Everyone at this table is working on a book, even if some of us just in the thinking stage, I’m just fortunate to have finished one that comes out tomorrow called I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon.
I wrote it because Prince is one of the most important artists of our time with a career that wrestled with spiritual imperative and the sexual impulse, with Saturday night and Sunday morning, and wondering if the two can be merged in one life or in one song.
His canon asks: Can we have both reverence for God and the fulfillment of the rawest of carnal desires? His sexuality stands out for many, and rightly so, but his spirituality was serious and solemn—he opens the album “Purple Rain,” his magnum opus, with a sermon. “Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” He concludes that, in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld because in this life you’re not as close to God as you will be, you’re on your own.
That message could fit in most churches on most Sundays. Where most of his fellow rock gods were talking about sympathy for the devil, Prince was delivering a very traditional spiritual message, telling us to follow Jesus, because judgment day is coming. Where Madonna was iconoclastic and kissing a Black Jesus in order to shock us, Prince was so conservative that one of his saxophonists once said, “I’ve finally figured out what you are! You’re a damn Republican.” That was their last conversation.
He grew up a Seventh Day Adventist but, more than that, he grew up in the first generation to have gospel tropes widely dispersed in popular music. That is a big reason why the commingling of the spiritual and the secular is so common in his music, often combined in the body of a song. Take “Adore,” one of his greatest ballads, where he describes a sex scene which includes being watched by angels in heaven who are crying tears of joy.
Spirituality and sex collide within a moment for him because Prince sees the love of God and the love of sex as coming from the same source—he demanded the freedom to have both God and sex, just as he demanded freedom to express his own identity rather than having race and gender define him. He wanted to be Black and white, to be male and female, questioning what it means to be black and male, breaking the rules around identity in order to gain personal freedom and to tell us that we have the freedom to be whomever we choose. And that’s a decidedly liberal conception of identity.
In a prior life, I was a music journalist and I felt like getting back to that for a minute and exploring one of my favorite artists and someone who mattered a lot to my generation. I hope you’ll check it out. I Would Die 4 U is available tomorrow.