Prince is one of those rare musicians who inspire a reverence that is borderline religious. What is it about this enormously talented, enigmatic performer that commands such profound awe, particularly among fans who, just as they reached adolescence, learned what it sounds like when doves cry?
That’s the question Touré attempts to answer in “I Would Die 4 U,” an examination of the relationship between the singer and Generation X, the demographic most responsible for elevating him from R&B hitmaker to global superstar.
This extended essay — based on a series of lectures that Touré delivered last year at Harvard — argues that Prince tapped into the zeitgeist of the late 1970s and ’80s, when such albums as “Controversy” and “1999” provided the soundtrack to so many coming-of-age stories. Though Prince is a baby boomer — born in 1958, roughly a decade before Xers arrived on Earth — he has lived a life, the author argues, “that uniquely prepared him to understand the gen X experience.”
According to the book, that experience was defined by several factors: an increase in the divorce rate, a phenomenon that, as the child of a ruptured marriage, Prince subtly alludes to in his music; apathy toward solving socio-political problems (Touré cites the song “1999” as a prime example of apocalyptic indifference); and heightened sexual awareness, which is conveyed in, well, pretty much every Prince song ever.
If this all sounds a bit too academic to be enjoyable, that’s not the case. Touré, co-host of the MSNBC program “The Cycle,” is an engaging and smart writer, one who makes his arguments with plenty of backup via fascinating interviews with Prince’s colleagues, friends, notable proteges (Questlove, drummer for the Roots and self-proclaimed Prince scholar, makes several appearances) as well as the book’s subject himself.
“I Would Die 4 U” even sprinkles in dishy commentary from a couple of former lovers who offer unique insights into the star’s bedroom habits. “I was told by someone who knows that Prince loves to bathe women,” Touré notes. “And brush their hair. And sometimes he did these things in lieu of intercourse.” So that’s why it seemed so sexy when Prince emerged from that tub in the video for “When Doves Cry.”
Touré closes the book by focusing on the religious themes in Prince’s catalogue, slyly suggesting that Prince — who became a Jehovah’s Witness more than a decade ago — may actually have been doing some under-the-radar preaching for the past 30-plus years.
Touré will surely persuade Prince followers to revisit their messiah’s work and, perhaps, see something wholly new underneath the purple rain.
Chaney is a pop culture writer whose works appears in The Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture, the Dissolve and other outlets.
I WOULD DIE 4 U
Why Prince Became an Icon
Atria. 163 pp. $19.99