In the summer of 1984, most everyone I knew who went to the movies or attended pop concerts admitted to shedding a tear during Prince’s performance of the title ballad in Purple Rain. The song’s cryptic metaphor about salvation, forgiveness, and transcendence went right to viewers’ hearts with its weeping, surging tune. It climaxed a musical drama that used teenage angst (Prince playing a version of himself called “The Kid,” who overcomes the domestic tragedy of his quarreling parents) to propel an updated showbiz fiction. Purple Rain was set amidst the racial and sexual competition of the Minneapolis nightclub scene, reflecting the ferment of Eighties pop music. The power of the ending came from resolving that social tension and personalizing it.
Prince’s Purple Rain epiphany did what politicians pretend to do — it spoke to people’s deep, unarticulated emotional needs. Now the public referendum of praise and sentiment that has followed Prince Rogers Nelson’s death suggests that there’s little difference between pop fandom and politicking. The media’s response is significant in the sense that it is largely generational — a delayed remembrance of that moment when Prince’s film debut crossed over culture barriers that existed in 1984.
The still-trending Prince tributes being posted on social media evoke nostalgia for the period when today’s media figures had their peak social/cultural experiences: MTV was in ascent, and President Reagan was campaigning for his second term in office. Prince’s music and film career coincided with those events and, by paralleling them, seemed to define them (whereas his peer Michael Jackson had predated those events and absorbed them into his own overarching mythos).
These pop-political facts were implicit in President Obama’s official statement on Prince: “Today, the world lost a creative icon. Michelle and I join millions of fans from around the world in mourning the sudden death of Prince. Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock and roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader and an electrifying performer. ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his band, and all who loved him.”
As much as the movie Purple Rain itself, Obama’s eulogy contained disguised autobiography. In that testimonial, Team Obama’s arrangement of the clichés “icon,” then “gifted and prolific,” followed by the rudimentary tally of music genres, evidenced sentimental public manipulation. Note how the routine “Michelle and I” leads to that globalized “millions of fans from around the world.” This isn’t just homage, it’s identification with the memory — the ideal — of Prince’s pop governance. Thus, “a strong spirit transcends rules” justifies unilateral executive action. This was confirmed further when information was leaked that Obama played “1999” and “Delirious” just before meeting with Queen Elizabeth. (Imagine the diplomatic connotations of those apocalyptic and wanton anthems as you will.)
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By comparison, Obama’s 2009 statement on Michael Jackson’s passing was shockingly begrudging. Rather than offering a panegyric, Obama catered to the seemingly poll-tested distaste of his own judgmental, unforgiving, race-obsessed constituency. (“[Jackson’s] extraordinary talent and his music matched with a big dose of tragedy and difficulty in his private life.”) The refusal to identify Jackson’s personal artistic triumphs — while underscoring his problems — is the flip side of Obama’s simplifying Prince’s color difficulties and complex sexual anxieties. Is he saluting Purple Rain or his own reign?
Prince’s cultural significance is undeniable. Memory makes songs like “Kiss,” “Cream, “Alphabet Street,” and “Anotherloverholeinyourhead” all the sweeter for his unique combination of sexual and social instincts. But the way Prince’s real and wonderful cultural impact has now, in commemoration, been turned into political silage is also significant. On the CBS Sunday Morning Show (a newsmagazine program for the TV network that regularly operates as Obama’s personal ham radio), Prince was praised in suspiciously political (liberal) terms. CBS music journo Bill Flanagan referred to Prince as “a musical Mandela,” a “one-man rainbow coalition” who “transcended radio’s apartheid.” (Yet Flanagan ignored Prince’s resistance to participating in the celebrity charity sing-along “We Are the World.”)
Obama and the mainstream media speak of Prince in generalized terms, and the art is made banal.
This self-pleasing view of pop culture and pop sociology is Purple Politics. It misrepresents Prince’s post-hippie, post–civil rights, Dionysiac stance and uses it to glorify particular political positions. In her 1984 review of Purple Rain, film critic Pauline Kael presciently set out the terms of Prince appreciation: “I’m disposed to like Prince, the twenty-six-year-old pansexual star of Purple Rain, because he is, as a friend of mine put it, ‘the fulfillment of everything that people like Jerry Falwell says rock ’n’ roll will do to the youth of America.’ I like the teasing sexiness . . . and I like the brazenness.” If the brazen Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests are proof of what rock ’n’ roll does to American youth, then Prince was a destabilizing figure to be regarded with suspicion. But Kael, a libertarian avant la lettre, would probably have groaned at how our eulogizing media and POTUS have misread and manipulated Prince’s idiosyncrasy.
As a libertine who could flaunt himself like a supreme narcissist (or politician), Prince could also contend with his own social and political ambivalence, as in the 1992 recording “The Sacrifice of Victor.” That song disclosed the trauma endured by youths during the busing of the early 1970s, when they were used as pawns in America’s racial and political experiment. (“Our parents wondered what it was like to have another color near / So they put their babies together / To eliminate their fears.”) The song isn’t “Kumbaya” but an extraordinary confession of social policy as trial-and-error American experience. It is the most authentic of Prince’s sermon-songs, and its deep-rooted gospel ecstasy transcends White House savvy.
When Obama and the mainstream media ignore this aspect of Prince’s art and speak of Prince in generalized terms, the art is made banal; the artist’s death becomes a hegemonic tool based, simply, on an empowered group’s formative experiences.
#related#Prince and the other great pop musicians of the 1980s — Michael Jackson, The Smiths, Public Enemy, Pet Shop Boys, Scritti Politti, Kate Bush, the Au Pairs, sometimes Madonna — were part of the texture of Reagan and Thatcher realities. They responded to the policies of that era in ways that Prince mourners now ignore by trading the thought-provoking complexities of yesterday’s cultural arguments for the non-thinking conformity of today’s politically naïve pop culture. It’s as if personal politics (the only politics a pop artist can honestly proclaim) didn’t matter.
People cried at Purple Rain because they felt their private yearnings being expressed, however tentatively. Political candidates seek a similar assent. But when those genuine, complex responses to Prince — or any other pop artist — get conflated with political fiat, the demagoguery takes the fun out of pop culture. Even a fan’s tribute is degraded. It becomes rhetoric, political purple prose.
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Purple-prose politics are also shamelessly displayed in Viva, the story, set in Havana, of a gay Cuban youth who defies his ex-con father’s machismo. Curiously, Viva was Ireland’s official entry in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category. Director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran go over the top, sentimentalizing family dynamics between young Jesús (Hector Medina) and the dying Angel (Jorge Perugorria). Viva conflates Catholic totems even more bizarrely than Prince’s private religiosity, but Viva’s drag karaoke scenes don’t transcend banal drama as Purple Rain’s sensational numbers did. The mistitled Viva intends a metaphor for Cuba’s renaissance. The film’s manipulation of social-group sentimentality for obvious travelogue propaganda is, as a friend of mine put it, practically Obama-approved.