Prince was a deeply religious man, although his beliefs developed throughout his life. Born into a family of practising Seventh Day Adventists, his time spent at a local church gave him the interest in Bible study that shaped his life and work, eventually leading him to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Since his death in 2016, his family members appear to have struggled to find the best way to celebrate his legacy. Prince’s reputation has always rested not just on the music he released, but also that he put out only a fraction of his output, with thousands of songs, live recordings, videos and even entire movies squirrelled away in his famous vault. Properly tended, there is enough for several lifetimes of worthwhile releases.
But so far all that’s come out is an expanded version of his most famous album, Purple Rain. Instead, the family have gone down the Elvis route, turning Prince’s private Minneapolis studio complex, Paisley Park, into another Graceland. My Name is Prince, a new exhibition of Princely artefacts, opened recently at the O2 in London, where Prince famously played 21 main shows and 14 aftershows 10 years ago.
Howard Bloom, Prince’s polymath former PR guru, who recently published the hugely entertaining memoir How I Accidentally Started the Sixties, believes it’s what Prince would have wanted. “Though he would have wanted it to be done with seduction, surprise and style,” he told me. “Prince laboured to rivet the attention of his audience every day of his life.”
I have mixed feelings about the exhibition. While there are undoubtedly interesting things on display, I’m not entirely sure it’s been curated with that crucial sense of seduction, surprise and style.
The good first. Prince’s clothes and shoes are so well presented that even those fans who are more focused on Prince’s output than his wardrobe will realise just what an important part his costumes played in his performances and productions.
Although Prince did occasionally wear designer clothes, for the most part he had his clothes made in-house by a specialist team of tailors. The managers cutting checks may have occasionally questioned this indulgence but it genuinely brought an additional element to the live shows. Prince would present his tailors with complex concepts and they would make these a reality. Viewed up close, the range of ideas displayed in his dress are almost as fascinating as those in the music.
But the show is let down by the gallery wall panels. A guitar from the era when he was writing music for the Tim Burton film Batman is anachronistically described as “steampunk”, and the collection is grouped unimaginatively around giant blow-ups of album covers. Part of the enduring fascination of Prince’s work is that it resisted this sort of chronological taxonomy, as he was almost always working on many projects at once.
A more serious problem is that the most fascinating part of the exhibition – the notebooks in which Prince wrote lyrics and scribbled notes about film projects – is hidden under glass, with the bare minimum on display. For an extra £30, VIP visitors get to don white gloves and hold Prince’s guitar for a designated five seconds. I would have paid much more to put on the gloves and look through these notebooks in detail. I spent seven years writing a book on Prince and just the few pages of these books on display reveal things that even his closest collaborators couldn’t.
In the gift shop, three hardback books on Prince’s guitars, fashion and Paisley Park complex – with informed text by Minneapolis music writer and radio DJ Andrea Swanson – justify their £35 cost. But a facsimile of just one of those notebooks would, by comparison, be priceless. Maybe this is yet to come; if not, the missed opportunity is profound.
There is always a danger of making false idols out of pop stars, and there’s something about treating one man’s trousers and boots as secular relics that might feel questionable, were it not for Prince’s constant insistence that if fans wanted to worship they should turn to God rather than him.
Prince was able to go for long periods without sleep, food or even, he confessed, water. It is not known if this contributed to his early death. For all his ego and superhuman talents, Prince was also a humble man who liked nothing more than to talk to his fans about the Bible. At times he worried he was a “silly man” who didn’t understand how religion works. Later he found ministers to guide him with spiritual questions.
While alive, Prince was never that interested in his past. Let’s hope that by curating it wisely, his family can fund a more appropriate future.
Matt Thorne is the author of Prince (Faber & Faber). My Name Is Prince is on at The O2 until January 7