A new Prince biography offers an obsessively exhaustive analysis of the artist’s music but fails to uncover many revealing details of the enigmatic personality behind it.
The spectre of Prince’s influence looms large over electronic music of every style and sub-genre. For proof of its impact, just listen to Romanthony’s vocals on tracks like ‘Bring U Up’. Try the ‘Little Red Corvette’-inspired girl-as-vehicle-and-vice-versa metaphor of The-Dream’s ‘Yamaha’. Try the taut, pulsing, funk-tinged groove of Kindness’s ‘Swinging Party’. Try ‘Down With Prince’, Hot Chip’s protective fan anthem. Try the psychedelic purple-tinged P-funk of Dâm-Funk’s ‘The Sky Is Ours’. Still not convinced? It doesn’t get more overt than Felix Da Housecat’s ‘We All Wanna Be Prince’.
In Prince, Matt Thorne offers a comprehensive account of Prince’s music, from the moment he turned up backstage at a Todd Rundgren gig at the age of 16 boasting about his multi-instrumental prowess, through to his recent Welcome 2 tour. Prince draws upon the artist’s personal life for context but avoids the temptation to conflate the personality of Prince Nelson the man with the creative output of Prince the artist. Thorne, a successful novelist, has the requisite level of obsession with the subject to do it justice – he attended 19 of Prince’s 21 gigs at the O2 Arena, London, in 2007.
It’s testament to Prince’s eclective creative output that, forty years into his career, his sound remains virtually unclassifiable. From funk to rock, flirtations with disco, R&B and highly experimental synth- and sampler-led dance music, the fact that he’s been known primarily as a pop artist throughout his career is impressive in itself. That such an overtly sexual, androgynous, at times virtually pornographic artist has enjoyed such mainstream success – despite the best efforts of Tipper Gore – is perhaps even more remarkable.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis summed up the dichotomy of Prince’s persona and his performances: “He gets over with everyone because he fills everyone’s illusions. He’s got that raunchy thing, almost like a pimp and a bitch all wrapped up in one image, that transvestite thing. But when he’s singing that X-rated shit that he does about sex and women, he’s doing it in a high-pitched voice, in almost a girl’s voice. If I said ‘Fuck you’ to somebody they would be ready to call the police. But if Prince says it in that girl-like voice he uses, then everyone says it’s cute.”
It’s this universal fascination with the character behind the artist which means Thorne’s book inevitably feels slightly unfulfilling. Thorne enlists the help of numerous collaborators, assistants and confidants, but it should come as absolutely no surprise that the famously reticent artist played no part in contributing to the book. As such, Prince is an astonishingly detailed retrospective of Prince’s career to date, but in the era of Wikipedia and Discogs, the minutiae of any artist’s output are already well documented. The book’s primary focus on the music itself means that it tells us little more than we already knew about the man himself.
That such a well-written, well-researched book should still seem slightly disappointing raises the question of whether anyone except Prince himself will ever really be able to tell the full story of this exceptionally rich back catalogue of music, or to explain where Prince Rogers ends and Prince begins. “As far as Prince is concerned,” Thorne admits, “the only person who knows anything about this music is Prince.”
Purchase: Faber & Faber