Book review: “I Would Die 4 U,” by Touré

Boston Globe, March 21, 2013

“A woman who was in a relationship with Prince years ago told me that when he gave women baths he took total control.” This nugget exemplifies what’s engaging about “I Would Die 4 U,” Touré’s study of the protean pop star’s meaning and appeal. It’s gossipy and a little prurient; it’s also enlightening if you’re among the millions who absorbed Prince’s music like an intravenous infusion, especially at his mid-1980s zenith.

If you’re one of those — one of us — then you’ll make immediate connections: to the washing fantasy in “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the two baths taken in “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” on the 1987 double album “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” or to Wendy and Lisa in “Computer Blue’’ on “Purple Rain” (“Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.”). You can then follow Touré as he relates Prince’s penchant for bathing women to the artist’s childhood, family drama, gendered self-identification, and religious inclinations. (Think baptism and immersion.)

“I Would Die 4 U” is not a biography, but three essays about Prince as icon, a term that Touré deploys in a particular way. “Stars entertain us,” he writes. “Icons do something much more. They embody us. They tell us something about who we are and who we want to be.” Icons have access to “truths about the soul of a generation,” and Prince, though born in 1958, played this role for the mass of Americans born between the mid-1960s and early ’80s who are known as Generation X.

This setup guides the book, to a point. The first essay posits that just as baby boomers were shaped by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and millennials by 9/11 and the Internet, Generation X was haunted by a surge in the rate of divorce. Broken families produced wary, disconnected but autonomous children. Prince, a “functional orphan” who grew up “bouncing around Minneapolis,” taught himself multiple instruments, and inked a large record deal at 17, both reflected and spoke to this.

The premise is debatable, but it offers a frame to discuss Prince’s relationships with his parents, with armchair-psychoanalytic but interesting analysis of “When Doves Cry,” and the development of his personality, driven and remote. By the essay’s end, however, the divorce theme gives way to a potpourri of supposed Gen X traits: “cynicism, skepticism, sarcasm, and irony.” There’s a tangent on “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” then an edict on whether black folks were part of “the Gen X meme” (“Of course we are.”). A broad-but-shallow sociology infuses the book: Touré is the kind of essayist who makes a point by citing fellow pop intellectuals, such as Michael Eric Dyson or Malcolm Gladwell.

The second essay starts looser, as Touré notes that the ’80s saw the rise of the VCR and with it, the easy consumption of pornography. He dubs Prince the “King of Porn Chic,” and leads the reader on a randy excursion through sex scenes in his oeuvre. The topic then abruptly shifts to race and gender, and Prince’s insistence on having women and white musicians in his band — a choice both philosophical and market-savvy.

By the third essay, “I’m Your Messiah” — a line from “I Would Die 4 U,” the song that gives this book its title — the Gen X theme vanishes in favor of a tight, convincing analysis of Prince’s evangelical themes. His songs are a kind of glammed-up gospel: “So much of Prince’s catalog is ready to be played in church on Sunday.”  The intertwining of sacred and profane is far from new in black music, but Prince, who grew up Seventh-Day Adventist and is now a Jehovah’s Witness, embodied it to an extreme degree, including at the raunchiest points in his career.

Beyond the nostalgia appeal (one comes away with an urgent need to listen to lots of Prince), the wealth of “I Would Die 4 U” rests largely in its interviews. Touré spoke with smart analysts such as the drummer Questlove and the musicologist Griffin Woodworth, and even better, with Prince collaborators such as Susan Rogers, his mid-’80s recording engineer. The insider accounts, spiced with bits of anonymous gossip, are in themselves worth the read.

Prince himself remains something of a phantom: Clearly he did not make himself available for this project. Touré did interview him once, though, in 1998 for a magazine assignment, at Prince’s Paisley Park offices in Minnesota, and his tale of that encounter, complete with one-on-one basketball faceoff, is entertaining.

At one point, Touré asked Prince, “Do you realize you’ve changed a generation with your music?” The response was brittle: “Prince became defensive. His body stiffened. The thought of it was too much.” More likely, the problem dwelt in the question. Did Prince change a generation? Does it matter? “I Would Die 4 U” doesn’t tell us nearly as much about American society as Touré intends. But it tells us plenty about Prince, and that’s value enough.