Prince Filtered

Another major figure in rock music passed away last week. Unlike the subject of the last post, Sir George Martin, Prince died at the depressingly young age of 57. Perhaps by demographics or coincidence, Prince was one of the extraordinary number of popular music stars who were born in 1958. Others include Madonna, Kate Bush and Michael Jackson.

I was never Prince’s most devoted fan, and it appears there were plenty of those, but I bought most of his best-known albums from the 1980s. Like many, the first I bought was Purple Rain and then explored his back-catalogue with 1999 and stuck with him for the next couple of albums, including Around the World in a Day – and all of these were released in the space of a few years. He maintained this rate of output at a time when other artists who’d reached a level of success, such as Michael Jackson and Kate Bush, began to take four or five years before releasing their next albums.

Even so, despite continuing at this prodigious rate throughout his career, Prince apparently died with over unreleased 500 songs locked in his Paisley Park vault.

Of all the press and online tributes to Prince that on The Economist website’s Prospero blog was particularly thought-provoking.

(This blog is consistently interesting on the arts in general — as is the concise arts section in the printed edition of The Economist.)

While praising his invention and originality, the blog article raised some questions about Prince’s musical legacy. It wondered if it might be blemished by his famously explicit lyrics: he was the artist who provoked the introduction of the Parental Guidance stickers in the US. I still remember my curiosity at reading the lyric sheet to the notorious Darling Nikki (was she using the magazine physically or as a source of inspiration?) Only a few years these lyrics would have appeared relatively coy. (Apple oddly suggested a playlist to me recently titled Head Music — yes it was that sort of head. Some tracks dated back to the 199os and left much less to the imagination than Prince).

Standing at 5’ 2” and with his flamboyant image sometimes bordering on the effeminate, it seemed puzzling that Prince was regarded as such a sex symbol. Perhaps it was his openness in singing about sex and his inhibited performances – or maybe that he shared how much pleasure it gave him?

The blog also made a related, but wider ranging point that is also very relevant to writing: Prince’s unusual attitude to the editing of his own work. Compared with his contemporaries, his output was unusually vast. Prospero suggests: ‘Perhaps he could have been a better filter for his material…even “Sign o’ the Times”, his 1987 double-length masterpiece, said the doubters, might be thought of as one of the greatest single-length albums never released.’

Prince changed his name to a ridiculous, unpronounceable squiggle in the 1990’s because his record company, Warners, suggested that he was saturating the market with his own music and therefore reducing its value by its ubiquity. It had the opposite effect to the ‘less is more’ argument that’s often attributed to the rare magnum opus produced by a Great Artist — music that’s Worth Waiting For.

What the impatient fans probably don’t realise is that it’s perversely in the record company’s interests to ration their artists’ material. Prince’s attitude seemed to be that if he’d written and recorded a song then why not release it and let his fans decide for themselves whether it was a track they’d put on a playlist or consign to obscurity.

This is an interesting contrast to the traditional record industry practice of bundling tracks into albums  or, in many cases, padding out the strong tracks with fillers. It’s the ability of consumers to pick and choose individual tracks to download that has exploded the music industry’s business model in the digital age (after the initial disruption of piracy). (Fortunately the required continuity of narrative offers literature and film a degree of insulation form this trend.)

Prince’s output was so prolific, despite his regular release of albums, that he gave away songs to other artists. While I knew about Manic Monday, I never realised that I Feel for You by Chaka Khan or Stand Back by Stevie Nicks had Prince writing credits — and Kiss was given away before being claimed back and then covered by Sir Tom Jones.

It wouldn’t be surprising if it was this incredible capacity to generate large amounts of new material was, apart from his virtuoso guitar playing and mastery of other instrument, one of the main reasons why other artists were so keen to work with him. One of Prince’s most bizarre collaborations is one I’ve had on CD since the early 90s — Why Should I Love You with Kate Bush — and Lenny Henry on backing vocals!

Prince’s approach to editing (or not editing) his vast output has parallels with creative writing. For example, Prince would never presumably have suffered from writers’ block. I’m currently reading a book on creative writing written by a tutor from a well-known Masters’ programme — and it’s remarkable how much of the book is devoted to generating ideas for readers or students to write about (free writing, notebooks, journals and so on).

After a while I began to wonder whether people who needed to use so many techniques as prompts would ever be productive or interesting writers. They might be able to hone technique but if there’s no story they feel compelled to tell then surely that would show up in a lack of emotional or intellectual engagement with the reader on the page?

An album like Sign O’ The Times (which Prospero considered in need of editing) would be the equivalent of the 700 or 800 page tome, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Not that these three books need to be edited (I’m sure Prince fans would say his double album wouldn’t either) but it’s received wisdom that book buyers are deterred from picking up novels over the 150,000 word mark (being nominated for the Man Booker or similar seems to be one of the few ways of overcoming this reluctance).

And for every long novel that’s published there are bound to be hundreds in the slush pile whose sheer length might have been the main factor in deterring an agent or editor from taking them on — open up the Word file, look in the bottom left, word count over 150,000? Press Delete.

When I’m in a bookshop, I’m also wary of picking up chunky books. The argument goes that I’ve only got a finite amount of time in my day for reading and far too many books I’d love to read to fit into that time: the shorter the novel, the sooner I’ll be able to get on to the next one. And that might apply while I’m reading if the novel isn’t particularly gripping.

But, as with most readers, when the book is absorbing and entertaining (when you literally ‘can’t put it down’) then the opposite is true. You don’t want it to end, you savour the last pages and want to linger in the novel’s world longer before saying goodbye to the characters. This is no doubt why there’s such an insatiable market for sequels (even Harry Potter’s getting another one soon). Yet the author may have gone through the manuscript and deleted huge amounts of perfectly well-written material in order to come in under a word count.

It’s similar with films,  with the market for DVD extras and Director’s Cuts for familiar films, yet a running time of over two hours is still a negative factor on the basis of taking time out of from the viewers’ lives. Even so, it’s surprising that writers don’t tend to do the same, especially with the option of online publishing.

Possibly this reticence to commit is due to a mutual lack of trust between consumers and the gatekeepers (the editors, record company labels, publishers, film companies, etc.). Consumers are reluctant to initially invest time in something they’re told they’ll like (or ought to like) whereas the gatekeepers know their markets are largely ruled by inertia (people like what they know they like already — unless they’re convinced by clever and expensive marketing that everyone else likes something).

In literature, authors tend to pick up Prince-like tendencies as they become more secure in their publishing careers, with editors often taking a less interventionist approach (the increasing length of the Harry Potter books is often cited as an example). Conversely, if readers think they know they’re going to like a author’s writing then they’ll be less wary of investing their time in advance of reading it.

Some authors, like Ian McEwan can go in the opposite direction. Reading his novels, with their concise, illuminating prose, raises the question of whether McEwan drafts slowly and deliberately or whether the pared-down, economical effect is the result of many revisions of painstaking editing. If the latter then the reader might sometimes wish McEwan had been a little less incisive and left in some of the deleted text for our pleasure. Yet to do so would dilute what is so admirable about his overall prose style.

I sometimes come across this dilemma when I’m workshopping in a writing group. A writer might bring along a section of a manuscript that’s filled with brilliant description in a paragraph, sometimes relating to the same subject. The typical response is to suggest that the description be pared down — only leave in what’s necessary to advance the plot and the character.

And so the writer is told to pick the best of their all-round strong writing and discard the rest — even though it might be almost as superb. It’s a paradox that the way to highlight excellent writing is to destroy much of it.

On the other hand another writer whose talents are more concentrated on other aspects of writing (e.g. plot) might be encouraged for descriptive prose which is less thrilling, precisely because there’s less of it to be selective about praising.

It’s part of the ‘kill your darlings’ advice which is often misapplied to suggest there isn’t a place in any novel for writing that’s a pleasure to read for its own sake. It also fits with the exhortation that ‘less is more’ but it’s far easier to say than to put this advice into practice. Often people will receive feedback from creative writing workshops or tutors with the vague advice that ‘this should be shorter’ but then also ask for missing information on backstory or description to be included.

Perhaps ‘this should be shorter’ really means that the person giving the feedback would have rather spent their hard-pressed time doing something else than reading the writing in question. In which case, the more honest feedback would be that the writing wasn’t particularly engaging (or that, as I’m sure often happens, the person giving the feedback wasn’t devoting their full attention in the way they might if they’d paid to buy a book).

So how would Prince’s back catalogue fared if subjected to a creative writing workshop? You’d have hoped that the likes of 1999, When Doves Cry, Sign O’ The Times, Nothing Compares to U, Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette might have made it through the workshopping process but some of the more esoteric material might have remained in an even-larger vault — even though it may have been stronger than much of the other music in the charts at the time.

This poses the question of whether an artist’s legacy stands on the peaks of his or her achievement rather than its consistency. Is a musician’s or writer’s reputation enhanced by hiding their lesser works?

By retaining a huge amount of control over his work, Prince took the view that he’d let the public be his editors. Perhaps Prospero was right in that his legacy amongst the critics might have been stronger if he’d been more selective but the lesser known work will have been enjoyed by some people. Would it have been right to have killed that small pleasure in the name of reputation?

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