Part 4 of 4
Utopias’ positive qualities [include] their illumination of the non-utopian societies from which all utopias spring. The potentiality rather than reality of America as a utopia must be emphasized.”
Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities
British social commentator Thomas More wrote the novel Utopia in order to express his vision of a “perfect” society. Since Utopia’s publication in 1516, many other Western authors have attempted to articulate their vision of what this society might look like. Early nineteenth century America saw an explosion in semiautonomous communities that retreated from “civilization’s” technology, social control, and moral lassitude. Groups like the Shakers, the Amana Movement, and the Oneida Community were intentionally founded to counteract the gender- and labor-role narratives presented by Western governments. You see, the song “Uptown” is not really about any place called “Uptown” at all. Look at the lyrics. Prince does not give any details about this place. “Uptown” is not an illumination of the real uptown Minneapolis, but rather of the place from which all uptowns spring—the narrow-minded downtown. The song is a critique of the confines of Western civilization, which is bound up in Uptown’s status as a borderlands space—Uptown is a place not just full of rejects, but one that is consciously created by people trying to be free.
And this is nothing new in the history of the “opening” of the New World. Ever since the West was won, the artists of the landscape have thrown up objections to civilizational creep and the reduced attention to basic human values it usually brings along. While Western civilization is indeed regimented and efficient, it causes a great deal of stress among people who have difficulty conforming to the regimentation; those on the margins. And in the New World, Western civilization replaced many cultures that had a much more relaxed dedication to life and producing goods. And so Uptown is the lament of the societies lost.
Perhaps Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic best sums up what Prince was doing in his articulation of the role of black music in America: “The issue of normative content [in black music] focuses attention on . . . the notion that a future society will be able to realise the social and political promise that present society has left unaccomplished. . . . The traditional teaching of ethics lost its exclusive claim to rationality partly through the way that slavery became internal to western civilization and through the obvious complicity which both plantation slavery . . . revealed between rationality and the practice of racial terror."
What black music was, has always been, is a mode of presenting to society a picture both of what it is and of what it should be, which is why Gilroy believed black culture reached modernity at a different point than the West—racial subordination made much of the progress of modernity turn out to be only potential progress for black people. Despite what it may think, society’s promise to blacks has been left unaccomplished. But rather than the resultant frustration one might expect at having these promises unrealized, black culture produces . . . hope. That is all Prince was doing. He was imagining an alternative future where the Uptown he portrays has a place in the world.
Everybody's going Uptown
It's where I want to be
You can set your mind free, yeah
Here is what can happen here: You can let it all go. All those rules? All that anxiety about how you are supposed to act and how many people you would disappoint if you did not? It is all B.S. It always has been. We have constructed a society in which people can educate themselves, and love each other, and rid themselves of the prejudices and pettiness of the past. If we are not allowed to do those things without prejudice, then what did all those young boys die in Vietnam for? The freedom to live how we want.
Keep your body hot
So, let go of the story you have been telling yourself. Let go of the fiction that you are not a sensual creature. Look around you, right now. How many things around you are organic materials, that need sex to survive? And yet look at how often we de-sexualize ourselves! How many times do we tell ourselves that “being civilized” means acting like you are not a sexual creature? Prince was here to tell us. We are sexual creatures. That is how we all got here. So why so many expectations about who we can have sex with and how often we can do it? Why do we erect institutions to shame people for their sexuality? What would a world look like where we did not have anxiety about it? Where a woman could just grab a man and—if that indeed was her intention, for some reason—make love to him without crippling whore-shaming bound up in narrow-minded patriarchy? Prince was here to tell us.
I don't want to stop, no
But wait . . . no . . . none of this makes sense. How can there be a place where “they” do not let “society” do something? This has to be a bifurcated populace. It has to be a place with one group of people (“we”) who are formed in opposition to another group of people (“society”). So, it is not as if Uptown is only comprised of the marginalized—it is just that the marginalized in Uptown do not suffer the masquerade. And this place that Prince is going is not just a place, it is a place and a time. It cannot be one without the other. Like the Harlem cabaret, its queerness comes from its “reorganization of respectable time” and its critique of “normative temporal orders.” Run-of-the-mill uptowns only really become Uptown late at night, after “respectable” hours. And the conflation of time and space situates Uptown as more of a perspective than anything else. So, “where I come from” is not “where” he comes from, but how he sees things from his perspective. Where he’s comin’ from, ya dig?
My first memory of Prince changed my life. This was the beginning of my authentic countercultural consciousness. My jump-dancing was also a birthing ritual. I was shaking the B.S. out of my little premodern self. Prince gave me the confidence to believe that even if everyone in “society” felt a certain way, they could still all be wrong. Like, I could be a moral constituency of one, if my cause was just. And that changed everything. It had never occurred to me before; everyone else in my family was fine with conformity so I had never been taught anything different. But “Uptown” gave me the confidence to speak out in ways I could not have imagined were possible before then. “Uptown" is about finding your true voice; your most authentic self, and then letting that spirit fly free. It is about dreams; ambitions; hope. This could be your future. This could be your life; the perfect place and time to drop all that downtown, nowhere-bound, narrow-minded drag.