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HKRB Essays: The Postmodernist Prince

The Postmodernist Prince

In a new HKRB Essays series R.M. Christofides argues that Prince was a truly postmodern artist, in the proper Lyotardian tense.

Was Prince the first postmodern artist of popular music? His magnum opus, Sign o’ the Times, has often been described as postmodern for seamlessly crossing and re-crossing conventional genre boundaries in a way no artist before or since has managed so well and so effortlessly. But such a description of the album as ‘postmodern’ subscribes to a reductive understanding of what the postmodern is, seeing it simply as eclecticism (even if Sign o’ the Times really is in another stratosphere entirely to the ‘throw it all in the pot and, hey presto! here’s Run DMC and Aerosmith’ brand of postmodern eclectic). Instead of seeing the postmodern as another word for the eclectic, Jean-François Lyotard articulated the postmodern as an ongoing investigation of artistic conventions. This definition is the prototype for altermodernism, which declares postmodernism dead only to resurrect it unchanged for the sake of a new ‘ism’, and is also different from straightforward eclecticism. Prince’s legacy, far from being another eclectic mix, best fits the Lyotardian bill. Prince, in the proper sense, was truly postmodern.

Prince, by Roy Christopher 

If the Lyotardian incentive for the postmodern is to resist the creeping totalitarian enmeshment of art with either the state or global corporations, then Prince’s refusal to stand still, and his refusal to be anything other than completely outrageous while doing so, was a challenge rarely seen in the mainstream to the conventional modes of music production and consumption endorsed by those institutions. His dizzying paradigm shifts from album to album were not just prodigious musical reinventions (and I can think of no higher tribute than to say that these extraordinary transformations can end up as mere asides when writing about him). The challenge was also one to the ever growing corporatisation of popular music. Duchamp’s urinal once provoked the question ‘What is art?’ Prince had already been asking that question of popular music for fifteen years when the record company dispute of the nineties asked us to think about something more than that. In the first instance it asked us ‘How should music be made?’ While record companies expected an album, a tour, and another album two or three years down the line in order to maximise revenue, as well as complete ownership of material, Prince was ready to put out three albums a year and wanted to retain the master copies of his work. It may have looked ridiculous at times, and Prince eccentric, but what was at stake was crucial.

Indeed, the issue of ownership was both fundamental and loaded. ‘Who owns my work?’ Given the resonance of an African American with ‘slave’ written on his or her face, this question could not be asked outside the historical context of such ownership. It’s frequently pointed out that in Reagan’s conservative America, Prince turned assumptions about race and gender inside out, most famously in the coquettish way he undermined stereotypes of black masculinity, but the record company dispute was just as powerful. Nobody phrased it better than Prince himself: ‘Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.’ A long history of the exploitation of black artists haunted the stand-off.

Recently, the black feminism of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade has struck nerves as well as chords, and this may be because an artist many liked to think of as ‘beyond race’ has reminded everyone that she, like anyone, is anything but in a world in which Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown can be unjustly killed. Similarly, Prince’s genuinely crossover audience cannot be separated from his rejection of music industry conventions, a stance that includes the rejection of a not-so-hidden racial metanarrative in which rich white guys always set the terms of negotiation and debate. Lyotard’s scepticism of realist art stemmed from the historical tendency for officially approved or accepted forms of art to be co-opted by totalitarian regimes. (Think the traditionally submissive females and muscular men of Nazi realism, or the pretty white heroines Disney still can’t get over.) Prince, as we are also perhaps seeing in the southern gothic apotheosis of Beyoncé, embodied that kind of scepticism to the approved and accepted because they constantly require artistic and political reimagining. Presenting a best album award in a world supposedly beyond albums, he told the audience that ‘albums still matter, like books and black lives.’

Prince’s death has led to deserved eulogies, and we should also celebrate the unique brand of anarchy he unleashed on the industry around him. His unusual, almost alien persona was a playful, captivating, yet resolutely political opposition to the tyrannical rules of the game on the stage, in the studio, and also beyond.

R.M. Christofides is a Shakespeare scholar with interests in Cyprus and the Middle East. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture (Bloomsbury) and numerous articles on the relationship between early modern culture and the present. His next book is called Othello’s Secret: The Cyprus Problem and is forthcoming with Bloomsbury.

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The featured illustration on this post is by Roy Christopher. Find out more here or visit his website.