“MOJO: Growing up in Minne-wood, as it’s been now called, simply because that is the hot point on this planet right now…
“PRINCE: Well, it’s been called a lot of things, but it’s always Uptown to me.
“MOJO: What was it like growin’ up Uptown?
“PRINCE: Pretty different. Uh, kinda sad, to be exact. (laughs) I mean, the radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out… I was gonna have to get somethin’ together. Which is what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown. That consisted of a lot of bike riding nude, but ya know…it worked.”
“Uptown” is a real place in Minneapolis: a commercial district in the southwest part of the city, centered around the historic Uptown Theatre at the intersection of Hennepin and Lagoon Avenues. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a bohemian enclave, part of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. The legendary record store Oar Folkjokeopus (“Oar Folk”), home of underground rock label Twin/Tone, was in nearby Lowry Hill East (“the Wedge”)–as was the CC Club, a regular haunt for punk groups like the Replacements. “It was kind of like this exotic mixture between rock ‘n’ roll, comedians, entertainers, and then just hipsters that worked in the neighborhood,” musician and author Paul Metsa told the City Pages in 2013. “A lot of writers and artists hung out there. And what I loved about it, it was very working-class, and still is. Everybody was equal in that place” (LaVecchia 2013).
But “Uptown,” as Prince commemorated it, was also a product of the imagination. Before he recorded the song, Prince was not associated with the neighborhood, nor with its accompanying art and music scene. In fact, he’d played only two solo dates in the Twin Cities: one at the Capri Theatre in north Minneapolis, and one at the downtown Orpheum Theatre; his gigs with Grand Central had been limited to the predominantly Black Northside. And his home in suburban Wayzata–credited, mythically, on the Dirty Mind inner sleeve as “somewhere in Uptown”–could scarcely have been further away, geographically or culturally, from the Uptown that existed in physical space. “Uptown,” then, is a place that Prince turned into an idea: a kind of inverse to Paisley Park, his most famous idea turned into a place.
So what is Prince’s “Uptown,” exactly? It is, first and foremost, a kind of post-gender, post-racial utopia: a place to “set your mind free,” whose residents “don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be.” In other words, it’s a place defined by values that closely resemble Prince’s vision for his own audience circa 1980. “People should wake up and not worry about what people think about them,” he’d told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star earlier that year. “Like it was in the ’60s. The crowds at concerts were wilder than the acts sometimes. It was live” (Bream 1980). With “Uptown,” Prince issued an explicit rallying cry to make that vision a reality: “Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care / It’s all about being there.”
Like so many other early Prince songs, “Uptown” structures itself as an encounter between the singer–or at least, a first-person narrator he closely resembles–and a sexy, intimidating woman. She sees him on the street and calls him over, only to burst his bubble when she asks if he’s gay. “That took me by surprise,” he confesses, “I didn’t know what to do / I just looked her in her eyes and I said, ‘No, are you?'” By the end of the song, of course, Prince has demonstrated his attraction to women in the bluntest way possible (“best night I ever had,” he proclaims), and introduced her to the multicultural pleasures of “Uptown” in the process: “It ain’t about no downtown, nowhere-bound, narrow-minded drag / It’s all about being free.”
As models for post-gender, post-racial utopias go, there were worse choices than Uptown Minneapolis. Like other neighborhoods of its ilk (New York’s East Village, San Francisco’s Haight), Uptown circa 1980 was diverse and open-minded: racially mixed–at least to the extent possible in a city with less than 2% Black population–and a hotbed for queer and otherwise “alternative” culture. But it’s difficult to ignore that among the bands emerging from the Uptown scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, no one really looked like Prince; Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, Curtiss A, and the aforementioned Replacements were certainly “alternative,” but they were also as white as they came. Prince’s “Uptown” inserted himself into that milieu, creating a space for Blackness where there arguably hadn’t been one before. Its intended effect can be witnessed, four years later, in the crowd scenes of his film debut Purple Rain, where extravagantly-dressed, multiracial concertgoers in New Romantic attire come together to watch Prince–who else?–perform his heterogeneous blend of arena rock, pop, R&B, and New Wave.
It’s thus worth noting that “Uptown” is one of the more conventionally “Black”-sounding cuts on Dirty Mind. Driven by a funky bassline–most likely lifted without credit from a lick André Cymone played during rehearsal–its post-disco flavorings could have fit right in on Prince’s previous record, were it not for the explicitly political lyrics and the razor-thin arrangement. As it is, Prince brings a distinctly punk energy to his vocal performance, which he later recalled with obvious pride in his notes for The Hits compilation: “recorded in one take, no punching in after PRN in his 16 trackhome [sic] studio set up the song on the board, plugged in the mic, and left his leather coat on the chair. He went to get pumped at a movie and when it was over walked straight into the studio, donned the leather coat, and sang it straight out.” The result, he wrote, was an “anthem 4 all the freaks and funkateers of the Dirty Mind generation” (Dash 2016).
“Uptown” was indeed an anthem: the first of many in Prince’s early career, and an indication of his growing political consciousness. It would remain a cornerstone of his fan community’s loosely shared ideology, providing a name for his highest-profile fanzine and even outliving the artist himself: the song is still being played on the reunion tour of his mid-’80s band, the Revolution. But it is perhaps most notable as one of the key examples of Prince’s myth-building: his uncanny ability to turn concepts into reality, and vice versa. Today, Uptown Minneapolis–again, like many other storied 20th century boho communities–is a gentrified husk of its former self, a victim of unchecked commercial real estate practices and shifting demographics. But Prince’s “Uptown” remains an ideal: “White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’.” Who among us wouldn’t hope for such a reality?
(My thanks to former Uptowners and/or Uptown-adjacent readers Demetrius Bagley, Carmen Hoover, Rebecca March, Suzy Suzanne, and Laura Tiebert for helping me look like I have the slightest grasp of arcane Minneapolis neighborhood history. Someday I will actually visit the city and do some real research!)