“It feels so good to say sexy motherfucker early in the morning!” So exalted Professor Jacqueline Stewart, cinema expert from University of Chicago, citing that song title as she embarked on her analysis of Prince’s 1984 movie Purple Rain.
Passionate evocations ran high at this Yale University symposium (Jan 25-28, 2016) devoted to the legacies of both Prince and David Bowie, two rock gods who ‘transitioned’ (as put by one speaker) not long before. In an impressive roll call, Bowie’s Blackstar collaborator Donny McCaslin and Prince percussionist Sheila E. were among those taking part.
Questlove and Kimbra opened the conference with a DJ set, while Solange served as the keynote speaker during a panel titled ‘Everybody Still Wants to Fly: Activism in Pop from Prince to Solange’. To round things off in the kind of great crescendo Prince would have appreciated, TV on the Radio , a Brooklyn band favoured by Bowie, covered the Prince-penned classic “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
Back-to-back papers were presented or chaired by nearly 40 participants. That’s a phenomenal number of Prince and Bowie scholars, and probably only a snapshot of those now researching these icons globally since their premature demise.
As someone who first wrote about Prince academically in 1986, with all but a few notable exceptions I felt pretty alone in my critical fascination with Prince’s all-round sonic and visual oeuvre. In fact, despite being an established author with a strong track record of books and papers on journalism, I really struggled to get any academic publisher interested in my Prince monograph proposal until Ashgate saw potential. Until now…
So it was hugely uplifting to be in the company of some of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of feminism, musicology, geography, English and African/American studies pondering the questions that have fascinated me about Prince for three decades.
A great many gave very personal, unapologetically subjective readings. I was fascinated by this as I also recalled the pains I had to go through at my Prince PhD viva to defend my use of ‘I’. But the value of this work is its reflexivity, and the self-knowingness of researchers who are consciously questioning their own (and others’) readings by virtue of what they themselves bring to them. If anything, that was the overriding take-away from the whole four days….were these our own subjective analyses, at the nexus of our own unique origins? Or had our devotion to Prince and Bowie, formative and lifelong in so many cases, meant the icons were framing our readings of them from beyond the grave?
Sycophancy this was not, though. Many hypothetical needles were dragged off records such as when close scrutiny was paid to Bowie’s attachments to fascism and Prince’s dubious representations of women. And rightly so, when you think that the conference took place a few days after a certain inauguration.
It was a privilege to hear legendary author and cultural commentator Griel Marcus unpacked some of the stars’ ’utopic moments’. He was in raptures describing Prince’s unabashed and floridly purple takeover of Jeff Lynn’s note-by-note tribute version of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Hall of Fame. He remembered this and other moments as ‘being afraid to go to sleep in case you forget anything.’
I loved New York University’s Zaheer Ali’s genealogical analysis of the Minneapolis sound family tree, and how important Prince’s early neighbourhood experiences in the north side of the city were. In fact there was a strong current of psycho-geography running through the event with other inspiring empirical work on how Prince and Bowie dismantled and reimagined familiar landscapes.
For each presenter and panel, Bowie and Prince were inextricably linked in terms of their challenges to heteronormativity and their questioning of reality and authenticity. This was hugely appealing to young fans confused and bombarded by the sheer array of conflicting signifiers in the ’70s and ’80s.
Jonathan Flatley, associate professor at Wayne State University, discussed how these stars stimulate our interest in being just like them. Analysing the sleeve art of Hunky Dory, he drew on Warhol’s account of how icons work in drag. Because no actor, however well-trained, is ever right for any part, Warhol preferred amateurs who didn’t pretend to be accurate. Singularity is produced in failure of replication. His paper told us a great deal about how the exaggerated feminisation of Bowie and Prince illuminates the effort it takes to not fit with gender categories.
It was these glimpses of innovative theorisations that showed how Bowie and Prince’s genius stretched even way beyond impeccable style and musical brilliance. Their legacy is that we can now see how they were both simultaneously epistemologists. And the wonderful thing is that, despite their passing, that work is really only just beginning.