What Can Prince Teach Us About Dostoevsky?

by Fiona Bell

Prince was not a fox.

Well, he was sexy. But within Isaiah Berlin’s paradigm, at least, he was an unmistakable hedgehog. And his big idea – that Christian love will save us – is Dostoevsky’s.

But their paths to God could not have been more different. For Prince, spirituality entails the uninhibited expression of the ego. Dostoevsky, however, views the ego’s destruction as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. This essential difference explains the artists’ contrasting narrative styles and approaches to sexuality. Dostoevsky offers many voices but only supports one self-abnegating vision of spirituality. Prince shares only his own voice but reveals countless – often erotic – paths to God. This strange comparison is (besides the obsessive preoccupation of a Prince superfan) an exciting way to reexamine the role of the self in sexuality, spirituality, and authorship.

For Prince, “funk is about rules.”[1] It’s ordered, harmonic, and – in his case – undeniably monologic. In his first five albums, Prince played every instrument on each track. And while he needed a band for live performances, he was not exactly known for his musical dialogism. In fact, Prince’s resistance to teamwork is a subplot of the movie Purple Rain. Having alienated his band with his diva behavior, The Kid descends into depravity and performs the sleazy single, “Darling Nikki.” Though The Kid learns his lesson by the end of the movie, reuniting with the band and performing a triumphant “Purple Rain,” Prince himself apparently didn’t. Throughout his career, he cycled through dozens of bands, constantly inviting and ousting members, appreciating virtuosity but rarely permitting another artist to rival his own supremacy. The result is a body of work that is stamped with Prince’s voice, touched by others but never defined by them.

Even on a lyrical level, when Prince simulates dialogue, he simply emphasizes his ingrained monologic tendencies. The outro of his 1987 song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is a great example:

Can I see you?
I’ll show you
Why not?
You can think it’s because I’m your friend I’ll do it for you
Of course I’ll undress in front of you!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make you see that it’s cool?
Can’t you just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend you could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get you off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me?

Several times in this excerpt – “Oh, yeah, I think so,” or “Then tell me what will!” – the speaker supposedly responds to a comment his love interest has just made. But by omitting her voice, Prince privileges his own monologic desire over the lovers’ dialogue. Such moments are reminiscent of Dostoevsky in A Writer’s Diary or the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground, when the narrator imagines a skeptical reader’s response and responds to his criticisms preemptively. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” leaves the listener with a similar impression of the speaker’s desperation.

Yet, as Bakhtin noted, it makes sense for love songs to be monologic. What else can the poet do but describe their own desire? Prince hinted at this truth – with his characteristically sly smirk – in a 2004 performance of “Cream,” telling the crowd: “I wrote this while looking in the mirror.”

Of course, Dostoevsky’s work is famously dialogic. His prose, unlike Prince’s music, is characterized by a cacophony of unorchestrated voices. For that reason, any expressions of intimate experience – either sexual or spiritual – belong to his characters, not necessarily to him. Thanks to this dialogism, Dostoevsky is able to describe unconventional sexualities without directly endorsing them.

Still, the author saw a moral danger in writing about sexuality. He once attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that art neutralizes reality, and therefore nullifies the threat of sexuality: “Here reality has been transformed, having passed through art, having passed through the fire of pure, chaste inspiration and through the poet’s artistic thought.”[2] Part of art’s value is its ability to sanitize the world’s depravity.

Prince certainly doesn’t pretend that the eroticism in his music isn’t his own. His characteristic monologism leaves no room for doubt. That’s what makes Prince’s music so uniquely vulnerable. It’s also what prompts some people to wrinkle their noses: they’re encountering someone’s naked sexuality, unable to attribute the strangeness to anyone but the artist himself. The intensity of listeners’ responses – discomfort and awkwardness or, equally, excitement and arousal – demonstrates that sexuality isn’t always neutralized when it’s turned into art, as Dostoevsky suggested.

In his oeuvre, Prince gives us a vivid, realistic portrait of sexuality, with its sanctity, its unpredictability, and its contradictions. Even though his music itself is monologic, within this single perspective he manifests a type of dialogism that Bakhtin would appreciate. Prince adored love without sex, but he also saw the beauty of sex without love, or, rather, sex as an expression of universal love. In his view, the selfishness of erotic love was not at odds with the selflessness of Christian love. Both were sacred, and they fed into one another. In his 1996 cover of the Bonnie Raitt song, “I Can’t Make U Love Me,”  Prince adds this recitative interlude: “In this bedroom/church, U can guess the offering.”

Some of Prince’s dirtiest lyrics appear alongside his most heartfelt religious appeals. In “Controversy,” he recites the entire Lord’s Prayer. “Darling Nikki,” the fifth track on the 1984 album Purple Rain, was the impetus for the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which censored music deemed unsuitable for children. The song is sultry and raw, with unambiguous lyrics about masturbation and a one-night stand. But the track ends with gospel-style vocals, which, played in reverse, are: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine, ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Prince doesn’t believe that suffering improves the soul. Instead, he views sex as a healing force for the “I,” the “you,” and the world. This force is chaotic, joyful, powerful, and – to draw on another Bakhtinian idea – carnivalesque. Prince channels this force in his music, joyously challenging the established understanding of sexuality in American culture. Though music composition was an Apollonian act for Prince, his dancing was an unconfined, Dionysian release of energy. Zadie Smith has written about the ephemerality of Prince’s style: “It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.”[3]

Bakhtin formed the idea of the carnivalesque in opposition to monologism. And indeed, Prince’s belief in the ordered nature of funk is at odds with the carnivalesque mode, which necessitates the renunciation of order and assimilation into the crowd. Still, Prince managed to evoke the carnivalesque in his monologic music, just as a street performer is both a leader and member of the crowd. The best example is his performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 VMAs, where he appears in a Boschian, pornographic hellscape, clad in a lace-patterned, assless suit. Prince flaunts his backside with self-assurance and a smirk, seeming to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, the silliness of sexuality in general. At one point in the song he promises to “Strip your dress down / Like I was strippin’ a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy.” Yes, the candy bar. To my mind, there’s no better evocation of the carnivalesque’s obsession with the body, its mixture of satanic and Christian elements, its riotous humor, than this performance.

According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque mode generates fearlessness, as the crowd laughs in the face of the establishment. This is exactly the spirit of Prince’s music: he laughs at racism, at homophobia, at all the world’s evils. He gives his audience permission to do the same. But his collaborators and his listeners are only free to defy convention because Prince has already bared himself. And his greatest wish is that others would follow suit, as he expresses in the famous lines from “Controversy”: “People call me rude, I wish we were all nude / I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” Prince was the leader of a widespread carnival, empowering others – especially the Black and queer communities – to be just as vulnerable as he was. This is the enduring power of his music.

Although dialogism is associated with tolerance, Dostoevsky’s overall depiction of sexuality is not very accepting. He portrays the simultaneous holiness and sinfulness of a single human being, but rarely celebrates it. In fact, Dostoevsky’s most indisputable heroes – Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov, and children – don’t even experience this dissonance. His characters’ sexualities are ultimately at the service of his greater point about salvation.

By contrast, Prince’s work suggests that the ideal discourse on sexuality is an unabashed, monologic expression of a “Dirty Mind.” In his own way, Prince makes an even stronger argument about God than Dostoevsky does. By accepting all the aspects of his consciousness – through a monologic exploration of the self – Prince learns how to accept everyone else. His vision of Christian love relies on the construction, not the destruction, of the self.

Later in life, Prince’s self-acceptance was shaken and, consequently, so was his tolerance for others. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he stopped singing swear words and erased many sexual lyrics from his oeuvre. The queer community was understandably upset in 2008 when he denounced gay marriage.[4] Many Dostoevsky scholars experience a similar disappointment upon reading the author’s writings on Jewish people and women. Yet, we continue to cherish these artists for the same reason that they believed God wouldn’t give up on humanity: their striving is so heartfelt.

Prince’s unfinished memoir is being released by Penguin Random House on October 29th. I’m so excited for another chance to witness his joyous, fervent, smirking struggle for transcendence.

Notes

[1] Piepenbring, Dan. “The Book of Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 Sept. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/09/the-book-of-prince.
[2] Fusso, Susanne. Discovering Sexuality In Dostoevsky. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2006. Page 6.
[3] Smith, Zadie. “Zadie Smith: Dance Lessons for Writers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Oct. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/29/zadie-smith-what-beyonce-taught-me.
[4] Hoffman, Claire. “Soup with Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 2008, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/24/soup-with-prince.


Fiona Bell recently completed an MSt degree in Russian at Oxford University, after earning her B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is currently working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulyanovsk, Russia. In Fall 2020, she will enter Yale University’s PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures, where she plans to focus on Russian theater and performance studies.

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