Seduction and Betrayal

My Pinup by Hilton Als. New York: New Directions. 48 pages. $10.

The cover of My Pinup

PINUPS ARE RUMORED TO EMERGE FROM THE SEA, mer-peoples caught between nautical and earthly existence, so that maybe there are fewer black pinups circulating in popular culture, because the sea for us is in part the graveyard of the Middle Passage, not just an escapist fantasy. Black pinups would emerge blood-drenched and haunting, rather than seducing onlookers. Just bypass the trance of glamour and observe Josephine Baker’s double consciousness in any photograph, at once entertaining you and devastating you, silly and caustic with grief. Or just look at Prince and try not to fall in love. Hilton Als’s account of witnessing, meeting, interviewing, befriending, and loving Prince Rogers Nelson begins with the recapitulation of a Jamie Foxx stand-up bit, in which Foxx describes involuntarily lusting after Prince at first glance, I mean he’s cute, he’s pretty. Foxx sits with the ambiguity onstage, seeming to need the confessional; it’s the frantic announcement of a romance that’s been a secret for too long. He’s not just aroused when he looks into and avoids Prince’s eyes during their conversation, he’s overcome and forever changed. Prince is loved, lusted after, and objectified like a pinup because his presence and his music compel us to overcome ourselves. His is the kind of irreducible androgyny that upends gender without the use of any jargon—it’s God-driven wish-fulfillment. And quite literally. Prince loved God enough to fashion himself divine. While scrolling the endless scroll and considering this, I encounter a blunt and desanctified take—Jesus was the first pinup. I gasp. What possesses us to stare so hard at greatness we cannot replicate or contain, that we destroy it, violently? What gives us the right? 

The prevailing condition of the pinup is martyrdom—Jesus is Marilyn is Josephine Baker is Prince Rogers Nelson. They respond to an emergency, a crisis of faith in beauty. In Prince’s case, he responds with effortless shade that conceals a shy demeanor, which Als aptly deems a veil of shyness. He’s not shy, or even bashful, just methodical about how he emerges into a room or conversion or song. He even tiptoes gingerly into Als’s narrative, withholding memories of himself. He makes incidents, not mere moments. He sets the tone and the pace. Others look into his eyes or avert them, afraid of their feminine side, he tells Als during their interview, and are stricken and try to follow Prince to a castle of their self-exile, and most are denied entry. Everyone feels entitled to a tryout. Sometimes he picks faces out of the audience and has his staff send them backstage or to afterparties. He is in charge of his surroundings and deliberate about his muses. No choice feels trivial. Are you worthy of having Prince as a muse? You audition for the infatuation and love sneaks in, total devotion. Hilton Als is backstage before a Prince concert in St. Louis, on assignment, watching Prince think, joining him in lighthearted lamentations about the industry, about owning one’s masters. And Hilton gets a call-back. Prince is demure and flattering with him, courting spontaneous collaboration—seized by the idea of them writing a book together. 

I’m having an epiphany, is Prince’s version of wooing the muse here. It’s the spark of a lonely soul finally feeling recognized by someone who can mirror his presence where he is not. Als spends an awkwardly unforgiving section of the book leading up to this encounter, describing Prince’s double blasphemy. He doesn’t uphold the prudish demands of the old-time religious fanaticism he pursues coolly, coyly, overtly, and does not surrender completely to his own homoerotics. Then he turns prude again, for nearly all of the 1980s, and rejects his gay fans’ fastidious expectations for upbeat popular songs instead of God-spells, and Als feels so betrayed he tries to revoke his love, but fails. The pinup emerges from his shipwreck ready for redemption. Prince’s 1988 Lovesexy tour is, in Als’s regard, a redemptive effort. He’s back to being sultry and exclusive with his elite gay fan base, and the period of appealing to normies that proceeded this seems to dissipate into misplaced myth under the Madison Square Garden lights. Prince was showing his booty again, Als explains. I have the epiphany that Prince may have expended a lot of creative energy negotiating with those who were possessed by him, trying to deflect the attention when he needed to and to satisfy it when that suited him. He did all of these spiritual and parasocial acrobatics to escape the fate of pinups, thinking that if he changed often enough he’d be saved from being anyone’s fixed savior symbol. 

His capture and defiance of Jamie Foxx or Hilton Als was exuberant but reluctant; backstage, men respond to Prince like nonbelievers to a miracle, by asking to be converted to whatever system keeps his soul on fire so that it may continue to ignite theirs. Few people under a spell like that consider the fact that they cast it on themselves. Prince shows his most adoring listeners who we want to be, and how to go about it. So few ask what Prince wants, if anything, in return. Jamie Foxx does not consider whether or not Prince wants to be fucked by him when he admits to wanting to fuck Prince if no one would’ve known, a jarring love and lust at first sight. And for all his tenderness and reverence for Prince, Als, who tells us if you stood close to him that’s what you wanted to do—nourish him, become the family he’d left so long ago, spends a large portion of My Pinup withholding affection and praise for Prince, suspicious of his choices and his impulses, while in awe of his beauty. The black pinup is wounded by the eyes that stare him down with sullen and outright devotion but refuse to take the pins out or dim the sharpest lights that sear him alive. It is easier to stand at a distance and turn Prince’s overwhelming beauty abstract or pornographic. 

Cover of Prince's Controversy (Warner Bros. Records, 1981).
Cover of Prince's Controversy (Warner Bros. Records, 1981).

The volta in this love sonnet as essay is when Prince asks Als to come live with him, and Als declines. Here is the pinup leaving his position, which he never asked to assume, to call his admirer’s bluff, to test him and everyone like him. Predictably, when the fantasy comes to life too well, we abandon it and retreat to our comforts or the endeavors we can control. The pinup cannot get too real or we’d have to revoke our claims on him and let him off the cross of our hearts and back into his own private emotional world where he has needs and desires of his own. Als uses the myth of Prince to get back to himself and recall an unrequited romance. He recounts how he fell in love with a man he worked with and ultimately set that man up with a woman who he would spend his life with. He tells us this story as if he’s speaking to Prince, as if Prince is the object of his love, and taught him how to love, and taught him how to relinquish love and prefer the atmosphere it leaves behind, the endless daydream. Prince himself becomes the sphinx he always was, with much more agency than a pinup, listening silently and waiting for Als to have the epiphany he knows he has aroused. 

Prince is no one’s pinup, and no one’s letdown, and everyone’s contradictory realization about the difference between jive and sincerity. His immaculate stillness vibrates with so much clarity he makes you dance and retreats deeper into himself, he makes you show your ass when you think you’re staring at his. The pinup version of Prince is his alibi, so that he can be the man who says come live with me and write with me backstage. Als writes to reconcile the twin Princes and finds it nearly impossible without the intervention of a third interlocutor, a quieter love. I close this book only to loop it in search of the center of its knot of nerves and detachment. It’s a song, a ballad with aching techno undertones and a popular thread we can all recognize—projecting silence onto the thoughts of the dead and famous, who, when we pin them just right, are interchangeable, the carrion of our most frightening desires, souls we must devour to hide the fear that will otherwise devour us. We appropriate those who we deem pinups so we don’t have to witness what they tell us when we let them speak backstage. Prince is the commodity or pinup who speaks and combats the fantasy with ideas of his own. Als is able to allow that psychic distance between him and his would-be lover here, but Prince can’t quite achieve permission to not be one single being. He’s an idea propelling the culture forward before he’s a man.

When I was little my younger brother did not speak, Als divulges. I told the world—our mother—what he wanted, what he might be thinking, based on the permutations of his silence. With his brother, as with his less-than-world-famous friend, Als offers space for nuance. For Prince, those variations on silence are expected to be pristine and Christlike, or so vulgar they recoil into the sanctified. The pinup’s silence torments us. We resent him for winning himself back, for dying, for coming back to life, for singing the wrong songs, then the right ones, then the wrong ones again, then too much Jesus, then dying again, of pain held in silence that we refuse to translate for him. I love this tragic, gothic-casual look at the untranslatable ambiguities between love, adoration, and entitlement. Prince is so generous here. He is quiet and takes the blame for being irresistible and impossible to not love, and is quiet when those qualities result in him being denied love and collaboration, and is quiet when he turns into someone he’s not for the sake of a love that wouldn’t have arrived without his music. If we don’t know what love is until we look Prince in the eye and need him forever after, then maybe we’re his pinups and puppets and he’s translating for us an emotion we’ve kept so remote from our conscious minds that he has to go beneath his soul to dig it up. That is the solace of Als’s account of close encounters, his flash of a songbook—that it honors Prince’s commitment to being untranslatable, unsampleable. My Pinup’s eyes are nothing like the sun. Pin Prince to your own limits and they vanish, or to a sound and he goes silent, evacuates the spotlight of your bias. It must have hurt, to have all those pins in him, and Als admits how much it hurt to put them there, and leaves it at that, irreconcilable. 

Harmony Holiday is the author of Maafa (Fence Books, 2022).