An icon, by its nature, is symbolic. Herein lies the difficulty for creatures of flesh and blood who are declared icons. This is an impossible standard to meet, and yet it is one we set for public figures on a regular basis. Just as regularly, they disappoint. As I read The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 I became aware of the gap between image and reality. This gap exists not because of anything Prince failed to do. It exists because of an ideal I created, an ideal that was important to me. Therein lies the peril of reading the biography of someone we idealize.
The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988, is a responsibly-researched and well-written book. It offers an impressive amount of information about musicology and the music industry. The book’s authors, Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, delve deeply into the background and early life of Prince. They do so without engaging in pop psychology. Whatever conclusions may be drawn about Prince’s psyche, the authors leave that work to the reader. This is appropriate.
Any disappointment readers might feel about this book will likely come from the fact that it does not bring Prince’s biography up to the present. Of course, the authors don’t promise to do that. Even so, as the book concluded I wanted to read beyond, to understand how Prince ended up overdosing in the elevator of his home. The Rise of Prince: 1988-2016 would therefore be welcome.
The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988 does not induce snap judgments about the performer’s personality. The narrative crafted by Hahn and Tiebert is too textured for that. One unavoidable conclusion, though, is that Prince did not form enduring bonds with associates. He guarded his prominence in the music world and in public. Those colleagues who distracted, even innocently, from his star stature, did not remain in his close circle.
Prince was a natural-born artist, the son of two performers. His talent was noted in early childhood and his unique skills recognized throughout his career. The most surprising part of this biography for me was that ambition for commercial success was a prime motivator in his life.
Whatever mix of natural talent, inspiration and ambition led to his output, Prince had an undeniable influence on the music of his time, and on musicians who came after. He was a human being, and a legend. The difficulty of reconciling these two realities becomes clear in The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. The authors’ relative success in achieving this reconciliation makes the book a worthwhile read.