Summary: Drawing on new research and enlivened by Touré’s unique pop-cultural fluency, I Would Die 4 U relies on surprising and in-depth interviews with Prince’s band members, former girlfriends, musicologists, and even Bible scholars to deconstruct the artist’s life and work.
Prince’s baby boomer status allowed him to play a wise older brother to the latchkey kids of generation X. Defying traditional categories of race, gender, and sexuality, he nonetheless presents a very traditional conception of religion and God in his music. He was an MTV megastar and a religious evangelist, using images of sex and profanity to invite us into a musical conversation about the healing power of God. By demystifying the man and his music, I Would Die 4 U shows us how Prince defined a generation.
I Would Die 4 U, by Touré 8.0
“I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand” – Prince
I’m a huge Prince fan. Though I was less enamoured of his post-Warner Bros. output, he’ll probably remain the artist I have the most CDs of (even after his unfortunate passing – if only because the medium is dying out).
There was a time when I’d pick up anything that pertained to Prince (singles, side-projects, interview discs, bootlegs, …etc.). And that’s not even taking in account the many videos (in various formats) and print media.
There is more die-hard, yes, but there’s no doubt that I’m a fan.
So when a friend of mine suggested that I read Touré’s book on Prince, I decided I had to give it a go. It’s not that I wanted to read all the dirt on Prince (most of it is speculative anyway), it’s that I trusted her judgement.
Well, it turns out that ‘I Would Die 4 U’ isn’t your standard rock bio: it isn’t full of gossipy tidbits and it isn’t padded with photos. In fact, it’s not a rock bio at all (though biographical information inevitably nourish its thesis).
Instead, for his book, Touré explores Prince Rogers Nelson through the zeitgeist of Generation X – in an attempt to explain how The Purple One, through a convergence of timing and calculation, became such an iconic figure.
Now, I know nothing of Touré or his journalistic integrity; before my friend recommended the book, I had never heard of the (ironically) one-named writer. But his intro suggested that he’s well-versed on his subject.
Over the course of three chapters (one on the impact of Prince’s Gen X roots, one on his exploration of sexuality, and one on his religious views), ‘I Would Die 4 U’ credibly argues that Prince was the right person at the right time.
The problem that I found is that Touré frequently seemed to rely on the same sources (ex: Alan Leeds, Eric Leeds, Susan Rogers, Questlove, …etc.), so I couldn’t help but wonder just how deep his research went.
That’s not to say that this renders his arguments invalid: Prince could very well be a product of divorce and a post-boomer climate. In fact, Touré does make a few good points and is quite convincing in his presentation.
But he makes mistakes that fans would notice, such as making a false connection between “Controversy” and “Uptown”, saying that one song puts Prince’s sexual orientation in question whereas the other one cements it.
The fact its that, despite Touré’s claim, they’re not on the same album: “Uptown” came the year before, on ‘Dirty Mind’. So Prince wasn’t muddying the waters – though he might have been blurring his own lines over time.
Now, if Touré can make such a blatant mistake, what more subtle ones has he also made along the way?
His judgement also came into question early on.
For instance, he commented on, for me, the second-most influential song in all of Prince’s oeuvre: “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. He calls “Would U run 2 me if somebody hurt U, even if that somebody was me?” its “deepest” lyric.
It’s not deep. In my estimation, what this illustrates, really, are the seeds of an abusive relationship. You know those women who keep going back to the men who beat them? That is the dark underlying thread in this lyric.
(…no matter how intensely romantic (and sexy) the rest of the song is.)
Of course, Touré illustrates that Prince was sort of socially autistic, seeking close ties but being unable to properly develop and sustain them. So it’s quite conceivable that Prince wasn’t intuitive about this choice of words.
Though it still doesn’t explain Touré’s assessment of it.
He also reads a lot more sex into Prince’s lyrics than I feel is justified. To support his argument that Prince had a porn chic sensibility, he sometimes finds all sorts of phallic and yonic symbolism that aren’t there.
The fact is that Prince was unafraid to be explicit in his lyrics, and actually chose to be on purpose (as Touré himself illustrates), so it really doesn’t make sense that he’d bury a whole bunch of subtext in his songs.
You know… sometimes words can be taken at face value.
In the third chapter, Touré’s analysis strains credulity again as he discusses “Purple Rain” in the context of Prince’s potential messianic complex – with Touré arguing that Prince is telling his audience to follow his lead.
The problem with his logic is that he started discussing the song by stating that it expresses a desire for intimacy not far removed from the one in “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, and that it’s addressed to one individual.
So the idea that it shifts focus entirely at the end doesn’t make sense. It would only mean poor lyric-writing on Prince’s part or a segregated analysis of the lyrics by Touré. I vote for the latter, as Prince is craftier than this.
Frankly, I’ve always felt that the song’s finale was addressed to the same individual throughout, with Prince offering guidance to the person he craves a deep connection with. It’s essentially a plea for his intended to choose him.
But, of course, only Prince would know for sure.
The problem is that Touré tries so hard to be convincing that he stretches the boundaries of plausibility, like the King James Bible’s reference to Jesus being adorned in purple being indicative of Prince’s Christ delusion.
Whether this is true or not, a few things are certain: 1) Purple is a common colour. 2) Prince didn’t only wear purple, even during “Purple Rain”. 3) Prince never wore a crown of thorns like Jesus did when he wore purple.
4) Touré cherry-picks whatever elements that support his arguments.
Ergo, it’s likely that this argument is baseless.
Now, I don’t really want to denigrate Touré’s work: he does make interesting points and does so in an accessible fashion. I just wonder about the quality of his research, is all – it doesn’t negate his perspective on Prince.
Because, ultimately, whether his analysis of Prince is 100% accurate of not, he brings a refreshing perspective to the table. Instead of presenting us with a two-dimensional rock star, he tries to explain his mechanics.
Prince was many things, but he was, above all else, enigmatic; whatever we saw was as much a fabrication as it was a projection. In ‘I Would Die 4 U’, Touré does a creditable job of demystifying Prince George Nelson, the icon.
And pop God.