If you lived in the Minnesota suburbs around the turn of the millennium, there was a small but startling chance that one day you might open your front door to find Prince standing there asking if he could speak to you about God.
How the world’s most recognisable pop star and the writer of the songs Soft and Wet and Gett Off (“23 positions in a one-night stand”) turned into a doorstep proselytiser after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in the late 1990s is just one of the Prince paradoxes that Joseph Vogel explores in This Thing Called Life, his sober study of the superstar. More than Madonna or Michael Jackson, Prince’s companions in the peerless pop triumvirate that ruled the 1980s, Prince understood the magic of mystery, the power of blurring the lines. “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” he sang on Controversy, the title track of his 1981 album. “Do I believe in God, do I believe in me?”
These are the questions that Vogel, a professor of English in America, and the author of a book on Jackson, attempts to answer here. It is not an untested approach. Even before the 57-year-old’s cruelly premature death on April 21, 2016, from a fentanyl overdose, there was plenty of writing using words such as “binary” and “liminal” to explain his mercurial gifts.
Vogel sensibly corrals the sprawling material of Prince’s life by organising the book into seven chapters, each one handling a different facet of his life: race, gender, sex, sound. He chose seven because Prince considered it a cosmically significant number, rare fancifulness in a book that has disappointingly little time for purple prose.
Instead, Vogel briskly collates his evidence (songs, interviews, other critics) meticulously tracing patterns in Prince’s evolution, occasionally succeeding in chipping bits away from his subject’s jewel-studded carapace.
In the chapter on politics, he asks whether the star was a liberal or a conservative: this was, after all, an artist who once said that Ronald Reagan had “bigger balls” than Jimmy Carter, yet whose song Darling Nikki (“I met her in a hotel lobby / masturbating with a magazine”) tipped Tipper Gore over the edge and led directly to the formation of the right-wing censorship group Parents Music Resource Centre.
It was easy to imagine Prince eternally sequestered in his studio complex, Paisley Park, lost in music and the most beautiful girls in the world, especially when he shunned the pop establishment by declining to appear on the charity single We Are the World in 1985. On Saturday Night Live, Billy Crystal satirised him by singing: “I am the world / I am the children.”
Prince’s notorious contractual wrangle with Warner Bros, when he wrote “slave” on his cheek and changed his name to a glyph, also seemed the mark of a man whose world revolved around his own tiny frame. Yet Vogel highlights his lyrical preoccupations with war and nuclear apocalypse (1999 is no party song) and shows how his political activism bloomed in the era of Black Lives Matter, playing in Baltimore after the police shooting of Freddie Gray.
It is, however, the chapters on race, gender and sex that underline what a glorious anomaly Prince was. When he supported the Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1981, wearing silky black bikini briefs and a trench coat, he suffered an avalanche of racist and homophobic abuse. Mick Jagger persuaded him to do another show but it was a grim repeat performance and he went home. “People that aren’t hip to it,” said Prince of these older white rock fans. “I hope they do get hip to it.” Their children certainly did: in 1984, Purple Rain was the No 1 album and film in America.
Yet Prince was never about fitting in. “The girls loved you, the boys hated you,” Prince said about his school days, “they called me Princess.” Vogel argues that, like David Bowie, part of Prince’s legacy was the wonderful sexual confusion he trailed behind him. Just as gangsta rap exalted “authenticity” and hyper-masculinity, Prince was photographed naked for the sleeve of 1988’s Lovesexy, perched on a flower like an X-rated Thumbelina.
Vogel can’t quite pin down Prince’s fluidity, though: exactly what drove him to record an album as female alter-ego Camille, for example? How much was his commitment to working with female artists driven by “ulterior motives”? What is clear is that Prince’s libidinous attitude shifted when he became a Jehovah’s witness, his conversion triggered by the death of his newborn son Amiir in 1996. Sex and spirituality were always intertwined in his music, but now the latter took over and the first artist to “reveal his bare ass on television” (at the 1991 MTV Music Awards) now gave interviews admiring the burqa and tapped a Bible while tutting about “people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever”.
More than his beauty (Joni Mitchell described his eyes like those of a puffin), his prodigious musical gifts, or his formidable performances, it is Prince’s aura of mystery that has kept his devotees so long enthralled. “It seems from the already-flourishing explosion of journal articles, panel discussions conferences and books that Prince will become a field of study,” says Vogel hopefully, but that doesn’t feel like a desirable outcome. Illuminating though it is, his book can’t quite crack Prince’s mysterious code. That, for fans, might well be its greatest strength.
Close to his sister
Prince did confirm a sexual story in his 1980 song, Sister. Yes, he confessed, he did have a sexual encounter with his elder stepsister. In 1983, he said: “It’s just an incident in my life. It’s real, it’s a subject that a lot of people try to avoid.” Writing about such taboo experiences felt liberating. “It was a revelation recording this last album. I realised that I could write just what was on my mind and things that I’d encountered and I didn’t have to hide anything.”
Bloomsbury £19.99 pp240