Perhaps more than any other space at Harvard, the Barker Center’s Thompson Room epitomizes Old Harvard. Wood-panelled walls, leather chairs, and a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt contribute to the room’s aristocratic air. Because of this atmosphere, it was quite strange to hear the throbbing bass and pornographic lyrics of Prince’s 1980 song “Dirty Mind” echo through the room last Tuesday. Songs like “Dirty Mind” blared throughout the week, as cultural critic Touré delivered three talks on Prince as part of the Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures series. These lectures are centered around African-American culture and history, and as Touré argued, Prince is a massively important figure in these fields, although he hasn’t received as much scholarly attention as other contemporary stars like Michael Jackson. Touré delved into how Prince’s background and influences shaped his distinctive image and how his persona captured the imagination of Generation X.
Touré, a celebrated public intellectual who writes on topics from hip-hop to the concept of “post-blackness,” might be considered the critical equivalent of the musically prodigious Prince. In addition to music journalism, Touré has written novels and short stories, worked as CNN’s pop culture correspondent, contributed to MSNBC’s “The Dylan Ratigan Show,” and served on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.
Touré’s skills as a journalist were shown through the various interviews he weaved into his lectures. His interview subjects included band members, Prince’s ex-manager Alan Leeds, and Prince himself. Through these diverse voices, Touré painted a vivid depiction of the artist’s past which allowed the audience to understand the genesis of Prince’s identity.
Touré argued, for instance, that Prince’s religious upbringing, which included services at Seventh-day Adventist churches, informed his use of gospel sound. He referenced the distinct-if-subtle influence in songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” which includes a quasi-sermon at the beginning, and “Do Me, Baby,” which seizes on the call-and-response vocals and euphoric climaxes that are typical of gospel music.
Based on his notoriously lewd lyrics, Prince seems like an extremely unlikely Christian rocker. However, Touré argued that Prince’s frank sexuality on songs like “Do Me, Baby” were used to make his frequent religious references more palatable. “It was like hiding vitamins in chocolate cake,” Touré said, citing Prince’s apocalyptic overtones in the song “1999” or self-deification on “I Would Die 4 U.” The most memorable use of lyrical evidence, however, came when Touré passionately recited the numerous times Prince has referenced the number seven, an important number in the Bible and Seventh-day Adventism.
In the second lecture, Touré examined the implications of Prince’s culturally diverse music. For Touré, Prince’s varied sound is key to understanding his multifaceted persona. “It’s interesting that he is pulling from multiple sources, and that allows him to sort of slide between multiple areas. He sort of seems to be black and white and also seems to be male and female,” Touré said in an interview after the lecture. “That’s a huge part of his success.”
Touré, a Gen X-er himself, used his knowledge of societal trends to argue that Prince successfully captured the fears and desires of Generation X. At the beginning of the lecture, Touré gave a brief history of the VCR, noting how its popularity allowed pornography to enter American homes and thus become mainstreamed, triggering an abundance of sexual imagery in pop culture. According to him, Prince epitomized and fueled this trend. Significantly, American teenagers were also having more sex than ever before, even as the spread of AIDS made sex a frightening proposition.Through his music, Prince appealed to both sexually active teenagers and abstinent ones, as his explicit lyrics allowed listeners to experience sex vicariously.
Though such social details were prevalent in the three lectures, Touré focused most on the music itself. To convince the audience that gospel influences were prevalent in Prince’s music, he played Prince’s “Do Me, Baby;” as the song drifted through the room of scholars and Prince enthusiasts, Touré gently swayed and quietly grooved to the song’s beat. With its blatant erotic content, the song seemed out of place in the Harvard Faculty Club, where the final lectures took place, but it was clear that the song, as well as Touré’s movements, were necessary to help prove Prince’s spirituality. Once the call-and-response vocals, a hallmark of gospel music, could be heard in the song, Touré gave a slight bow; his point had been made, and with it a potent reminder of the power of Prince’s music.
—Staff writer Petey Menz can be reached at email@example.com.