Prince Gets the Academic Treatment

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Photo: Andrea Swensson of The Current gets a laugh with Prince’s reaction to host Dick Clark’s declaration on American Bandstand that “this is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis.” (photo credit: Emma Balazs) 

Full disclosure: I’m not an academic. Still, I eagerly anticipated the “Prince from Minneapolis” symposium at the University of Minnesota, held last week. Prince meets academia? Count me in! The symposium promised a glimpse into the inner workings of academia, as scholars began to process their thoughts on Prince’s legacy.

If the symposium is any indication, it will take a village of experts in a wide range of disciplines to do Prince justice. Psychology, theology, geography, musicology (and its cousin, geomusicology) were represented in the three-day event. Although Star-Tribune music writer Jon Bream expressed mixed emotions about the event, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing academics apply terms like “eschatology” to Prince’s work. (And yes, only through the good graces of Google did I manage to figure out that “eschatology” was the part of theology concerned with the ultimate destiny of humanity, and thus linked to Prince’s line of reasoning that we might as well party like it’s 1999).

Each morning, it was great fun to enter the hallowed halls of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs to the sounds of Prince bootlegs echoing through the atrium. In an only-in-Minneapolis scene, symposium speakers and attendees decked out in purple hugged each other in greeting while starting the day with coffee and starfish-shaped cookies. After a keynote and two days of panel discussions ranging from “Spiritualities” to “Gender and Sexuality” and “Celebritydom,” my biggest take-away was simple: It’s a big happiness boost to share a mutual, meaningful interest with a like-minded group of people. In fact, the event was such a boost that I hope that one day, after everyone catches their breath and catches up on sleep, organizer and University of Minnesota associate professor Arun Saldanha and his committee will see fit to host a second symposium, so we can see how far academia has come in its study of Prince.

Below, a few favorite moments:

Chazz Smith, Prince’s cousin, shared stories of Prince at age eight, already acting as a bandleader by dictating which kid would play which instrument in their newly created band, even though none of them had any experience with those instruments. Because Prince said they could do it, they believed they could, too – and they did.

Steve McClellan, the former manager of First Avenue, recalled that he barely saw the Aug. 3, 1983 premier of the Purple Rain material, because he was “battling guest list problems” caused by a massive array of lists and people demanding to be allowed inside. Still, he remembered the gift Prince made to the Minnesota Dance Theater as “profound” and the largest he’d ever seen. On being involved in Prince’s early years, he said, “I was saying good-bye to Prince in ’83 and ’84, when most people were saying hello.”

Rashad Shabazz, a geomusicologist from Arizona State University, discussed the relationship of music to place, and shared information on T.P. Giddings, supervisor of music for Minneapolis Public Schools from 1910-1942, who was hired when Minneapolis decided to invest in music training. As a result, working-class children got a top-notch music education. (Peripherally, that training apparently gave rise to a top-notch Twin Cities polka scene). Polka music aside, the legacy of that program included Prince, who notably never played the accordion (although I wouldn’t put it past him).

Finally, Zach Hoskins (who runs the essential blog), speaking on the “Place” panel, reminded us where Prince himself believed he resided, and it wasn’t Minneapolis, or for that matter, Planet Earth. In 2007, actor Matt Damon met Prince at an event and in an effort to make small talk, asked Prince if he was still living in Minnesota. Prince’s response: “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.”


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