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New Power Generation: Three Popcult Tableaux

By Ben Kessler

“does any1 know a psychiatrist in Dublin or wicklow who could urgently see my [sic] today please?... Im really un-well…and in danger….I desperately need to get back on meds today”

—Tweets by Sinead O’Connor


Writer Touré is more an agent of entropy than a journalist or critic, so it’s fitting that the best, really the only non-risible, section of his recent book I Would Die 4 U: How Prince Became an Icon describes a scene of cultural decline, staged by the author and his former bosses at now-defunct Icon magazine.

As Touré tells it in the book, he was disappointed with the quotes Prince (then in his “Artist Formerly Known As…” phase) gave him during a 1998 interview. Hungry for more “substance,” he emailed the 40-year-old popstar follow-up questions, along with an invitation to shoot hoops, which The Artist accepted.

The few pages Touré devotes to his basketball game with Prince represent a stark stylistic departure from the rest of the book. For one thing, the prose is readable—which made me think it must have been taken directly from the ’98 article, shepherded into publication by sharp-eyed Icon editors (quite unlike the sleepyheads at Atria Books who let I Would Die 4 U’s many, many blunders pass by). And unlike all the rest, the short basketball section has focus and drive. But the pair of legs and spine in these lines quickly disappear, or are retracted by an author with a perilously wobbly thesis (Prince as some sort of ur-Gen X’er) to uphold. The whole thing left me deeply puzzled, if the word “deep” can ever be associated with Touré’s prose.

For answers, you have to go back to the original Icon article (available on a Prince fansite: http://princetext.tripod.com/i_icon98.html). Here, Touré shares some of the quotes that left him cold, among them Prince’s thoughts on how his split from Warner Bros. fits in with his racial consciousness: “Black Americans are walking away and getting nothin’! How can you not own your [master tapes] and try to uplift the community!”

Such “community” talk finds no traction with the budding avatar of post-Blackness…In fact, he dismisses Prince’s comments as merely being about “money,” which is richly ironic considering it’s Touré and Icon that have their mind on their money and their money, etc.:

Crystal Ball moved more than 250,000 units at $50 apiece, and Emancipation crossed over 500,000 cash registers…

But, in retrospect, Sign O' The Times was perhaps Prince's last high point. It didn't sell incredibly well…

Diamonds and Pearls (1991), a critical disappointment, moved more than two million albums, but his subsequent seven albums only moved a combined three million—some, like 1996's Chaos and Disorder, sold a mere 100,000 copies…

In '92, Warner Bros. signed Prince to a new contract, reportedly worth $100 million, and which was announced as one of the richest in record-business history. He received a reported $30 million in cash up front and a $10 million advance per album…

With all this on the brain, Touré and/or his editors deem the initial interview unsatisfactory: “I walked out feeling as though he’d never really shared himself.”

And with the 1998 context in place, the basketball game with Prince starts to look like the primal scene of post-Blackness. The desire to share selfhoods with a popstar represents a drive toward promoting bourgeois norms (indeed, Touré laments The Artist doesn’t do “normal human interaction”), neutralizing the threat of eccentricity. Touré drags Prince back to perceived neutral territory, which happens to be a basketball court—a stereotypical enough setting, perhaps, to comfort magazine editors rattled by the music icon’s militancy.

But the vigor of Touré’s writing here indicates his will is fully in the endeavor. He pursues his goals—acceptance, respectability, career mobility—like a true athlete of conformity. His audacity demands that this popstar-in-decline descend a step further, back down to “earth.” (This would have been unthinkable at the height of Prince’s fame.)

In the end, of course, Touré’s power move has no impact on what Prince actually accomplished. But the publication of so pointless a book as I Would Die 4 U—the culmination of Touré’s 15-year misunderstanding of an icon—proves our culture’s game of one-on-one between creativity and the forces of control is still far from settled.

What follows is intended to be a timely play-by-play.


“[The girls] are in the power position,” says music-video director Diane Martel, defending her infamous Robin Thicke clip “Blurred Lines” at the Grantland website. Her comment makes clear that from jump, the song and video have always been at bottom about control. But Martel doth protest too much: Clearly, what “Blurred Lines” depicts is not matriarchy but a kinda fascinating, contingent male/female equality (played out against a white cyclorama—more perceived neutral territory). The terms of that equality demand analysis.

Martel: “I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck…I find [the video] meta and playful.” But the video’s male clowning is troubling in itself, expressing a kind of casual privilege not unlike that of the Hangover series’ Wolfpack. At the very least, Martel’s boys simply don’t have to work as hard as her girls; they can be “silly as fuck,” not particularly sexy, and most of all—clothed. It’s all the strutting, incompletely dressed women can do to hold the attention of these powerful men, but both versions of “Blurred Lines”—topless and not—tell the story of their success in doing just that.

Taken together, however, the two versions form a different narrative, angled to resonate at the deepest levels of the zeitgeist. The teasing official version (where all the girls’ naughty bits stay under wraps), though obviously not “empowering,” could be defended from charges of sexism on grounds that there remains in it at least the potential for female power moves to possess some creativity, a little ingenuity. To keep up the tease without giving up absolutely everything takes a mind that’s more than just dirty. And that’s why the “unrated” version had to exist (Martel says she would’ve left the project if the label had negged it): to quash that potential. The topless version slakes a pop-addled audience’s false sense of sophistication by upping the stakes. The tease is okay for a while, but eventually, with parental controls lifted, Thicke and Martel cop to what we already know from pop culture: There’s no way those women, if they wanted to stay in the room with these men, were ever going to keep their clothes on. If you want to get yours, you got to give it up, in the most literal sense.

To be clear: It’s not the skin shown in “Blurred Lines” that offends but the indefensible attitudes described in this implied narrative. Both versions of the clip, in fact, posit a world stripped of practically everything but these attitudes, which are everywhere in contemporary showbiz. More than anything, “Blurred Lines” is a guide to the new careerism.


It seems no one has internalized the “Blurred Lines” lessons better than 20-year-old Miley Cyrus. She launched her pop career into high gear this year with a series of stunts that left little to the imagination, in the most literal sense. Even her nutty-risque “Wrecking Ball” video was modeled after Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 “Nothing Compares 2 U” (a track written by Prince). Miley’s shout-out to Sinead drew the middle-aged singer’s attention, in the form of a chiding open letter:

Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent...I repeat, you have enough talent that you don’t need to let the music business make a prostitute of you. You shouldn’t let them make a fool of you either. Don’t think for a moment that any of them give a flying f— about you. They’re there for the money... we’re there for the music. It has always been that way and it will always be that way. The sooner a young lady gets to know that, the sooner she can be REALLY in control.

Miley was having none of the letter’s assumed solidarity, just as Touré was unmoved by Prince’s talk of “community.” She responded with a choice bit of internet bullying, re-posting tweets from 2012 in which a suicidal Sinead cried out for help (see above). This move unnerved even Miley’s staunch supporters at Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch blog, who wrote, with their customary caution, “Ugh, Miley, I know you don’t like advice, but don’t make fun of someone’s mental illness. It just makes it harder to defend you.” Somehow, I think they’ll persevere.

Miley’s bullying and the inadequate response it has occasioned (as of this writing) perhaps represent a new low for pop culture. We may have reached the point where cruelty and vulgarity become one, and consequently our children actually need to be protected from pop, not just selectively screened from its worst excesses. If so, nothing will change for good until we root out the source of Miley’s gracelessness and lack of respect for humanity.

Doing so will be difficult, though, because these days Touré’s terms—the fake neutrality, i.e. hypocrisy, of post-Blackness, post-feminism, etc.—dominate the discourse. Most who dare to critique Miley on feminist grounds err by making her sexual expression the main issue. But nudity here is a red-herring taboo, and in her callow way Miley has helped point us to the genuine article. The cry for help is the true 21st-century taboo. And that’s why it will continue to echo, until we learn to hear it.

Ben Kessler can be contacted via email: Kessler_b@yahoo.com

From October, 2013

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