(Featured Image: Malcolm McDowell and Teresa Ann Savoy in Caligula, 1979; © Penthouse Films International.)
“I write everything from experience,” Prince claimed during an interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. “Dirty Mind was written totally from experience.” At this point, Salewicz wrote, he asked Prince if he’d experienced incest, as discussed on the album’s penultimate track “Sister.” “How come you ask twice?” Prince reportedly shot back (Salewicz 1981).
“Sister” is a song that defies critical analysis–mostly because Prince wanted it to. At the time of its release, rock critics assumed he was being deliberately provocative; Prince, however, vigorously and repeatedly denied this was the case. “I don’t try to do anything to shock people or to make money,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland. “That would make me a hooker” (Sutherland 1981). Whether the interview subject was wearing thigh-high nylons at the time was, regrettably, left to the imagination.
By insisting on the veracity of his lyrics in 1981, Prince created an interesting bind for potential scholars of his work. Shrug a song like “Sister” off as a joke, and one risks trivializing a serious trauma; take it at face value, and one can appear credulous–not to mention potentially libelous. The wisest approach, in my estimation, is the one taken by cultural critic Touré in his 2012 book about Prince: “‘Sister,’” he writes, “is key to understanding Prince, whether it’s true or not[;] he wants it to be a central part of his past, or part of the mythology that he’s creating, and thus a seminal part of what he wants you to think about him” (Touré 89). Touré compares “Sister” to “the creation myth for a superhero: My hypersexual older sister seduced me and taught me all about wild sex as she made love to me and dominated me and all of that turned me into what I am today” (90). Its position near the end of Dirty Mind–right after “Head”–is thus significant. Having given us six songs indulging, to various degrees, his erotomania, now Prince takes us back to the Freudian root of his “dirty mind”: the “reason for my, uh, sexuality.” It’s only fitting that at that root is something that reads like the filthiest Penthouse Forum letter ever written.
At one minute and 33 seconds, “Sister” is the shortest track on Dirty Mind, but also the most semiotically loaded. The song kicks off at a run: seguing directly from the keyboard glissando at the end of “Head” into a breakneck, clipped guitar rhythm, the most stereotypically “punk” moment on the album. Prince’s first-person lyrics are blunt, confessional, but undeniably salacious: the description of his sister as “32, lovely and…loose” is clearly designed to titillate. Even more titillating are the lines elaborating on her “looseness”: “She didn’t wear no underwear / She said it only gets in her hair / And it’s got a funny way of stoppin’ the juice.” In the second verse, he goes into further pornographic detail, describing the specific acts his sister allegedly taught him: “She showed me where it’s supposed to go / A blowjob doesn’t mean ‘blow.’” The most remarkable line in the song follows: “Incest is everything it’s said to be.” As Touré puts it, this turn of phrase “curiously affirms any thought imaginable about what incest could be. Destructive? Amazing? Painful? Transformative? Epiphanic? Yes, Prince says, and more” (Touré 90).
But things only get more complex in the chorus. Now, Prince’s tone turns abruptly pleading: “Oh, sister,” he whines in that permanent falsetto, “Don’t put me on the street again / Oh, sister / I just wanna be your friend.” The third and final verse reflects this shift, now viewing his sister’s “affections” in starkly negative terms: “I was only sixteen and only half a man / My sister didn’t give a goddamn.” The rage builds, finally exploding into the most hair-raising of Prince’s trademark screams to date: “Oh, motherfuckers, it’s a motherfucker, can’t you understand?” His pain in this moment is so palpable, you can see why some have been hesitant to dismiss the song as complete fiction. “At the end there’s this screaming, this anger,” musician and Prince devotee Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told Touré. “That’s when I’m like, whoa. I just feel sorry for the narrator. You were naïve in the beginning and now you’re screaming at the top of your lungs. And it’s done at such a frantic, breathless pace” (Touré 91).
For the record, “Sister” is almost certainly not a true story. Unlike, for example, his abuse at the hands of his stepfather, Prince never seems to have talked about incest in anything other than this song and a few brazen, self-promotional interviews around the time of its release. Even his sexual “creation myth,” to borrow Touré’s phrase, has been attributed more consistently to another (also familial) source: the “erotic literature” his mother supposedly left lying around for him to discover as a child. There is, of course, an argument to be made that a sexual relationship between a woman and her sixteen-year-old, future superstar brother is exactly the kind of thing a family wouldn’t want the public to know; but the idea has been so consistently denied, by so many parties, and with so little evidence to the contrary, I feel comfortable treating it as fiction.
Yet, as Touré argues, the significance of even an invented tale of incest to Prince’s self-mythology can’t be overlooked. On one level, it’s little more than a suitably shocking taboo: Prince’s “volley in trying to push that sexual envelope further than it ever had been pushed,” his then-guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled (Touré 89). There’s also the fact that sibling incest was having a weird kind of pop culture moment in 1979 and 1980; V.C. Andrews’ infamous Southern Gothic Flowers in the Attic was a bestseller, and Prince was known to be a fan of Bob Guccione’s Caligula, which prominently depicted the title character’s relationship with his sister. Even so, questions remain. Why was Prince so consistent in locating his sexual awakening, if not in incest specifically, then at least in the influence of an older, female family member? If he really just wanted to “push the envelope,” why not write a song about having sex with his brother–two taboos for the price of one?
“True” or not, there’s something about “Sister” that feels deeply, even viciously personal. Prince suggested as much in his 1985 interview with Neal Karlen of Rolling Stone. While recording Dirty Mind, he revealed, he “would go into fits of depression and get physically ill.” Among the reasons he named for his depression was a sense of discord with his father and sister (Karlen 1985). Elsewhere, Prince described the flagrant sexuality of Dirty Mind as a kind of Oedipal rebellion against his then-estranged father. Upon hearing the album for the first time, Prince told the Los Angeles Times, the elder Nelson asked him why he had to swear so much: “I said, ‘Because I swear’” (Hillburn 1982).
“Sister” is more targeted, and more petulant. Prince’s references to a sixteen-year age difference and pleas not to “put me on the street again” could only have been aimed at his half-sister, Sharon Nelson, with whom he’d briefly stayed while shopping his first demo tape in New York. They’d had a falling-out during his stay–because of money, Prince told journalist Barbara Graustark. “I had nothing,” he recalled. “I was running up sort of a bill there, at her place, and she wanted me to sell my publishing for like $380 or something like that–which I thought was kinda foolish” (Graustark 120). Three years later, his resentment coupled with a growing desire to shock, and curdled into one of his most infamous songs.
The problem, of course, is that Prince not only insisted his lyrics were true, but he also had no less than three other sisters and half-sisters about whom he could have been singing. His younger sister, Tyka Nelson, told Michael Dean of the Prince Podcast that she got “a lot of flak” for the song growing up: “Everybody in the neighborhood kept saying, ‘You slept with your brother?’” As Tyka explained it, however, the song was about Sharon, “because she’s so pretty… She was kind of worldly and just kind of classy, and so he admired her… it was kind of a tribute to her” (Dean “Tyka”).
Whether Sharon appreciated the “tribute” is a different question; it’s worth noting, however, that their relationship did continue over the years. In a recent interview with prince.org, Nelson affirmed that she and her brother would do their best “to make time to get together” whenever he was in New York, and shared stories about joining him onstage during the Purple Rain tour and meeting up at the Helmsley Palace around the time of Lovesexy (prince.org 2017). But her recollections didn’t seem to extend past 1991: the year when she and their father spoke to tabloid TV newsmagazine A Current Affair about Prince (see video above), triggering another major rift in their relationship. At this point, we can only take Sharon at her word that she was on good terms with her brother, in whose estate she has a stake, at the time of his death in 2016. We did, however, finally get an answer to what she thought about the song: “My brother had a wild imagination” (prince.org 2017 Part II).
This Friday, look out for another episode of the podcast–and fingers crossed for another post next week!
(Thanks to Laura Tiebert for catching a mistake: I originally wrote that no one on prince.org had asked Sharon about the song. Thanks also to Jane Clare Jones for pointing out the remaining questions about Prince’s “sexual creation myth” and prompting a few other minor edits.)