do when great artists pass away: we grieve for the newness they’ve brought into the world. My thinking at the time was no doubt influenced by the fact that I was working on a book about newness in popular music since 2000, but it occurred to me that, throughout my life, whenever I’d thought about music and the new, I’d thought of Prince. Why?

Like everyone else in late April 2016, I was listening to all of Prince’s music, and I went back again to First Avenue, 1983, to the paranoid ecstasy of “Let’s Go Crazy,” the frenzy and statuesque beauty of “Computer Blue,” and to “Purple Rain,” which starts tentatively, swells, stumbles in that deleted verse, and then steps above anything he and the Revolution had ever done before. I wanted this in the book, but I didn’t know how to do that until some months later when I realized that the First Avenue show, and, more generally, Prince’s incredible run of albums from Dirty Mind to Lovesexy qualified as what the philosopher Alain Badiou calls an “event.”

As Badiou means it, an event is nothing less than the historical emergence of a possibility considered to be impossible. The event emerges where there is, metaphorically, no room for it to emerge. It’s like a note we can’t hear—until we hear it. Once it happens, an event offers a new mode of thought that changes what is possible for a situation. This is important: a new mode of thought, a new way of thinking, which for Badiou is the same as truth. Here’s a not very deep example: When Prince appeared on American Bandstand in 1979, Dick Clark famously (infamously among Prince fans) said “This isn’t the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis,” presumably meaning, as someone at the conference said, that “I Wanna Be Your Lover” didn’t sound like polka. Prince shyly shook his head and said quietly, “No.” But in his head he was thinking, “Yes it does, and if it didn’t, it does now.” A year later, Dirty Mind was released.

Badiou argues that an event does not necessarily create an immediate change in material conditions. This is why, despite the scale of change offered by an event, we don’t necessarily experience it as a rupture or monumental occurrence, and why we usually don’t understand its total impact as it happens. I emphasize “total” here because it’s not like, in the middle of an event, we’re ignorant of the fact that something monumental is going down. After the talk upon which this essay is based, I was fortunate enough to speak with Scott Bogen, who was at the August 3, 1983 show and testified that everyone in attendance was shocked and moved and knew everything had changed. I don’t doubt it at all. What I mean is that all of the potential and its outcomes can’t be known. Despite the event of that night, no one could have predicted Lovesexy, just as they couldn’t have predicted there would one day be conferences devoted to Prince. “An event is not by itself the creation of a reality,” Badiou says in Philosophy and the Event, “it is the creation of a possibility…. The event is, in a certain way, merely a proposition” (9-10).

That’s a fitting description of Prince’s music, which is filled with propositions–usually of the libidinal variety. Listen to the words in so many of his songs from the 1980s and you’ll notice an orientation toward the future, near or far, toward a potential that’s waiting to be fulfilled: “Uptown, that’s where I wanna be”; “I only want to see you in the purple rain”; “I just want to settle down and play around my baby’s tambourine.” The desire so prevalent and remarked upon in Prince’s music is often sung, performed, from a position of lack, a present moment of nonfulfillment. Sometimes it’s offered as a hypothetical, a more ambiguous outline of potential. “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” “I Would Die 4 U.” The questions in “Controversy” answer our “curiosity” with nothing but possibility. This language of desire is, true enough, the language of pop music, but no artist so consistently and at such a high level of fame and in such formally innovative music pursued the connection between this language and the erotic, spiritual, political, and ethical dimensions of potential as Prince.

In Nothing Has Been Done Before, I argue that Prince in the 1980s was an event for four reasons. The first two both have to do with breaking away from disciplines. The first I call “ultra-fusion.” Distinct from the musical one-to-one combinations of fusion, ultra-fusion takes from so many genres that it obscures them, renders them hardly recognizable—and Prince could do this in a single song, like “Computer Blue.” This is a marker of flux, of queerness: it obsolesces normative things even as it cites them, incorporates them. Whether or not we consider this an example of Fredric Jameson’s concept of pastiche, that postmodern hallmark, ultra-fusion denies the disciplinarity of genre. Think, for instance, of loving and learning to play Southern rock after its invention. There are certain kinds of licks to master, song structures to figure out, sounds to emulate, which means equipment to buy. Most artists will want to be innovative, but if you’re trying to fit into a certain genre, your options are limited. Ultra-fusion moves toward the importance of an individual style, even if, in this case, it was a style designated by place: the Minneapolis sound. Maybe “the Minneapolis sound” itself becomes a kind of discipline, true–the Linn drum sound, the synths playing horn parts, the less overtly emotional singing–but it was crafted from within the community by Prince and his collaborators: they decided its rules, tested its boundaries, and Prince, in particular, constantly crossed those boundaries and redefined the territory. So while we associate plenty of artists with the Minneapolis sound–Andre Cymone, The Time (esp. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), and Dez Dickerson’s “Modernaire” (written by Prince and co-produced with Dickerson)–we do not consider them to be ultra-fusionists like Prince.

 

Ultimately this interdisciplinary musical ultra-fusion expresses in Prince’s work the ultra-fusion of being, a more complicated, more sublime, more fluctuating concept of self than what’s suggested by the concept and categories of “identity.” This is the second proposition of Prince’s event: the abandonment of the discipline of identity, consisting as it does of a body of knowledge that is learned, regulated boundaries within which it is expected to operate, and demonstrations which are judged. (There’s an obvious connection here between genre and identity, a dilemma faced by every band or musician when asked what kind of music they play.) Prince instead embraced the notion of flux, the self as a multiple-singular, always capable of changing, always a matter of potential. And so, in both cases—ultra-fusion in music, the flux of our selves—Prince proposed a new mode of thought that rejected social disciplines altogether.

If there are no disciplines, there’s still the question of how we act toward one another: a question of relationships, communities, politics, and ethics. When it comes to Prince, I witnessed this at age fourteen before I truly understood it. One afternoon I was hanging out with a friend who also loved Prince, and on his wall was a poster from the Lovesexy tour. You probably know the image I’m talking about: Prince is wearing a black-and-white polka dot romper that extends into a kind of V-neck vest, his chest draped with silver necklaces, his cheeks rouged, his eyelids copper. He’s wearing on his arms what I took then to be legwarmers (I was not fashion-conscious) and he’s tipping a policeman’s cap that reminded me then of the cop from the Village People.

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It was a moment, perhaps the moment, when I learned to appreciate and even love difference. My epiphany that day was not about my own sexuality or gender; instead, it was about the importance of my own ethical orientation as a straight white dude with certain societal privileges towards people who were different from me and didn’t possess those same privileges, and how deeply that ethical orientation was connected to art, to music, and to Prince.

Nearly thirty years later, I understand this ethical orientation to be a third proposition made by Prince’s event, a proposition I call “queer democracy”: a situation in which everything a person can be is possible, and possible all at once, and most importantly, possible for all people free of regulation, condemnation, or exile. In a queer democracy, the basis for ethical relationships on a social scale begins with the recognition, inclusion, and empowerment of difference at the local level. Only then can consensus be legitimate. Rather than hegemony, queer democracy promotes ethical heterogeneity.

This was clarified for me recently while teaching an article by the gay comics scholar Ramzi Fawaz, who, reflecting on the X-Men comic books he read as a kid in the 1990s, writes that the superhero team “embodied…true heterogeneity: not merely the fact of many kinds of people but what those people do in relation to their differences.” Prince’s music was, of course, very inclusive, but it’s remarkable how little “us vs. them” antagonism there is from Dirty Mind to Lovesexy, the exception being the then-unreleased Black Album. (And much of that antagonism is directed at rap.) Suffering and despair were intimately private; conflict was interpersonal, not social; most of the competition was musical and artistic, i.e. Prince vs. The Time, and even that was campy. While Prince clearly resisted and critiqued the mainstream, his offers of enlightenment and inclusion were much stronger.

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Digression: Fawaz has his own touchstone–X-Men #80 (vol. 2), published in 1998 (see Fawaz’s article)–and I have mine: the above issue of The Uncanny X-Men (vol. 1) published in 1986. At the time I didn’t mark the X-Men as representative of a queer aesthetic or ethic, but I can see now that they paved a way for me to understand the heterogeneity and cooperation that Fawaz argues for in his article. Today I’m struck by the affinity between the Lovesexy-era poster on the left and the X-Men cover. Though there was no way in hell you’d ever see a member of Prince’s band smoking a cigar in public, both groups look tested and determined. They’ve seen some shit and have refused to give up their commitment to their ethos. In fact, Prince and his band look like they could be superheroes–not the kind we would have seen in 1986, or the ’90s, but the kind we should have seen, the kind we’ve been looking for throughout the history of comics.

Undoubtedly there’s a utopian gloss to all of this, and it shines in the music, the secular blending with the heavenly in “Uptown” and “Paisley Park” and “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s the political aspect of the potential of desire, a futurism articulated by José Esteban Muñoz, who writes in Cruising Utopia that “[q]ueerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough” (96). Utopia, meaning “no place,” can be thought of as the conceptualized space (and time) of potential, another way to describe the indescribable in the same way that the word “impossible” refers to something that by its own definition can’t be known but nonetheless seems concrete, i.e., the impossible. This is the same “no place” from which Badiou’s event emerges: that impossibility which becomes possible.

Music, like other art forms, manifests this impossible space. In other words, if “utopia” as a concept creates a kind of basin, art fills it. I’m getting a little wonky here, so let me listen to a specific example: “Paisley Park” from Around the World in a Day (1985). Here, Prince, like many before him, says that utopia is a state of mind. “The smile on their faces/It speaks of profound inner peace,” he sings in the first verse, adding in the chorus that “admission is easy, just say you believe/and come to this place in your heart…Paisley Park.” All of that sounds a bit like New Age pseudo-philosophy mixed with Christian custom (you have to say you believe, or testify; Jesus is your heart, etc.), but its outcome is, importantly, a place where everyone is welcome, an anarcho-socialist public space: “Come to the park/And play with us/There aren’t any rules.” And quite conveniently for this particular argument, Prince sings a bit earlier, “Ask where they’re going/they’ll tell you nowhere.” “Nowhere” as in “the mind,” “nowhere” as in “utopia.”

(The video has to visualize this conceptual space, of course, and does so in a humble way that’s sweet and trippy.)

But what about the music? That’s filling the basin, too, and here we have a beautifully eclectic mix of Linn drums with their distinctive “clap” strike on the two, a violin, Wendy and Lisa’s backing vox, a watery wash in the background that may be guitar or a synthesizer, finger cymbals, and an electric guitar. Psychedelic? Yes. Sgt. Pepper’s…? No, not really, except in Prince’s doubling of his vocals. Those vocals climb and fall through the range of his chest voice, sounding scratchy and tired, maybe a little trippy if you like, and then, on the chorus, goes into his throat voice, with falsetto tracked underneath. What I’m getting at is the range of sounds in the song, which is wide but not in a forced studio-produced way (i.e. a lot of reverb). This creates a tangible sense of place, an eclecticism that’s secular more than holy, which means it’s a place in this life, not the next. I may be reaching, but the song structure–its chords–drive this home for me. If you listen to the verse, you’ll first hear a standard chord (an A major) and then a weird chord that sinks down. It’s sounds like a minor chord, but it’s actually an F# major. Still, it colors the song with tension and gravity, grounding it in this imperfect world and the loneliness and lack of forgiveness that can be cured in Paisley Park.

If “Paisley Park” is about utopia, and I think it is, then it’s a utopia which, as Muñoz says, is about “being” in this world, not some other world–which means the queer democracy it performs is here now if we want it.

As powerful as Prince’s recordings in the 1980s are, the fullest embodiment of his queer democracy were his live performances with the Revolution and the Sign O’ the Times/Lovesexy-era bands. When I listen to and watch these concerts, what strikes me is, naturally, Prince’s magnetic showmanship, his humor, and his seduction of the audience. But these shows depend on the rapport between Prince and his fellow musicians—a dialogue between friends, a drama of community playing out through structure and improvisation, technique and playfulness, solos and unity. Wendy Melvoin as foil and comrade. Jerome Benton on the Parade tour, playing Danny Ray to Prince’s James Brown. Sheila E. anchoring the chaotic cityscape of the Sign O’ the Times show and the extravagant battle-for-Prince’s soul that was the Lovesexy tour. Even at the 1985 Grammys, ostensibly Prince’s moment to take a bow for his accomplishments with Purple Rain, he and the Revolution turn the stage into a swirling, coordinated but improvisational, butt-swinging circus. I’m reminded of Fawaz’s description of the X-Men as “a high-flying, exuberant, queer menagerie.” Everyone has a role to play, and that role is not to merely represent difference in a commodity market, but to make something good from those differences.

Two examples stick with me from the Sign O’ the Times concert film. In “Forever in My Life,” the late Boni Boyer takes a solo, a gospel rave-up. It might be thirty seconds long, but it’s epic. From a certain perspective, there’s no reason to do this. “The audience has come to see you, Prince!” you can imagine some pencil-necked record exec saying. And probably a few fans did. In, I think, the next song, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” Prince takes over the massive 80s-era trap kit from Sheila E. so she can come to the front and sing the table/chair rap. Now, part of the point is to see Prince play the drums, sure, but the sequence extends for a long time. During Prince’s drum solo, we see the dancer Cat drub two of the men in the band with fake boxing and take over the song’s chorus in a crowd call-and-response. These kinds of theatrical moments highlight the individuality of the people in Prince’s crew–and, importantly, three women of color.

The final component of Prince’s event was to reassert the power of performance not just as one more spectacle in the American collision of spectacles, but as a site of constant transfiguration for the performer and, crucially, for the audience. If queer democracy establishes the ethical potential, performance is, as Muñoz writes, “the kernel of a potentiality that is transmitted to the audiences and witnesses…” (98). That transmission depends on the audience answering the potential offered in all of the libidinal and political desires I’ve mentioned; that’s the thrill of the show, but it’s also what we take away from the show. And here we return to the core reason why, for me, Prince embodied the new: No matter how much his in-studio work in the 2000s might have disappointed, he never lost touch with the transformative power of performance, its kernel of potential and variability that might change a person’s life. The event, after all, is not just new thought for one person, it’s for everyone.

There are so many examples of this in Prince’s history, but one I’ve been fixated on lately is the performance of “Purple Rain” from Syracuse on March 30, 1985. Arguing for the transformative power of any performance will always be subjective unless we see the audience literally fainting, I suppose, and even then, can we say they truly were transformed? Anyway, I defy you to listen to this through to the end and not be moved. (The clip below has cut off the opening vamp somewhat and, unfortunately, it cuts off some of the ending, but none of the music I’ll describe.)

Who knows what got into Prince this night. I’m sure it had something to do with the show being broadcast live. (It would be released as Prince And The Revolution: Live on VHS.) But it’s as if he said to himself, “I am going to play this guitar until there’s nothing left.” Inspired around the 3:30 mark, he takes the solo off into the stratosphere, leaping, trilling, banking. He brings the band back to the call-and-response, does the hold, and dives back into the solo. Around 6:10 or so, as he walks up the staging mind you, he repeats a figure that sounds almost easy by his standards, but each time–once, twice, three times–he reaches down and touches the same lower note, playing it with the same thick tone. Something about this just fries me. The phrasing, the romanticism of it, the restrained intensity. I don’t know. To be honest, the trilling and piercing high notes were already a staple of his solos by this point, so maybe it is that restrained intensity, making more out of less. Anyway, back on center stage, he digs into blues lines, and that’s about it.

In the book I talk about “unfinishing” a song live or through another recording, and this performance could be Example A. To unfinish a song is to realize and communicate that the set of parameters we call a song has more within it waiting to be found, i.e., potential, and this is what Prince finds on this night, on this stage, taking “Purple Rain” beyond the potential it had when he and the Revolution debuted it almost a year and a half earlier. And so, in a fairly simple way, performance models the variability in our own lives, our ability to be transformed and to transform ourselves. Any musician will tell you–hell, any performer will tell you–that playing live is a totally different experience from recording because of the audience. It’s the audience that makes such moments possible. But not every performer will acknowledge that, or has the capacity to acknowledge it, and to build on it and create a feedback loop. Prince did.

I won’t repeat here everything I discuss in the book about the relationship between musical performance and the event, but suffice it to say that a concert usually happens in a space that begins as empty. (Not always, but often.) And so, in a very literal way, something is created where once there was nothing. I should also note that Badiou believes two things I disagree with: (1) that events as they happen in art are only formal; art is one of four domains, the others being politics, love, and science, and he never says, to my knowledge, that an event can’t cross domains, but if they can’t, this would deny the way we actually experience art; and (2) that popular music has not formally presented anything new since the early 1900s, or perhaps since the invention of jazz, which is just bullshit.

But, Badiou does offer an important, crucial word of caution about the event: the realization of the possibilities offered by the event is never guaranteed. Events can fade. “Everything will depend,” Badiou says in Philosophy and the Event, “on the way in which the possibility proposed by the event is grasped, elaborated, incorporated and set out in the world”; Badiou calls this a “truth procedure” (10).

Since finishing my book, I’ve come to believe that if First Avenue on August 3, 1983 was the event proper, then everything which followed should more properly be considered the truth-procedure. For Prince this meant choosing whether or not to pursue the new and all of the elements I’ve described which comprise his event. Usually he did. This explains why, on Around the World in Day, which I maintain is the relatively weakest album in this string of gems in the 1980s, “Pop Life” and “America” still crackle with queer democracy. Now, during the panel when I gave the original version of this talk, Ciara Cremin stuck up for Around the World in a Day. As a matter of fact, I think she actually booed when I made this (very slight!) criticism. In her own talk, Ciara had made the argument (as I’m remembering it now, days later) that the album was Prince’s rejection of the capitalist logic that desired Purple Rain II and thus he cleared for himself creative and personal space in which he could continue to fuck with identity, which I think is totally correct. Even if the album wasn’t as artistically successful as the others that followed, Around the World in a Day is still a gem, and it was a crucial moment in Prince’s pursuit of the truth-procedure. So I’m grateful for Ciara’s heckling.

Proclaiming the most inclusive form of democracy possible, Prince had to figure out whether or not that ideal could withstand the pressures and opposing values of celebrity and capital that I call the American Wow, which means it had to face the appropriations and prejudices related to race, gender, sexuality, and class. This is one more reason why his live performances were so powerful: he seemed to understand them as moments when everything he’d promised, every potential he’d put into the air, was at stake. Every night, for many years, he confronted the power of his own event.

Throughout his life, Prince never truly abandoned this truth-procedure; he may have drifted from it, lost sight of it, toyed with and tested it, but he never gave up on the new and its possibilities. I mean this in a general sense. It’s true that not all Prince performances on record or even live–even the famed after-shows–were stellar, or faithful to the truth procedure, as Badiou would put it. No one can live up to a bar set that high.

For us today, the truth of Prince’s event and the new thought it interjected remains vital and may even seem eternal. We hear it picked up by the likes of Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe. But nothing is guaranteed. We will choose whether or not to remain faithful to the event of Prince even as we search for, or create, the event to come.

 

Thank you to the organizers of “Prince from Minneapolis” for putting together the conference, and to Scott Bogen, Ciara Cremin, C. Liegh McInnis, my fellow panelists Casci Ritchie and Joni Todd, Tammy Brown, Steve McClellan, Casey Rain, and many others for the great conversations.

 

References

Badiou, Alain. Philosophy and The Event. With Fabien Tarby. Translated by Louise Burchill. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. (First published in French by Éditions Germina, 2010.)

Fawaz, Ramzi. “The Difference a Mutant Makes.” Avidly: A Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. January 28, 2016. Link.

Muñoz, José Esteban.  Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Utopia. New York:
New York University Press, 2009.

 

 

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