I have long waited for the release of Prince’s memoir, The Beautiful Ones. He barely finished writing it, but there was said to be 50 handwritten pages by Prince at the time of his death. Dan Piepenbring was his co-writer.
The first 47 pages are Piepenbring’s writing, of which was excerpted in The New Yorker. I had already read the excerpt and found that it was just an abbreviated version of his essay in the book. Prince’s written section was only in Part 1. The rest of the 4 parts were curated images from Prince’s scrapbooks, handwritten lyrics, polaroids, notes, artwork, and other photos. A first draft of both handwritten and typed script of Purple Rain is included. I am happy for the handwritten things, and early photos, including his baby pictures.
But to be honest, I felt somewhat short changed after I read P’s written section. The news sources all stated that there were 50 handwritten pages by Prince. When I counted the pages, there were only 28.Was there more? The footnotes that Prince gave didn’t seem like they would add up to 22 pages worth of writing, but I could be wrong.
I would still say the book is worth getting for any Prince fan who loves seeing the photos and Prince’s handwritten work. But I do have some concerns.
I wondered, seeing as P was not here to give his approval on the finished work, would there be inaccuracies coming from the co-writer’s part? I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I am the type of person that strives for truth. And I am all too aware of how language can be used to distort the audience’s understanding of the reality presented to them, whether done intentionally or not.
As I read, I spotted some items of concern.
I was peeved when I read that during the investigation at Paisley Park, that they ate “vegan lunches” to pay respect to Prince’s menu restrictions. Maybe they assumed that he was vegan? But in truth, he was vegetarian, and this was something that was easily fact checked. P ate eggs and fish. He had a freezer full of dairy milk ice cream. Vegan activists love to cite P as a vegan to promote their political views. People reading this book will get the impression that he was vegan, even though he was not.
The co-writer’s essay mentions about Prince going to church on Sundays with his parents. Prince stated that he first grew up as Seventh Day Adventist (it is not mentioned, but later in life, he was a Jehovah’s Witness). But Seventh Day Adventists go to church on Saturdays. Maybe this was an oversight?
Then there was the mention of the Black Lives Matter. movement. Prince was a supporter of this movement, because he hoped to have an influence on the group, encouraging the black community to strive to help themselves by becoming an “economic force”. This means being independent, taking responsibility, believing in one’s self, creating businesses, creating jobs, building communities, no longer seeing oneself as a victim of circumstances. If we observe the movement today, we will see that they have demonstrated neither of these values, nor do they have any desire to, instead they have been pursuing other unproductive activities that further creates division. This is counter to what Prince was wanting to tell people, to create something that belongs to them. Prince’s initiatives were about creating opportunities, and mentoring the younger generation. Without context, one might assume that Prince endorsed everything about what this group is doing, as so much about this movement has changed since Prince’s passing.
Which leads me to notice another conflict in the consistency of the messages in the book.
I was rather confused when I read that Prince agreed with Piepenbring, that he didn’t like Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead. Instead of stating a rational argument on why he didn’t like the book itself, Piepenbring says that he had no patience for Rand’s philosophy and her supporters of it. Prince saw the old black and white movie. I had seen parts of this movie on TV, as a young person. I could only vaguely remember that it was a movie that conveyed the idea of possessing uncompromising integrity to be true to one’s self, purpose, and creative vision, and to not sell out. Was I missing something here? Seemed rather inconsistent to suggest that Rand was wrong, knowing what P stood for as an artist. P wanted to tell people to own their work. Did the writer fail to see the parallels of The Fountainhead story with the real life struggles of being Prince, the artist? I went and watched the movie in its entirety to better understand it and untangle the ideas.
Ayn Rand is known for her philosophy called Objectivism. To explain it in a few words, it is the practice of rational individualism. The emphasis is on rationality, that decisions be based on logic, but also that it would benefit one’s self-interest in the long term. In addition, there is also a great emphasis on the concepts of integrity, purity of purpose, personal responsibility, and the rights of the individual. Based on my observations of how Prince operated in his career, I believe that he would agree with these ideas.
The Fountainhead is an illustration of the Objectivist philosophy in practice. It tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect that refuses to compromise the integrity of his work for prospects of money or fame. He would rather be bankrupt and work as a hard labourer than to allow for others to compromise the integrity of his work to pander to mainstream taste. Word gets out that Roark has been offered a building project, and a newspaper owner is swayed by one of his architecture critics to mount a frivolous smear campaign against Roark to sell more papers. Despite the public backlash, Roark triumphs, as he attains new clients who recognize his work as genius. Then, he is offered his dream gig. His former school mate, Peter Keating, minimally talented, who sold out to fame and money, is desperate to clamber back to his previous status as a star architect. He petitions Roark to design it for him and allow Keating to claim the credit for the design. Roark agrees to receive no money for the work. But accepts the job under one condition; that the building would have to be kept true to his design. Keating wins the project, but board members demand changes and he couldn’t stop them. The original genius of the design is ruined by the lack of vision and direction by the collective. The building project has become an eye-sore.
What Piepenbring wrote is not intellectually honest, in my opinion.
“The Fountainhead,” Prince said. “Did you read that? What’d you think of it?” I said I didn’t like it—that I had no patience for objectivism, nor for Ayn Rand’s present-day acolytes, with their almost farcical devotion to the free market and unfettered individualism. Prince agreed, though he saw how the philosophy could be seductive. “I watched the movie, old, black-and-white, where he gives the speech at the end about burning down the building and the blueprints….” It was a pivotal moment in Randian philosophy: “No work is ever done collectively,” her character Howard Roark sneers. Prince worried that too much of hip-hop was in the thrall of ideas like Rand’s, dedicated more to cutthroat self-absorption than a spirit of community. “We need a book that talks to the aristocrats,” he said. “Not just the fans. We have to dismantle The Fountainhead brick by brick. It’s like the aristocrat’s bible. It’s a compound of problems. They basically want to eliminate paradise. What about white supremacy, and what it has in common with objectivism? Is it satanic? Is it really the greater good? We should attack the whole notion of supremacy.” The purity of its original meaning had been corrupted, he thought. “There used to be bands called the Supremes! Supremacy is about, everything flourishes, everything is nourished.”
Referring to The Fountainhead as “the aristocrat’s bible” doesn’t make sense. The conversation seems rather confused. If I am to understand that correctly, if The Fountainhead was the playbook of the elite, we would see all these rich people purposely choosing to live in poverty rather than being a fraudulent success. It seems more fitting that they desperately need to take a page out of Rand’s book to learn the lessons about integrity. The celebrities of this world seem to have a habit of telling people to give up air travel for the sake of the environment, while they sip champagne on their private jets, pursuing their own desires. They also seem to have a habit of yelling #MeToo after they have traded sex for a role in a movie that turned them into a big star.
This is such a vaguely described conversation; poorly conveyed ideas, immediately dismissing a book without reason, it leads me to suspect that the author is like a typical Rand critic, who doesn’t understood The Fountainhead, who gets their opinion from what others have said. Throwing words like “white supremacy” together with “objectivism”, without any explanation, it could lead a person into thinking it was not a book worth considering. One might even think the book is somehow racist. Was there any purpose in sharing this poorly described conversation? Could there be a deliberate attempt to discourage readers from Rand? Criticism of Rand’s work is highly politicized, and is often used to serve a political agenda. Especially in our times, in a political environment where socialist ideals, such as forcing people to sacrifice their individual rights for the so-called greater good, are presented to the public as being moral, and those who do not agree are judged as evil.
The comments regarding Prince’s concern for the hip hop community doesn’t make sense either. Was there a misunderstanding about what they were talking about? How many stories have we heard about hip hop artists selling their souls to the devil for a record deal? Rand’s philosophy completely goes against that. These hip hop artists are like the character of Peter Keating, self-serving, slave tools to those in power, doing anything to achieve their ends, breaking their own integrity to do it, all while killing the entire industry as a whole by diluting the standards of what is considered excellent. The problems compound because there is no integrity among the individuals. Rand would say that these artists are not self-interested enough, had they been, they would be clear about what they set out to do, and would not allow themselves to be corrupted by ill-gotten short term gains. After all, it is in the interest of the individual to be part of a thriving industry.
When I think about it, this story of The Fountainhead could be re-written in the context of just about any other industry, including music and film, and it would still remain true to the underlying principles demonstrated in this book. This speaks to the true archetypal nature of these fictional characters. The concepts are universal.
Some critics of The Fountainhead argue that its characters are unrealistic,. Calling it “too extreme”, because no one could ever live up to such pure integrity. But that is precisely the point, to illustrate her idea about integrity, and the rights of the individual to stay true to that. Roark’s character is something to aspire to. Roark could not be swayed to betray his integrity, not by money or fame, not even for someone he loved. He was independent, non-conformist, uncompromising, believed in himself, he had purity of purpose. He didn’t care to convince others of his own genius, or force his ideas onto anyone, not even for the sake of winning clients, or a love interest. He followed logic and reason, he felt that others should also think and judge for themselves about what they thought of him, and not to be persuaded by the opinions of the press, or by the convention of what is fashionable.
In other words, he was not a slave to anyone. He was a free thinker. People like this are dangerous to people who want power over others, because they know that there is nothing that they can do to control them. No devil could hold this man down, no money, no fame, no sex. Are these not the very things that people sell their souls for?
Is there any reason that people who run this world, wouldn’t want you to accept the ideas in The Fountainhead, about the rights of the individual versus the collective? We are living in a world that asks you to be a conformist and sacrifice yourself for the arbitrary notion of the greater good. But who gets to decide what is the greater good? Is it really a selfless act if you are forced to do something you couldn’t rightly justify with logic? Is conforming to the ideas of a group purely for the sake of the collective, not because you agree, really a moral deed? This is akin to not blowing the whistle on corruption because it would harm the collective. Think of the charities and non-governmental organizations that have been caught doing serious crimes against humanity. No one wins when you cover up corruption to save the collective. It only allows those in power to continue in their corrupt ways.
Perhaps they discourage you from considering Rand’s ideas because they wouldn’t want you to put two and two together, and notice that so many great individuals throughout history, including Prince, are very much like the character of Howard Roark. So much so, that Prince stipulated in his contract for the book, the right to remove his book from print, if in any time in the future that he felt that the book no longer reflected him. Sounds like Roark to me, someone who wanted artist rights, to own and control his work as he saw fit.
Prince had high hopes for this book, a message for the world. It’s certainly disappointing that he never got to complete his vision for it. But let us not be discouraged.
I’m going to let Prince have the final words here, and leave you with some lyrics from The Beautiful Ones, some words that perfectly embody what he would want to tell you;
Paint a perfect picture
Bring to life
The vision in one’s mind
Image above: “Photo of Prince memoir” by Andrea Mai.
©2019 by Andrea Mai. All rights reserved.