Books

Was I What You Wanted Me to Be?

Prince’s generation searches for their past selves in a lost genius.

Prince, wearing a sequined jacket, plays a white guitar onstage.
Prince performs onstage during the “Purple Rain” tour.  Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.

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Who was Prince? The artist himself mostly didn’t want us to know, judging by what he said to the writer he hired to help him produce an autobiography. “ ‘Mystery’ is a word for a reason,” Prince told Dan Piepenbring, who ended up being credited as the editor of 2019’s The Beautiful Ones, a sort of scrapbook attached to a short text of reminiscences written by the artist. “It has a purpose.” The purpose of the famously reticent musician’s elusiveness is just another one of those mysteries.

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After Prince’s accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016, his inscrutability has posthumously transformed him into a purple Rorschach blot for the late boomer/early Gen X cohort sometimes known as Generation Jones. These were people who came into their young adulthood in the mid-1980s, a time when prancing around in lingerie and a brocade bolero jacket with your hair teased up into an oversize pompadour was all the rage. Prince, one of the few people who could carry off this look, preached an orgiastic abandon in opposition to the staid “family values” of the Reagan-era establishment. Later he would become a Jehovah’s Witness and claim to be celibate. He was an imperious musical genius who wrote, arranged, composed, produced, and performed every single sound on his eponymous second studio album, but he also liked to form bands with utopian names like the Revolution and the New Power Generation. He embraced a racial and gender nondeterminism (“Am I Black or white? Am I straight or gay?”) but cared about and gave back deeply to the Black community. And according to Eddie Murphy’s brother, Charlie, he could rebound like Charles Barkley, even while wearing a blouse.

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All this leaves any interpreter a lot to work with. What Nick Hornby—novelist, screenwriter, and critic—arrives at is the revelation that Prince and Charles Dickens have a lot in common. In his new book, Dickens and Prince, Hornby lays out this improbable theory, which is rooted less in any obvious similarity (there are none) and more in Hornby’s intuitive sense that both men are what he thinks of as “My People—the people I have thought about a lot, over the years, the artists who have shaped me, inspired me, made me think about my own work.” A bold, perhaps even presumptuous claim, but one Prince himself might have admired, if Hornby can make a persuasive case for his theory.

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Once he digs deeper, Hornby is able to point out that both Prince and Dickens were, from an early age, preternaturally productive, compulsive creators. Prince “couldn’t stop writing, recording, playing,” leaving behind a vast vault of unreleased tapes. Dickens, Hornby notes, was the only novelist of his time to be repeatedly successful at publishing his books in serialized installments (which, contrary to popular belief, was far from universal among Victorian writers). This meant that he was often obliged to work on two novels at the same time, and “could keep two books alive in his head at once—two sets of characters (and of course the cast list in any Dickens novel is immense), two plots, two different tones.” Any novelist can tell you that this is an astonishing, even freakish feat.

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Both men had hard-knock childhoods in which they sometimes felt unwanted, and these experiences marked them for life. Hornby believes that this made them acutely conscious of situations in which they were being ripped off. (Prince battled his record company and Dickens advocated for copyright protections, which were nearly nonexistent in his time.) Were they driven by a need to prove themselves to a cold world, or simply by the galvanic force of their talent? Either way, Hornby identifies with their lack of “perfectionism,” by which he means not the imperative to “make things objectively perfect,” but rather “the act of doing things over and over again until you’re sick of them.” The urge to get the work out there and move on to the next intriguing idea—for there’s always another one lined up—trumps such obsessive honing. Of course, this means that you crank out some less-than-stellar work—not all Prince songs are immortal, and even Dickens has his Barnaby Rudge—but with such an abundance to choose from, is that really so terrible, especially given the joyless claustrophobia of perfectionism?

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From left to right, Nick Hornby, Carolyn Prusa, and Hilton Als.
Nick Hornby, Carolyn Prusa, and Hilton Als. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Parisa Taghizadeh, Molly Hayden, and Ali Smith.

In one of the most interesting chapters in Dickens and Prince, Hornby describes how both men dealt with the midlife lull that followed their youthful stardom. After the early acclaim he won with Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, and other novels, Dickens’ books continued to sell well but suffered from a diminished critical reputation after 1850. Pop music fans are even more fickle than literary critics, and you would never know, from the rhapsodies of adoration that followed Prince’s death, how much his stardom had dimmed from the peak of 1984’s Purple Rain. The hit singles were fewer and further between, and although the artist shrewdly realized that the real money lay in live performances (something else he shared with Dickens, who did extensive live reading tours), his legal battles bogged him down.

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“People have their moment in the sun,” Hornby writes, “and then the sun moves on to somebody else.” He surely understands what this feels like, with his own best-known books—High Fidelity and About a Boy—having been published in the 1990s. (Nevertheless, 2020’s Just Like You still got reviewed by the New York Times.) “The truth is that nobody can stay hot forever,” Hornby observes, and so the trick is to always remember that the real prize is “a lifetime spent doing what you want to do.” This feels like the solid kernel of the book’s wisdom, and an insight that Hornby is grounded enough to have arrived at in earnest. But if Prince were grounded, he wouldn’t be Prince, and perhaps some of the oracular eccentricity of his late work and statements was in part a response to a world that had moved on from partying like it’s 1999.

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It’s disconcerting, then, that Hornby writes, “What matters to me is that Prince and Dickens tell me, every day, Not good enough. Not quick enough. Not enough. More, more, more. Think quicker, be more ambitious, be more imaginative.” Both men died before reaching 60, and Prince’s overdose was likely the ultimate result of treatments for the pain he suffered from subjecting his body to the punishing dance moves (in high heels, no less!) of his live performances. “Were they happy?” Hornby asks of this strange pairing of subjects. “Probably not. Were they crazy? Probably.” So maybe not the best role models, but “this book is about work,” Hornby adds, “and nobody ever worked harder than these two, or at a higher standard, while connecting with so many people for so long.” Hornby isn’t a genius like his two subjects, but his charming, intelligent novels have a common sense both Prince and Dickens lacked, and no artist is well advised to abandon his strength.

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The Prince that New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als celebrates in My Pinup, a long essay about the artist, bears no resemblance to the fanatical workhorse Hornby admires. An often cryptically personal text, My Pinup occasionally addresses the late artist directly, and Als is entitled to this. He met Prince, apparently to research a profile that was never written, and Prince was taken enough by Als to suggest the writer move to Paisley Park so the two men could collaborate on a book together. Als wisely demurred, realizing that “if I went to Minneapolis I would never come back.” It’s hard to imagine two such headstrong sensibilities finding a middle ground.

Besides, Als wasn’t much into late Prince. And not only 2000s, Jehovah’s Witness–era Prince: Als didn’t even really like 1999 or Purple Rain. “Those felt like self-consciously ‘white’ pop albums to me,” Als writes, “a craven desire on The Artist’s part to belong to the world outside the colored queens I had known growing up, who called Prince ‘Miss.’ ” Black and gay, Als felt the artist had abandoned “the colored queer in himself” and an audience that felt some claim to his earliest success, “the black queens who lip-synched to ‘Sister’ while voguing near the Hudson River.” The artist redeemed himself in Als’ eyes only with the release of 1988’s Lovesexy, an album whose foldout cover featured a nude Prince posed with one hand coyly covering his nipple, like an old-time pinup girl. The album featured a female dancer and performer who resembled him, Cat Glover. Als sees Glover as “the girl Prince had been before he stopped being a girl,” perhaps like “Camille,” the female alter ego Prince sometimes deployed in those years. He wanted to be her, and he also wanted to be “the Prince to someone’s Cat.”

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If it’s not already clear, My Pinup is less about what Prince actually was or did than it is about the role of Prince’s image in Als’ emerging identity. Als brought a white lover to a concert on the Lovesexy tour, but his date resented how the performer commanded all the attention in the room. The relationship was cagey and frustrating, Als writes: “We were always watching to see who could give less. That was our erotics.” But like many such affairs, it was hard to quit. Later, while working in an ad agency, Als befriended a co-worker, a man who “was irrefutably colored in a ‘professional’ world where no one wanted to understand that, let alone translate it.” Als wanted to be his “girlfriend,” but this man was straight.

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Such are the tangled love lives of urbanites in their 20s, and Prince embodied, in the 1980s, an increasing freedom to cross lines of race and gender. At the same time, Prince was Black and, by all indications, straight, and the ability to act on previously forbidden desires did not necessarily guarantee that those desires would be reciprocated. Your white lover might not value some crucial part of your identity; your Black friend might be stubbornly attracted to women. You pined, and you made do. Sometimes you surprised yourself. Als introduced his co-worker to a woman friend, the straight couple fell in love, and the three of them remained close. “She loved you, too, Prince,” Als writes. “We were all colored boys together, and she loved, as a white girl, being outside what she felt about our difference from her and our not-difference from her, our coloredness and complicated boyness.” It all sounds very Prince.

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There are clips of straight Black male comics sheepishly confessing to meeting and being attracted to Prince, who dressed, danced, and flirted with cameras in ways considered feminine. (Als describes one of these routines, by Jamie Foxx, at the beginning of My Pinup.) But Prince himself obviously preferred his female doppelgängers, that legion of doe-eyed brunettes in red lipstick, false eyelashes, and elbow-length gloves who gyrate through his music videos. As Hornby puts it, “Prince’s sexuality came from the future.” Women wanted to sleep with him and men wanted to be him, goes the typical formulation, but with Prince, people weren’t sure which part they wanted to play, only that they wanted in. For my part, I spent the last half of the ’80s with my hair cut to resemble his.

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Some sad, faint ghost of this Prince presides over Carolyn Prusa’s comic novel, None of This Would Have Happened if Prince Were Alive. Set during the 2016 evacuation of Savannah, Georgia, before Hurricane Matthew, the book is narrated by Ramona, a middle-aged mother of two and the literary descendant of Bridget Jones. Her kids cause messes and chaos, her mom is kooky, her tech bro boss doesn’t understand that it’s unreasonable to expect her to work while fleeing a Category 4 storm, and her husband, as she discovers right before piling her entourage into the minivan and heading off to her gay best friend’s house in South Carolina, has been sleeping with someone named Sue Ellen.

A lot of generically predictable comedy ensues in which Prince (who has just died) is made to stand for the freewheeling girl Ramona once was. She used to paint. She used to “wear vintage cocktail rings and eat two veggie samosas for lunch every day” and she “won second prize at the Sidewalk Chalk contest in Forsyth Park” for her “sketch of an underwater cellist.” Her gay best friend worries that people no longer realize how “funny and strange” Ramona is, and his concern is well founded. She is not especially funny, and not even in her bohemian heyday could she have been described as strange. Still, she mourns the passing of the “tiny guitar-wielding deity shrouded in lush fabrics emanating freedom, sexuality, vulnerability, and funkiness,” as a vanished aspect of herself.

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Unquestionably both funny and strange, the actual Prince feels barely present in None of This Would Have Happened if Prince Were Alive, a cipher less significant than a Xerox of the glyph with which he once replaced his name. As with Frida Kahlo, the sharp edges of his rebellion have been rubbed down, transforming him into a mascot for the tame quirks of completely ordinary people who like to think of themselves as original. Anyone is entitled to take what inspiration they can from a great artist—but it would be tragic for someone as extraordinary as Prince to become a banal symbol, the stuff of coffee mugs and gift shop T-shirts.

But the worker bee of Dickens and Prince, commanding Hornby to screw his creative powers to their sticking point, doesn’t feel much more persuasive. How perplexing that a performer so very much himself, so profoundly unlike anybody else, should be drafted to symbolize this or that aspect of our more ordinary personalities! Only Als seems to realize the uses his imagination has made of Prince. When he turned down that invitation to Paisley Park, he must have understood that the real Prince could only interfere with the phantom we need him to be, that avatar of everything we want, hovering 4ever just beyond our reach.