This blog is a work in progress, as I’m adding and editing as I go.
On Thursday I was finally on the train home from working in Leeds for the day. My train was delayed because someone had been hit by a train near Peterborough. I sat on the platform at York reflecting on the impact one person’s death can have, as I saw trains cancelled and severely delayed. Finally on the train I was checking Twitter for updates on the journey’s progress, when I saw someone tweet that Prince’s death had yet to be confirmed. Just the day before I had been driving home when the radio told me that Victoria Wood had died. That was the first time that a celebrity death had upset me sufficiently to wonder if I should drive. Victoria Wood was a cultural commentator whose medium was comedy. The next day another genius died – Prince. I had to put my ‘phone away on the train as I knew I would get upset if it were confirmed.
I grew up with Prince as a soundtrack to my teen years. It’s hard to say what I liked so much about him then. I didn’t find him attractive, but did find him sexy. I came to Prince towards the end of his peak time – or at least where he was most popular. Diamonds and Pearls was the album which got me into Prince. It didn’t take me long to notice how prominent women were in the Prince musical universe. Not as decoration, but at its core. Women were in the band, playing instruments I don’t think I knew women could play. He wrote about sex with women. Not as something he did to women, but as a mutual act where women’s pleasure was central to his own. Although his relationship to women was no doubt problematic in places, he was known for supporting women artists and journalists.
Since his death there have been numerous commentaries on what Prince meant to black (American) men, with his gender play. Prince wore high-heels and make-up while he sang about a woman he met ‘in a hotel lobby‘. He played with feminity while displaying a hyper-heterosexual masculinity. It has been argued that Prince celebrated gender fluidity at time when societal attitudes towards LGBTQ people were rather different. More recently Prince’s personal attitudes towards the LGBTQ communities have come under scrutiny, but what seems clear is that the gender play, merging of the male and female and his open exploration of sex were important to many who felt marginalised in their own lives.
Prince has also been commended for his explicit discussion of racial politics. It was no accident that Prince chose to write ‘Slave’on his face when he was fighting Warner for control of his creative output. More recently Prince carried on this debate, warning new-comers to his craft about the contracts they may be forced to sign. At the time of ‘Symbol’ I appreciated its mix of the male and female, but I didn’t appreciate the racial politics of the name change, or the dynamics of the cultural production. As I understand it (and I may be wrong) Warner effectively owned Prince’s name. Although he was mocked at the time for changing his name, it was a clever move. But it also strikes me a political move, when America’s racial politics are considered. Following the resolution of the Warner dispute, Trifonas (2003: 132) recalls Prince describing Lenny Kravitz as ‘He’s still on the plantation. He’s down south, I’m up north’. Just as in his lyrics, Prince was drawing on the politics of race – only this time to describe the politics and economics of cultural production within the music industry.
There is more to say, with time for reflection, but I wonder what can be learned from Prince’s creative process and his insistence on total control over the outputs. He was a pioneer of online music through his own store, but is not available to stream. He sought to retain entire control over his own creative process and output, and although this may not have guaranteed quality, he would seem to have maintained creative integrity. Prince’s actions have been argued to be significant in countering the exploitation in the creative industries. I hope that whoever has control of Prince’s estate respects his creative process and integrity, and doesn’t release the 100 or so albums worth of material in his archive. To do so would be a naked attempt at making money, while being contra to the desires of the creator of the material.
I am not 100% convinced that research is part of the creative or cultural industries (or that it should be), but I wonder what academia would look like if we as authors retained control over our own work. We hand over control at various stages. When we send something to a journal we craft the output for that journal. Sometimes we change content and focus to satisfy reviewers; to the extent that our final paper looks radically different. We then sign over copyright to publishers – some allow us to put OA versions on website and institutional repositories, others don’t. We work for institutions which own or share our intellectual property. Of course our work is different – it is subject to peer review to preserve quality – at least that’s the idea. I wonder how much is lost through that process. How many radical ideas are abandoned because they challenge the canon. We now have the opportunity to self-publish, as Prince did, but this doesn’t add to our careers. How much of intellectual and creative integrity is lost through these processes?
While we can’t all own our own studios, online stores, and turn up to work dressed head-to-toe in purple – perhaps we can learn something from Prince. Not just to speak out against inequality, consider the welfare of the non-human animals we share the world with, be generous with our time and to be fabulous at all times. Maybe we can also think about how to retain creative integrity and control, so that our work says what we want it to say.
Peter Pericles Trifonas. (2003). Pedagogies of difference: Rethinking education for social change. Psychology Press.