Friday, September 28, 2007

Prince and the encounter with art

I realized about halfway through Michaelangelo Matos's Sign 'o' the Times that it wasn't quite for me. I am, after all, a Prince fan, not a PRINCE FAN. Don't get me wrong: I love Prince. The purchase of the book followed hot on the heels of a stretch of about three weeks where I didn't really listen to anything but Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone. But I don't own Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic. I don't have the special edition three-disc Crystal Ball. I have never decoupaged a coffee table with pictures of Prince, as a girl I knew in college did. Sure, there's always a risk that I could wake up one day and find that the dozen or so Prince albums I have suddenly become thirty--Prince is, after all, his own gateway drug--but for now I'm not quite there.

Matos's book, though not uncritical, is ultimately for the full-blown Prince worshipper. For the rest of us, the blizzard of details about discarded plans for the album--and which later Prince album each leftover ended up on--gets to be a bit much. But if you quickly flip past that part (like skipping the bits about whaling in Moby-Dick, for you odd people out there who hate that book), Sign 'o' the Times does provide rewards. Some are simple throwaway lines:
All of which ignores the real question behind "U Got the Look": What the hell is Sheena Easton doing here, and why does she sound so good?
Or this one, which comes in the course of a complaint about the New Power Generation, Prince's band on Diamonds and Pearls (about which I disagree with Matos--I like the album, despite a couple of really bad tracks):
Tony M, the group's rapper, sounded like something Prince won at an arcade.

Far more interesting, though, is Matos's characterization of his first encounter with Sign 'o' the Times as a middle school student in 1987:
It's starting to occur to me that my long-faked cosmopolitanism is doing me no good with this new album. I can pretend I know more than the people in my classes because I have a firmer grasp on what great music, great art is (because that's what incipient snobs do), but I really haven't encountered this sort of thing before. It's easy to assimilate the Beatles' experiments because they're twenty years old and have been celebrated to death, explained until (you'd think) the life has been drained from them. The miracle there is that they really haven't been--that life is still there for the finding if you want to look closely enough. Sign, though--Sign is strange. And beguiling. Which are qualities that as an incipient snob I always pretend to like but am actually flustered by when I encounter them.
That experience will surely ring true for those of us who remember the hard work of imitation and exploration that went into our first conscious forming of tastes--and of ourselves as people who would make ourselves stand out from the mass of teenagers by those very tastes.

For those of us who consider art to be an important part of our lives, that fight against the toxic mixture of complacency about received opinions and posturing about our own continues even into adulthood, requiring constant alertness--and the repetition to ourselves of some perennial questions: Am I making myself open to this work of art? Am I truly seeing it, or am I just seeing what I expect to see? Am I bothered because it's no good, or am I bothered because it's not what I was expecting? And the only real response, as Matos notes, is to keep looking:
So naturally, I keep playing the thing. And as I do, I keep adjusting.
Keep looking, keep reading, keep learning, keep adjusting. If I can manage to do that into old age, I'll be happy.

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