[New Directions; 2022]

Could it be as simple as Gertrude Stein once said, that a rose is a rose is a rose? That, mutatis mutandis, desire is desire is desire, agnostic of its objects? Or, more likely, is it that our desires are knowable to us only in part, an endless series of Russian nesting dolls, each smiling matryoshka a surprise to us? Hilton Als’s latest memoir-essay, My Pinup, explores this question through his own relationship with Prince (as both a person and an oeuvre), as well as Prince’s relationship with his American public. In examining each, Als’s primary preoccupation is with desire—who wants whom? What are the contours and limits of that desire?

In life, Prince was no less slippery than desire itself. While Als identifies Prince with the world of “colored queerness,” Prince himself would only give a sideways smile to such a categorization. This was Prince’s allure. Colored queerness is as much about its own coded significations as it is about the ability to appear shallow and without artifice. The colored queer must know: a love affair with Prince meant accepting, from time to time, that “I no longer mattered; what mattered was Prince’s acquisition of a larger audience, those people who purchased records and filled concert halls, not the black queens who lip-synched to ‘Sister’ while voguing near the Hudson River in the clear light of night.” To love Prince meant to give in to the vicious cycle of being callously cast aside in the name of pursuing commercial success, and caressed in the next, as with the 1988 release of Lovesexy.

It is not only for the pleasures of commercial success that Prince vacillated between an embrace of mainstream and alternative audiences. It was also about how Prince’s admixture of Black musical tradition and Minnesotan upbringing offered him a kind of narrow middle path between what Als calls “becom[ing] the romantic hero of [his] own imagining” and “transmuting what [he found] in the streets and in people’s homes into tales an audience can readily identify with.” As Als writes, Prince “used urban black music and black gay attitude as it filtered through and got mixed up in his predominantly white Midwestern environment to express his quintessentially American self. And it was this self—which, visually, at least, he played as male and female, gay and straight, black and white—that Prince used to remake black music in his own image.” Like his conscientious refusal of gender, Prince played on audiences’ adoration of “mixed race” as a kind of cultural curiosity, remarking in “Controversy,” “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay . . . I can’t understand human curiosity.” Whether or not Prince understood it, he understood how it could act as ambrosia, giving his musical performances and persona the kind of intrigue that demands ascension to stardom.

Prince’s unknowability acts as nothing less than a mirror for the instability of desire. Writing of his then-partner, Als remarks, “We were always watching to see who could give less. That was our erotics. I had language I could withhold, while he had a body he could withhold. The odd thing was, I couldn’t stop working for his hoped-for love, just as he couldn’t stop hanging around me for some kind of approval, for validation.” It’s an “odd thing” because it defies the common-sense connection between seeing and understanding—even when we see withdrawal and the end-in-sight, desire produces a kind of stickiness and a dissolution that proceeds according to its own chronology.

That stickiness characterizes the latter half of Als’s book, which narrates from a closer vantage—Als’s own meeting with Prince. Als’s account reads as a seduction; given the paeanic quality of the first half of the book, how could it read otherwise? Als is “immediately transfixed” by Prince’s “slight frame” and takes in his face, “which had the exact shape, and large eyes, of a beautiful turtle.” In the course of the interview, Prince has an epiphany and asks Als to live with him and write a book. Als demurs, but agrees to return to Prince’s dressing room after the show to meet a few people.

There is no offer more seductive than this—abandon this drab world you’re in and become part of mine. Spend each day with me, make me the focus of your world and your attention. In this, the seduced hears, additionally, “I will make you the focus of my world, the object of my attention.” But of course, the seducer never said this—defensively, he would never make such a promise that he could not keep.

And in that vein, when Als returns to Prince’s dressing room, he finds Prince with Larry Graham and Graham’s wife. “They were all holding Bibles. They wanted to talk to me about Jehovah, and what it meant to be a Jehovah’s Witness . . . I can’t remember all that we said; I tend to go blank when it comes to Jesus.” For any seducer, whether it is Prince or a more proximate old flame, withholding is the grammar. You could never be the focus of my world, for I have my career and I have Jehovah. That withholding is seductive, too, because every victim of seduction hopes to be the one for whom the seducer will change.

In the face of a broken promise, it is easier for Als to turn to hearsay. “Once, I heard this story about you, Prince: You liked a girl so much, but all you wanted to do was touch the shoes she wore and sleep at the foot of her bed. You treated your love for her like a dream other people wouldn’t think was worth having.” For colored queers, it is easy enough to get used to scraps: breadcrumbs of attention and a longing glance can sustain an imagined romance for months. It is easier than admitting that one’s surroundings are empty and cold. Withholding is not just the structure of seduction—it structures desire itself. But desire is only a spark; without flesh and reciprocity, nothing will take and nothing will last. For Als and for all of us, it is only as long as our hands come up empty that we can sustain the beloved illusion.

Sohum Pal is a JD-PhD student at Columbia University and a freelance critic. His work has previously appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lux, and several scholarly publications. When he is not cooking or watching TV, he is tweeting @antibhadrata.

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