To the editors:
Mark Jenkins’s middling-to-coolly positive review of Prince’s Sign ‘o’ the Times (May 22) left me dumbfounded. As anyone with two ears, half a brain, and one ass should know, Sign ‘o’ the Times is not only Prince’s best album since Dirty Mind (a possibility he begrudgingly accedes), it’s also the most exciting pop album of the year so far from the greatest pop star of the day (and vice versa). How could a reviewer whose logic works perfectly well err so completely in his perspective and judgment? And why was he so priggish about Prince’s failures and condescending about his achievements? It wasn’t until I got to the end of the review and read the sentence, “This ain’t no Revolver,” that I figured it out. Jenkins suffers from the middlebrow white critics’ ailment of acute meaningful-itis. Revolver indeed: on this record Prince is after something much more basic, and I think a hell of a lot better.
Jenkins is correct, Prince’s politics are ignorant; on top of that, his moral preaching is oppressively simplistic, and his attitudes and mannerisms are prissy, self-serving, all but solipsistic. But what Jenkins misses is that Prince’s best work–like every one of the 16 tracks on this double album (even the music if not the words to “The Cross,” which kicks something like “Purple Rain” in the butt, I swear)–simply runs over those faults with Prince’s daring, quirky, and brilliantly imaginative homage to hedonism, especially hedonism in the form of eros. As Jenkins duly notes, Prince’s 1980 breakthrough Dirty Mind is one of the best of those best works. But what he doesn’t note is that the record is “important and fresh and seminal” not only for its bold “punk-funk miscegenation,” but also for its equally bold sexual candor. It’s the first completely successful presentation of Prince’s career-long homage, an example of vulgarity triumphant in the great tradition of Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. Jenkins also misses how, since Dirty Mind, Prince has broadened that homage in a number of thematic and musical ways: he has improved his vocal abilities a thousandfold and increased his personal vocabulary of sighs, screams, and suggestive phrasings to match; he has expanded his once narrow musical style to include motifs and ideas from Sly Stone and Sergeant Pepper to House music and black, mainstream loveman crooning; he has swept up into his guitar playing almost every popular black and white style around; and, just as important, he has stretched his outrageous posturing, touching it upon almost every mysterious sexual fetish you can think of (and some you’d rather not), while at the same time deepening the pose, making it more detailed, specific, “mature.”
In short, Jenkins doesn’t realize that over the past seven years Prince has turned himself into one mean motherfucker of a pop icon.
Still, Jenkins has a good point when he notes (again and again) that the man has mucked up his last two or three or four albums to various degrees with meaning mongering. But what makes Sign so great is the “meaningful” title track is an anomaly; for the most part it’s his rich bag of tricks–as splendid as any popster’s ever–that Prince displays front and center with such humor, finesse, and intelligence all throughout the album.
I repeat: humor, finesse, and intelligence. Early in his piece, Jenkins calls Prince too “dumb” to forge the “heady, cutting edge alliance between pop music and pop culture” that Jenkins claims Prince wants. Again, Prince’s world view is naive and so on, yet by calling him dumb Jenkins nails not the world view, but the man, an inferential leap that is both indefensible and dangerous: it suggests that all those who are politically naive or ideologically benighted are also stupid (the very best thing you can say about that is that it is ideologically benighted); it’s also one fine example of the age-old elitist technique of dismissing art (or whatever) by denigrating the artist (or whomever) (e.g. Madonna’s music sucks because she’s a slut).
To make an inferential leap of my own, it’s Jenkins’s narrow and restrictive middlebrow white standards that lead him naturally to focus on Prince’s search for meaning, ignoring or demeaning his (black) pop genius in the process. These standards also explain why, when he reviews individual songs, he misinterprets all over the place, like a foreigner trying to read local street signs using only his own language. In one instance, Jenkins cites the Joni Mitchell reference in “Dorothy Parker” to show how the record isn’t funky enough (‘cuz Joni Mitchell ain’t funky, right?). In fact, everything about that song–the alluring drum pattern, Prince’s smooth, knowing vocal, the little melodic flourishes that halt up the rhythm here and there with superb grace–all of it make “Dorothy Parker” the funkiest, sexiest tribute a Joni Mitchell fan will probably ever receive. The problem is the same here as everywhere, Jenkins doesn’t engage the song or the album, his aesthetics preclude it. He looks at Prince and, like so many white-thinking males, his criteria registers freak–“idiot,” “asshole”–and that’s about the end of it. Jenkins’s perspective is so completely rigid that for him to register pop as “good,” it must fit in a regulation-size box (his favorite tunes here are the most conventional) and, as is shown by his ridiculous wish list of role models for Prince (Oh, if Prince could only be more like Jackson Browne!), for him to register pop as “great,” it must have “seminal” music and/or academically insightful/politically correct/poetically deep lyrics. These are white middlebrow standards, standards developed in the 60s (the decade that Jenkins indignantly accuses Prince of so badly plagiarizing) and consciously forged with contempt for brutish pop music and all its unorganized power. Sign can’t match them, and neither, for that matter, can most pop music since the advent of Elvis Presley (inclusive). That doesn’t mean it (and most pop) doesn’t make meaning, or isn’t intelligent, daring, and moving, but it does mean someone like Jenkins has to step outside himself to see what’s going on inside. I’m sure he’d be surprised at what he’d find.