Let’s Gesamtkunstwerk: Prince’s Lovesexy ‘88 Tour as Wagnerian Union of All the Arts

Coined by German philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff in 1827, the term Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning “union of all the arts,” was adopted by Romantic Era composer Richard Wagner to describe his own operas — and appropriated in turn by 1980’s music critics seeking to characterize the song-based multimedia spectacles of New York art-rockers Laurie Anderson (United States Parts I-IV, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense).

What these writers should have applied the word to, and didn’t, was the tour Prince mounted in 1988 in support of his album Lovesexy. Presented in-the-round in sports arenas across the U.S., Lovesexy ‘88 featured music (of course), dance, costumes, and skits that served as components of an evening-long narrative.  Never before had Prince created anything as immersive (though his Sign “O” the Times film came close), and never again would he attempt to match its scope and intensity. Lovesexy ‘88 should be remembered as a paragon of the pop music tour — and as a Wagnerian union of all the arts.

Adam Reid Sexton

Adam Reid Sexton has taught at NYU and Columbia University, and he currently teaches Writing About Music at Yale, where he is a Lecturer in the English Department and a Critic in the graduate School of Art.  He has written about music for the Philadelphia City Paper, the New York Times, and the Village Voice, and on Prince for Rock and Rap Confidential. Sexton’s books include Rap on Rap, which was acquired by Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, and Desperately Seeking Madonna, which is in the Library and Archives of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is currently writing a book entitled Difficult Listening: Art Rock from Brian Wilson to Kanye West.