by: HC Hsu
Prince, his genius and the deliberate framing of his musical legacy…
“I’ve never spoken about this before, but I was born epileptic. And I used to have seizures when I was young. And my mother and father didn’t know what to do, or how to handle it but they did the best they could with what little they had. My mother told me that one day I walked in to her and said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to be sick anymore.’ And she said why. And I said, because an angel told me so.” – Prince, from an interview with Tavis Smiley on PBS
One of my nephews was born epileptic. My understanding is childhood epilepsy is often idiopathic meaning that no one knows what causes it, and it can “cure” itself just as suddenly and mysteriously as it arrived. Still, at the time, it was quite frightening to behold. If you can imagine your child with their eyes rolled back, jaw clenched, frothing at the mouth, and twisting and writhing on the floor, at any time for any duration, that is, if they don’t die. And there is nothing you can do except try to wedge whatever is closest at hand (a towel, a piece of a shirt, a finger) into their mouth as quickly as possible so they don’t bite or swallow their tongue, and hold onto their hand. Imagine not only how you would feel, but how your child would feel, after, and in-between, these episodes. I imagine a child would experience waves of fear, shame, and guilt mixed with questions of what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I control my own body? These children must feel like a cracked vase. They are forced to do everything in their power to keep themselves under control, to keep themselves, and those around them, from shattering. In other words, these poor children can’t be themselves. Barely a teen myself back then, I would flee the room when my nephew had his episodes, while my mother and sister panicked and cried. It was a terrifying and unbearable experience.
A week before Prince died, I was looking online for videos of the musician performing. I forget why, but I couldn’t find any. Then I learned he’d gone to great lengths to have all videos of him performing, and all recordings of his music, removed from the internet. Who the hell does he think he is, I thought? A pretentious, narcissistic washed-up has-been egomaniac weirdo who was completely out of touch and delusional about his relevance in a Charlie Hebdo-ized age, whose music was way overrated, that’s who. In time, I forgot about Prince. Then, a little while later, someone called and told me Prince had died and if they had been in the room with me, they would have witnessed a blank stare and the dismissive shrug of my shoulders.
A week after Prince’s passing, I was skimming my Facebook feed and came across something Snax, a musician I like, wrote. It was an elegy about close encounters and the influence Prince had on him. Probably the most immediate consequence of Prince’s death was the sudden availability and almost wanton proliferation of his previously forbidden iconography — images, sounds, texts — especially on social media, shared, digested and regurgitated abundantly. Society is a cow, chewing over and over its sacraments. Thanks to Snax’s farewell, however, I was now able to absorb a lot of those nutrients that otherwise would have passed right through me. Snax wrote:
Prince was always one for surprises. Consider how he dropped the album Around the World in a Day, the follow-up to his massive hit Purple Rain, without one bit of promo, fanfare or even a lead single. It simply appeared in record stores one day. Or, at the 11th hour, how he cancelled what was supposed to be his nastiest, dirtiest funk record, The Black Album, in favor of the spiritually minded Lovesexy. Then there was the maddening decision to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
I was curious, so I began looking up more about this phenomenon who called himself “The Artist.”
What struck me most about Prince was how hard working and committed to his craft he was. He was in constant battle with record labels, the media and even his own fans over control of not only his product, but also its packaging. If art is a product, then the artist is the packaging, and Prince made the packaging itself into art. He was a master mythmaker with an intuitively precise and almost unerring understanding of how legends are not born but made. It was clear that Prince realized that his path and purpose in life was to play music.
I’m not saying Prince was a fake — quite the opposite, He was simply very conscious and aware of the consequences of his actions and the effect that every one of his words and gestures had on every kind of person.
By 1988, with three number-one hits and one double-platinum single, four Grammys and an Oscar under his belt, Prince’s career had reached its apex. When he voluntarily recalled The Black Album – after 500,000 copies had already been pressed – he truly believed the album was evil, even telling his fans, “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry.” I’m not extremely familiar with the music business, but making half a million copies of something and then withdrawing and shelving them seems like one hell of an expense to just walk away from. But of course it did elevate the artwork, and Prince, to cult status. Prince understood PT Barnum’s wisdom: “Always leave them wanting more.”
I don’t think the album was evil but I do think it revealed a part of Prince he was uncomfortable showing the world. It was about control. And The Black Album was out of control. I suspect it had to do with his successive film attempts after Purple Rain flopping as well. True to form, Prince, the dedicated and disciplined professional, understood that letting down his bosses and his fans, was not an option, and so he went back to work and turned out a new album, Lovesexy, in just under two months. Ironically, the cover of Lovesexy was a nude portrait of himself. Prince did finally release The Black Album in limited edition from November 1994 to January 1995, only so he could fulfill his Warner Bros. Records contract, own his masters, and put out music at a faster pace.
Every person has their own bubble. Some people’s bubbles are bigger than others. When the bubble becomes large enough it begins to encroach on and assimilate those around it, like an amoeba. Part of the “eater” now belongs to the “eaten.” Fame is like this. Prince was plagued throughout his life by control, or, the fear of losing it. As the eater he was endlessly fighting with the eaten – labels, media, fans – over ownership of his music, his image, and even his name. He made this clear, going as far as writing “SLAVE” on his cheek in 1993 when he was embroiled in a lawsuit against Warner Bros..
Prince was born on June 7, 1958, which made him a Gemini. He was born in Minneapolis, and stayed in The Twin Cities as his home, where his studio was, until his death. I feel part of this was that stubbornness as well, to do things on his own terms. To remain true to who he was. But also, to protect himself. From others, but also in a way from himself. Control is always two-sided. The more you are in control, the more it implies you are in need of control.
Prince’s musical style has been described as funk. I don’t know about other people, but listening to and watching funk music always remind me of Tongji in Taiwan. Tongji, “youth diviners,” are Taoist mediums, mostly young boys, who become involuntarily possessed by spirits and fall into a trance in a public ritual, often convulsing and beating themselves bloody with a sword, a spiked club, or a flail. The younger the boy, the more powerful the spirit that can possess them and the more accurately they can shed light on spectators’ queries. As a child, whenever I was acting goofy or crazy, my mother would say I was jitong-ing, “becoming a tongji.” I feel this when I’m watching Prince. The way he sang and played was in little explosions of sound and movement erupting from an affected repression, repeatedly holding in, building up, and bursting out. There is a jaggedness in his songs – as opposed to smooth round shiny orchestrations – full of discontinuities, spaces, and silences but also rife with sharp, jagged edges. It’s like driving over a potholed road or as a friend of mine once said, “it sounds like something tiny rattling in a big box.” James Brown was bumpy like this, too.
In 2001 Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness. I think he was drawn to the religion because of its tight-bondedness and privacy. That is the paradox of religion: people join it to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance for who they are, but it accepts them only if they can be who it wants them to be. Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid blood transfusions. Because he was a Jehovah’s Witness, Prince couldn’t have surgery when he needed his hips replaced in 2005. But he kept on performing, with a cane and most likely with the aid of prescription drugs. He probably felt his career was waning. Leading up to that time in his career, he had performed more frequently with other, including younger, musicians. I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt he had to be twice as good to stay relevant so he went back to what he knew best – his impeccable work ethic and his artistry. Prince could do anything he set his mind to. It was merely mind over body. He wasn’t going to be sick anymore.
Five days before Prince’s body was found, and less than twenty-four hours after he had fallen unconscious on his private plane due to dehydration from a bad case of the flu, people saw him riding around his bike in his hometown, shopping at a record store for Record Store Day and putting on a spur-of-the-moment dance party at his house. A guest later told CNN: “He addressed the crowd, said, if you hear news, give it a couple of days before you waste any prayers.” He said he looked “just the same as the other times I’ve seen him. He was always healthy, energetic. Worker mentality. Nothing’s going to keep him down. I thought, we’re going to see him into his 80s.”1
Some say Prince died from drug overdose. Some say it was AIDS.
I think Prince was tired.
Performing on stage is a kind of like epilepsy. Music can be a type of epilepsy as well. With his passing, Prince Rogers Nelson wasn’t going to be sick anymore.
Because an angel told him so.
HC Hsu is author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe) and the essay collection Middle of the Night (Deerbrook), which has been nominated for the Housatonic Award, CALA Award and Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. HC has written for Pif, Big Bridge, Iodine, nthposition, 100 Word Story, China Daily News, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, and many others. He has served as interpreter for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and his translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s biography Steel Gate to Freedom was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015.
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