Prince and in The Black Album Tangle: A Foucauldian ViewJeff White
Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999
In "The Order of Discourse," Michel Foucault discusses the institutionalization of the author's identity as an "author-function," which transcends the actual personhood of the writer and exists as a classificatory device. The author-function serves as an "internal procedure" for controlling discourse, and it is one of the means through which society searches for a "truth" existing external to the discourse itself. Foucault claims that several different groups of procedures exist similar to the author-function, and their role is to "ward off [the production of discourse's] powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality" (1155). In "What is an Author?," Foucault suggests that the author's name "permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others. [And] it establishes a relationship among the texts"(981). The author-function is a creation which, at once, shifts the text's, or set of texts', locus of power from the nature of the discourse itself to the created entity of "author," while, based on that shift, imposing a completeness upon the work, giving it social power as a body of texts. As discourse contained by an "author," texts which are unified allow for the inclusion or exclusion of further texts, and they allow for either the generation of consistent meanings in texts which seem deviant from the whole corpus, or they provide means to account for differences.
Of course lost, or, rather, almost inconsequential, is the role the actual author plays in the development of an author-function that invokes his or her name for classificatory purposes. Foucault defines the attribution of a discourse to an individual as a "complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call author" ("Author" 983). The "author" is a projection of "the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize, or the exclusions that we practice" (983). Perhaps in the context from which Foucault draws the author-function, the context of literary theory, the person-hood of the author is less important. However, extending the concept of author-function into areas outside literary criticism might change the dynamic. In popular music, for example, an author-function certainly exists. And its existence is, in society at large, a much more immediate presence. Musicians appear, perform, and interview in front of many and diverse audiences through several media forms, receiving much greater exposure than do authors. This is not to say that authors hide from society, nor that society ignores them, but that typically, as a spectacle, authors are much less obvious. Performance is not usually thought to be part of the original acts within the author's discourse. That is, the musician releases an album, produces videos, and performs live--each is a different, original text, or even set of texts, which contributes to the overall body of work. Considering that Foucault says the author-function is a tool of constraint that monitors the possession, transgression, and unity of discourse material, and considering the pervasive social nature of popular music, the immediacy of an author-function may be in some respects more necessary in this discursive set than in the literary set.
As the immediacy between the musician, the music, and society (including both critics and fans) might increase the need for control, it seems too that it allows for an increase in the involvement of the musician. However, before discussing that increase, an important distinction must be made between popular image or personae and the author- function. I do not mean by discussing the performer's role in defining an author-function in popular music to confuse it with the performer's image or stage personae. Instead, the roles that personae and image play are to an extent part of the discourse to be contained by "author"--that is, given the way public performance of one's personae is almost completely documented by contemporary media, personae and image are further texts, existing on the same level as the songs and videos of the performer. Of course taking an active role in the mediation of one's image is not at the forefront of many performers' agendas. Yet they still come closer to enacting elements involved in the ascription of their author-function than most writers do, again because of the often intense media attention to their off-stage activities. Few performers, though, come as close to almost fully embodying their author-functions as has Prince and , who have contributed largely to the manners in which their names classify their music. While may not be the rule, but more an exception, his career provides an interesting model with which to explore the possibility of the artist's contribution to the author-function. Indeed, because of his tight control over what is said, heard, and shown from his world, and because of the intense scrutiny he maintains over the mediation of his image, forces critics, fans, fellow musicians, and the music industry to pay closer attention to the functioning of his author-ship.
The creation of the author-function is primarily the work of critical commentary performed on a text combined with the "pluralities of the self" which admit various versions of the "authorial self" within a "scission" created between the actual writer and the speaker in the text ("Author" 984). So, between the body which writes and which is the person, and the various "I"'s and personae that occur on stage and within the songs, there is an author--or, perhaps two--Prince and . Foucault admits in "Order of Discourse," that to deny the actual existence of the writing, inventing subject would be "absurd". The writer takes on the author-function "as he receives it from his epoch, or as he modifies it in his turn" (1159). So the retirement of Prince and the emergence of present, in Foucault's terms, a modification of the author-function. The artist has stepped into the author-function construction process and forced new considerations upon the critics and upon his general audience. Ultimately, he has claimed a distinct difference between Prince and , both creatively and commercially.
But Prince the artist has long been manipulating the classificatory function of "Prince" the author in somewhat less radical ways. In his seventeen years of recording major label albums, he granted only five interviews. In each, he selected the interviewer, the time and location of the interview, and the form in which the interview is written. His tight-reign over the "official" releases of information about him is notorious. When Prince signed new musicians and staff, part of their contract stipulated that they were not to speak to the press without his permission. Anytime Prince allowed people to speak about him, he first fully briefed them about what they could and could not say. When he did speak, he "teased a lot of journalists [about his background] early on because I wanted them to concentrate on the music" (Allen 72). He disliked the media's attempts to question his sexuality, his race, and even his age because as they focused on these trivialities, they ignored his artistry.
He challenged the essence of the author-function. The critics listened to his songs, which often focused on sex, lust, and a wild life-style, they heard music which mixed disco and funk rhythms with rock-and-roll guitar riffs, and they began searching for explanations, leading them to question the nature of the author in their search to constrain or make sense of what they heard. Rather than enter immediately into the discursive structure by responding to the attention, however, Prince waited and made more selective decisions about when to talk and what to say. In some respects, remaining silent encouraged greater speculation and allowed commentators more opportunity to establish their own, suitable "author." But it also made the moment he broke his silence a more celebrated event, magnifying its importance within the discourse. In his 1985 interview, "Prince Talks!," he claimed to have allowed the interview because "There have been a lot of things said about me and a lot of them are wrong. There have been contradictions. I don't mind criticism, I just don't like lies" (28). This statement suggests a reversal of the author-function's nature, in that. as Foucault describes it, the critics and commentators use the author to alleviate contradictions within the texts. Here the writing subject works to alleviate the contradictions of his commentators before those contradictions are allowed to control the author. The two exist within a reflexive flux, each modifying the other, together creating an author for which neither is solely responsible.
The interaction between the writing subject and the media (both critics and commentators/journalists) carries into the songs. For example, in "Controversy," he sings, "I just can't believe all the things people say: Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" And in the song "Hello," Prince sings about how during the We Are the World project, he chose not to sing with the collection of singers, but that he would rather prepare a song of his own for the album. The song continues "everything was cool 'til a camera tried to get in my bed." The "I" and the "my" seem to refer very directly and autobiographically to Prince the writing subject, but Foucault argues that such pronoun use within a text opens a scission from which the author emerges. "It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker" ("Author" 985). Granted, each song is a different narrative structure, so the "I" in "Controversy" does not necessarily need to refer to the same personae as does "my" in "Hello," but for the author-function to perform its classificatory duty, the two must be at some level reconciled.
The scissions in which Prince and develop vary greatly within the corpus of songs. In songs such as those mentioned above, the scission appears very narrow between the speaking character, the author, and the writing subject. In other instances, he widens the scission to a much greater distance. As the extended version of the song "Kiss" fades out, one can hear a character asking "Isn't that Prince on television? Is he the strangest thing you've ever seen, or what?" In "Bob George," the speaking character asks his wife who her rock star manager boyfriend represents. To her response, which the listeners do not hear, he declares "Prince? That skinny mother-fucker with the high voice? Please." In these instances, the author does not respond to the critics, but rather as one of them. He portrays a distance from himself and in that distance plays with the popular images of "Prince." In so doing, the nature of the author must change somewhat to account for the writing subject's toying with it. Throughout his body of work, rather than passively allowing the "I" and other self-references to control perceptions of him, Prince uses them as much as he can within his songs as markers of author representation that are very direct and almost "true" and at the same time distant and self-mocking.
Perhaps the most difficult element in the creation of an author-function from the point of view of the popular musician is the level of control which the institution of the music industry assumes. To begin "The Order of Discourse," Foucault characterizes the institution as claiming that "'discourse belongs to the order of laws; that we have long been looking after its appearances; that a place has been made ready for it; and that if discourse may sometimes have some power, nevertheless it is from us and us alone that it gets it'" (1154). Comments that Prince has often made about the nature of the music industry reflect an attitude which would characterize the it in very similar terms. Most recently, claimed that he feels that "the music business is like [The Firm]--they just won't let you out once you're in it" (Light 47). Prince had earlier complained about the stifling nature of an industry that expects young artists who make a hit to continue essentially making the same song over and over again (Karlen 86). And that when "music became so commercial and you could make so much money with it, people just started looking at it [for profit;] . . . managers and companies just won't allow some groups to [do their own things]" (Normett 34).
Prince long fought to limit the control which Warner Brothers, the label under which he releases material, could have over him by writing all of his songs, producing and arranging each album, and by playing all of the instruments on most of his albums. In 1987, Prince showed his power within the Warner organization by ordering the pressing of his intended release, The Black Album to stop. The stoppage is significant to the future of the Prince/ author dichotomy in two ways. First, it allowed for an official and an un-official contribution to the authorship of "Prince": official in the press releases and odd narratives Prince used to explain his decision; unofficial in the quick appearance and influence of The Black Album in various boot-leg forms. Second, when announced that he would not play Prince music nor release any of 's to fulfill Prince's contract, The Black Album was released and served as a buffer between the two authors.
Prince explained his decision to stop the release of The Black Album in two ways. First, through Sheila E, then his drummer, the official explanation was that Prince was afraid that if he were to die before recording more albums, he would not want this "very dark and negative" album to represent him. She claimed that Prince "couldn't sleep at night thinking about 10 year old kids believing that 'this is what Prince was about'" (Dogherty 197). This concern reflects very clearly a concern for what would become of Prince's author-function in that Foucault explains the author as a projection of the image gained from the discourse ("Author" 983). If Prince presented texts into his body of work that would force the classificatory device to appropriate characteristics to encompass what he perceived as the dark negativity of this album, he, as author, could never erase them.
After explaining his decision through Sheila E, Prince later explained it within the program for his Lovesexy tour, claiming that The Black Album was the product of the innocent side of him, a boy called Camille, corrupted by the spirit of "Spooky Electric." The result was a dark side that never needed to be revealed. Prince's response was to stop the album's production and to quickly release Lovesexy, which contains songs about the beauties of feeling "Lovesexy"--"the feeling you get when you fall in love, not with a boy or a girl, but with heaven above." The description Prince gives of the genesis of The Black Album is of course an odd one, but it enters into the discussion at the time of the two albums. It inserts Prince's story, no matter how absurd, into the "official" record, and it too must be accounted for within the author-function.
Too, The Black Album raises the issue Foucault discusses about which texts count towards the definition of an official author. He states that "Even when an individual has been accepted as an author, we must still ask whether everything that he wrote, said, or left behind is part of his work" (980). He discusses the publication of Nietzsche's work arguing that, of course, everything that Nietzsche himself published counts, and all his rough drafts, and the notes from the bottoms of his pages, and so on. Despite Prince's stopping The Black Album, copies quickly reached the public through boot-legging. The album was reviewed in several magazines including The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. At that point, the work needed to be included in defining the authorship of Prince--it had social currency, and critics had sanctioned it by treating it as an officially released album. One must also wonder whether Prince himself intended for the album to represent him at the time. The first song, "Le Grind," opens with lines delivered in a slow, deep Prince voice stating "So you found me. Good. This is Prince." Other boot-legged material contains similar seemingly intended messages from Prince to his audience. In "Crystal Ball," an unreleased song from after The Black Album, Prince addresses the "children of the Purple Underground," and other material that is officially considered "un-authorized" is released in fully-mixed and well-produced, high-quality formats. While these materials may or may not be officially authorized, they certainly contribute to the authorizing of Prince, and they seem to have been intended for that purpose. The simultaneous exposure of The Black Album and Lovesexy allows for a slight fracture in the functioning of the author. "Prince," as backed by the institution, has avoided releasing a "dark and negative" album and is thus officially free from repercussions both against his image and against his marketability. On the other hand, "Prince," in general, is now expanded to account for both albums and the subsequent songs, released and boot-legged.
If, as Foucault claims, the author receives the author-function from his or her epoch and either adheres to it or modifies it, then Prince/ certainly works in the second category. He complains that the music industry will not allow him to release his music as he records it; he reports to complete three or more albums per year. The author-function of his epoch is carefully guarded by the music industry, which claims wrongfully discourages artists by essentially acting as if it has a mortgage on the musicians' thoughts. However, the name change is not intended to be a way out of his contract. He changed it for "spiritual reasons."
When was "born," he assured Warner Brothers that Prince's contract with the record company would be fulfilled. At the time, Prince owed Warner Brothers four albums to fulfill the terms of the contract. However, he will fill it with Prince music from the over 500 songs stored in his Paisley Park studios; no new material would be released. In fact, argued that he would never play Prince music; "Prince is dead," he claimed. In essence, he was establishing a second author-function. He claimed his new music would sound different, that his concerts would focus only on the music, and that he would change the way his music was distributed. None of this was to take effect until after the Prince contract ended. In 1994, The Black Album was officially released. seemed to be establishing a distance between himself as an author and Prince. Through the release of material that almost everyone who cared already had, avoided the public and critical assumption that the new album could be connected to the new author. The release also suggests a lack of the previous concern held for the "Prince" function.
Originally, reported that as soon as the Prince contract ended, he would begin releasing new material, beginning with the Emancipation Album, he would distribute free albums at his concerts and would start releasing many more new works each year. Under those conditions, it seemed possible that, along with his constant manipulation of the critics and the strong control he has over the scission in which authors take form, could actually generate a second author function.
Unfortunately, he has already given up. He has released music under the Prince contract, he has performed Prince music live, and some reports even claim that he plans to officially change his name back. I don't think that this, however, is as important as the potential which he showed to change the author-function. Nor do I think that it should erase the utility of the example Prince set for understanding the amount of possible control an artist can have over the generation of the author-function which serves to classify his or her texts.
Foucault, Michel. "The Order of Discourse." The Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford, 1990. 1126-1164.
- - - . "What Is an Author?" The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1989. 978-988.
Karlen, Neal. "Prince Talks!" Rolling Stone 12 Sept 1985: 25+.
Light, Alan. "" Vibe August 1994: 44-50.
Normett, Lynn. "Ebony Interview with Prince." Ebony July 1986: 29- 36.
Prince. The Black Album. Warner Brothers Records, 2 45793, 1994.
- - - . "Crystal Ball." Unreleased Single.
- - - . "Kiss" Extended Single. Warner. 1986.
- - - . Lovesexy. Warner, 9 25720 2, 1988.
- - - . "Hello." The Hits/The B-Sides. Warner, 945440 2, 1993.
About the "Author"
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