Status: Accepted as part of an edited collection on Prince and Theology (21 August 2018)
“Could’ve sworn it was Judgement Day”: Prince, Eschatology and Afterlife.
Prince was seldom ambiguous in expressing his strong religious beliefs and, even when they attracted the ire of fans and the media, was never apologetic for them. Lyrically, as well as during his engagements with the press, Prince spoke frequently about the importance of religion to his life and his strong beliefs about death and the afterlife. In his estimation, the relationship between good and evil was one which was not only very real but was constantly revealing itself in the day to day world. Throughout his body of lyrics and three films, concepts of revelation, death, and damnation abound. Frequently, these relate to a very literal interpretation of biblical eschatology, which we might read as a result of the influence of Seventh Day Adventism and Mormon doctrines, with which Prince engaged through his life.
In this chapter I consider how the concepts of judgement and afterlife are represented in the lyrics of Prince. My focus here will be on the lyrical content of albums 1999, Purple Rain, Diamonds and Pearls and the Love Symbol album, all of which draw implicitly on religion in their narratives. In addition to this assessment, which establishes how Prince understood death and end-times prophecy, I consider how Prince has been remembered since his own, unexpected death in 2016. Of interest here is how his memorialization, by both peers and fans, frequently conflicts with his own religious beliefs. As a case study, I draw on Justin Timberlake’s controversial Super Bowl tribute to Prince and the criticism which resulted in Timberlake’s plan to use a holographic representation of the star. Prince had been very clear about his beliefs in relation to technology and the manipulation of celebrities after death, asserting that he thought the application of technological wizardry was demonic. Now that he has died however, there is the ongoing desire for his fans to see him one final time. Despite his vocal opposition, Prince is more frequently appearing in the digital realm.
While the first part of this chapter highlights how Prince used his art as a forum to discuss religion and religious ideology with his audiences, always with a focus on his own eschatological belief systems; in the second, my goal is to explore how his fan base struggles to honor his memory while also respecting those beliefs. The fact that Prince was so vocal in his attitudes has been a source of contention among his audience, who have long struggled to reconcile his artistic persona against that of real-life religious believer. Source materials will be drawn from Prince’s lyrics and interviews, as well as from recent academic publications on his life and work. Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl performance footage and the accompanying press will also be discussed in detail, along with Timberlake’s recollections of the personal relationship he shared with Prince. While Timberlake is unique in that he was an acquaintance of Prince in real life, I suggest that he represents the conflict which is present in many fans. Specifically, the question of how we relate to Prince and the influence his art has had in our own lives, while also understanding and respecting his beliefs about religion, death and the posthumous use of his work.