April 12, 2017
For years, for decades, Prince was the pop artist I thought about the most and listened to the most. I have thousands of memories associated with his music, thousands of theories, thousands of feelings. When he died last April, those Prince-based emotions suddenly increased in weight. It was painful to keep them in my mind. So I wrote a book—“Dig If You Will the Picture”—that was a passion project, a book whose velocity was intended to speed me away from the grief I felt at Prince’s death. It was also an opportunistic project whose real-world existence was made possible by that death. Writing felt a little like grave-robbing, but also like the opposite—like a way of filling the Prince-shaped hole in the world. While writing the book, I felt elated, sad, self-hating, worried, defiant, jubilant, and exhausted.
And yet, as much as I felt those things along the way, I kept them to myself. During the time I have spent in thrall to Prince’s music—it’s roughly thirty-five years now, ever since I bought the cassette of “1999” at a record store in suburban Miami—I have not been the kind of Prince fan who interacted much with other Prince fans. Those other fans exist, of course, across the world, across the Internet. Some of them publish zines or have Web sites, or comment in online communities. I admire them. They possess a great deal of knowledge and passion. They do what they do out of love for Prince’s work. They develop strong preferences for certain albums, and strong antipathy for others. It’s not uncommon to see extensive threads arguing over which version of “Computer Blue” should be considered definitive.
I haven’t, for the most part, engaged with that fan community. I don’t attend events or conferences. When I encounter someone else who is as devoted to Prince’s music as I am, I tend to turn away from that person, embarrassed by the recognition of mutual interest, eager to return to the safety of private joy. There’s an early Prince song, “Private Joy,” in which he jealously keeps a lover to himself: “Ain’t gonna tell nobody nobody ‘bout my little pretty toy.” I knew what he meant.
This Prince shyness even happened with Questlove, who is as thoroughgoing a Prince fan as any living human being. He’s even heard “Wally.” When we worked on a book together, we talked about Prince often but in a way that Prince didn’t actually get talked about. We acknowledged that Prince’s music had pinballed through our lives in deeply personal ways, hitting every bumper and target. Maybe he would mention a song or lyric. Maybe I would. Then we would move on. That tendency toward intense privacy even conditioned the book I wrote. If I had been writing as a traditional journalist, I would have interviewed hundreds of people and built a definitive history of Prince’s life and career. Rather, I tried to preserve the way I had experienced Prince and his music while he was alive. I listened to songs, thought about them, felt exhilaration, wrote about what I was thinking and feeling. The main difference during the book process was that Prince was recently dead, and the exhilaration was just as often replaced by sorrow.
As my book has made its way into the world, I have started to hear from Prince fans. A funk-music expert wrote to tell me that it recharged his excitement for listening to his Prince records. A woman who had liked only early Prince wrote to say that now she was in love with some of his later music. There has also been some negative reaction, of course. People have found errors in the text, passages that conflicted with their own beliefs about Prince, dates that are in dispute. Every error is regrettable, of course. Every error is proof that I could have done one more interview, tried to find one more clip. But they are also illustrations of the different ways each of us carries things.
A woman contacted me to take issue with a sentence in which I wrote that the “Purple Rain” album ended, as the film did, with the title song. I was speaking emotionally, of course. I have seen the movie many times. I know that after the Kid (Prince’s semi-autobiographical character) performs “Purple Rain,” he runs offstage, collects himself, and then returns for a triumphant encore. But “Purple Rain” is where the film’s themes of fatherhood and sacrifice and violence and collaboration come to a head. Originally, I had phrased the sentence differently. I had used the word “climax,” written that the album and the movie both climaxed with that song, but upon reflection that sounded too sexual, especially since a nearby chapter was devoted to Prince’s treatment of sex. I changed it to “ended” without even considering the possibility that it could cause any confusion.
To some degree, this is all business as usual. Publications elicit reactions from readers. Technology enables contact. What was interesting was my reaction to it all. I wasn’t thrilled to hear from other people, and not because they were identifying errors. I welcomed clarification, but the feedback encroached on the intimate space where I had always kept my Prince fandom. It interfered with my private joy.
For a while, I just lived with that tension. But then, in the first months of this year, I started to feel that these issues—private convictions and the way public dialogue does or does not grow out of them—were reverberating not just through my writing life, not just through the world of Prince fans, but through the entire nation. The reason, of course, was the election, and the conversation about truth and media that has sprung up around it. Over the past year, the air has been thick with buzzwords: real news and fake news, facts and alternative facts.
This is a political issue, not a critical one. But it has an analogue. Those people who equate belief with truth are acting like a certain kind of fan: self-protective, self-reinforcing, unwilling to be challenged, segregated by choice from opposing views. When I thought about it, though, the kind of fan they most resembled weren’t the people on the Prince message boards. Those fans were happy to get down in the scrum and fight for their beliefs. The kind of fan they most resembled was me. When I spent years refusing to engage with other Prince fans, when I insisted on preserving my own internal vision, I was retreating inside an echo chamber of my own creation. That seemed legitimate. Art was private. I was activating a subjective circuit of joy and sadness. What business was it of anyone else’s? Still, the worse the political climate became, the more it rejected the objective facts and good-faith dialogue that built on those facts, the more suspicious I grew of my own fandom. The process of backing into a private corner began to feel tainted by the prevalence of that kind of thinking in politics. Private feelings were harder to justify because they were also enabling monstrous distortions of the truth.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that Prince himself was an artist who openly endorsed the idea of working against dogma—and, for that matter, working against it openly. This was especially true early in his career, when he worked fiercely to dissolve, or at least to challenge, traditional social categories like race, gender, and sexuality. One of his most famous lyrics, a chant taken from the title song of “Controversy,” gives a hilariously concise account of this theory: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” It’s a song about conflict, about contradiction, about dialogue. It’s a song about escaping the echo chamber and enduring the risks of public exposure.
Later on, Prince would do the same with gender, designing a female voice named Camille to pry open ideas about aggression, seduction, and power; and, with faith, shelving the risqué and risky “Black Album” and instead releasing the uplifting pop-gospel record “Lovesexy.” And even later than that, at a time when he was chafing against his Warner Bros. contract, Prince changed his name, opting to go by a squiggle that combined the astrological symbols for male and female—his years as a glyph extended his inquiry of gender, incorporating issues of identity, race, slavery, corporate control, money, and more.
All these decisions were made in public, and all were subject to passionate defense, or passionate condemnation, or measured appreciation, or outright mockery. Even when he became a devout Jehovah’s Witness—disowning some of his early lyrics and proselytizing for his new faith—he released music about it. The 2001 album “The Rainbow Children,” which dealt with his religion and its precepts, was condemned by some critics for lyrics that were perceived as sexist and even anti-Semitic. That growing up, or growing out, happened in public. Prince’s approach wasn’t always straightforward (for every direct message song like “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” or “Baltimore,” there were dozens of oblique, gnomic works that played around the edges of gender, race, faith, and identity), and it wasn’t always rational (at one point, he seemed to subscribe to the chemtrails conspiracy theory). But he was committed to striding into shared space and watching things play out. He was, in the end, more agora than sanctum.
As I went through the process of writing the book, of publishing it, of engaging with people who cared about Prince as much as I did, of feeling my own discomfort with those engagements, I found myself returning repeatedly to Prince’s own behavior and admiring his courage. And yet, even as I cite these examples, even as I recognize his method, I want to withdraw those citations and that recognition—to bring them, and everything else, back inside a safe private space. I want to roll up this essay, and the book that it’s about, and the entire past year, all the way back to last April, when there was such thing, fortunately, as facts, and one of those facts was that Prince was still alive. I know that it’s the wrong impulse. But it’s done from love.
April 16, 2017
Saturday night Coachella festival headliner Lady Gaga took the stage at 11:29 in a black police hat and leather trench coat and opened with Schiebe off her Born This Way album.
She immediately followed it with LoveGame, during which she ditched the hat and jacket and encouraged the crowd to sing along.
Gaga also surprised fans by performing a new song, The Cure, about 45 minutes into the set.
April 07, 2017
“Vintage fashion is unique, it’s beautiful, and it’s sustainable,” said Georgia-native Erica Jarman, founder of the Starland District shop, House of Strut.
Jarman is among an emerging group of local entrepreneurs, fashion designers, and small business owners opening stores around Savannah dedicated to providing both quality, one-of-a-kind clothing; some are stressing the importance of buying vintage in order to not contribute to the “fast fashion” zeitgeist.
March 27, 2017
Before she could get down to the business of working on a record, singer-guitarist Lindsay Ell was given an odd assignment and a set of rules by her new producer, Kristian Bush. The Sugarland co-founder instructed the Alberta, Canada, native to isolate herself and re-record her favorite album on her own, as an exercise in understanding how the songs work and what elements she preferred to hear in a production. The album she chose was John Mayer's Continuum, and the process proved to be just the lesson she needed to complete her own project on her own terms. "On my iTunes playlist, it is like at the top of that flippin' list," Ell says of Mayer's 2006 LP.
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