A Golden Era of Prince Scholarship

Despite his obviously profound impact on popular culture, Prince has generally not been the subject of nearly as much academic study as his peers such as Michael Jackson, his influences like James Brown, or even contemporary hip hop acts from Biggie to Tupac to Jay-Z.

Fortunately, that odd omission is being remedied, and the people doing so are among the best and brightest not just among those of us who take Prince’s career seriously, but in academic study of culture overall. Some recent highlights from the past month, which is inarguably the best month that academic study of Prince’s work has ever had:

Prince at Pop Conference

  • The session on Prince at the 2012 International Association for the Study of Popular Music’s Pop Conference was led by Matt Thomas (@matthomas) and Zaheer Ali (@zaheerali) and, judging by the records of it that I’ve seen, must have been truly formidable. Matt’s presentation was “From Counterculture 2 Cyberculture and Back Again“, offering a deep look at how Prince’s embrace of the web has shaped the second half of his career. That perspective must be particularly well-informed by Matt’s doctoral research into life-hacking. Meanwhile, Zaheer’s presentation, “MPLS (Minneapolis): As Site and Sound“, spoke to how grounded Prince’s perspective has been in his unique geographic origin, as demonstrated well in this wonderful, video-rich preview of his talk that Zaheer shared last week. Perhaps the most effusive praise for Matt and Zaheer’s session could be seen in this detailed record of the tweets during their talk, which Zaheer collected on Storify.
  • Meanwhile, Toure was addressing Prince’s work at nearly the same time, in his series of three Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures at Harvard’s Barker Center. As Toure’s been researching for his upcoming book, he’s settled into a few key themes that keep popping up in understanding the cultural impact of Prince’s career, and those were on full display. First was Prince’s divorce-informed perspective on love and relationships, which suffuses all of his work from the earliest stages of his career. And just as key is Prince’s use of religion and religious allegory, as one of the fundamental building blocks of his lyrical and musical efforts. As the Crimson says:

Touré argued, for instance, that Prince’s religious upbringing, which included services at Seventh-day Adventist churches, informed his use of gospel sound. He referenced the distinct-if-subtle influence in songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” which includes a quasi-sermon at the beginning, and “Do Me, Baby,” which seizes on the call-and-response vocals and euphoric climaxes that are typical of gospel music.

Based on his notoriously lewd lyrics, Prince seems like an extremely unlikely Christian rocker. However, Touré argued that Prince’s frank sexuality on songs like “Do Me, Baby” were used to make his frequent religious references more palatable. “It was like hiding vitamins in chocolate cake,” Touré said, citing Prince’s apocalyptic overtones in the song “1999” or self-deification on “I Would Die 4 U.” The most memorable use of lyrical evidence, however, came when Touré passionately recited the numerous times Prince has referenced the number seven, an important number in the Bible and Seventh-day Adventism.

Touré’s book is still being written, but in the interim you can tide yourself over with “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now“, his most recent title, which forms a wonderful companion to Baratunde‘s “How to Be Black“. Similarly, you should check out Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, for which Zaheer was a senior researcher as part of his work at Columbia’s Malcolm X Project.

And who knows, maybe we’ll even graduate to having full classes about Prince’s work at some point in the future. Might be enough to make me enroll.

Thanks to Carleton Gholz for the image used above.