Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic.

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, if airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

Ten-year-old Prince Nelson (bottom left) at John Hay Elementary School, 1968; photo stolen from Elizabeth Fuller.

Am I black or white?

“I grew up on the borderline,” Prince told Rolling Stone’s Bill Adler after the release of Dirty Mind. “I had a bunch of white friends, and I had a bunch of black friends. I never grew up in any one particular culture” (Adler 1981). This is, to put it lightly, something of an exaggeration. While Minneapolis was (and is) a majority White city, the Northside neighborhood where Prince spent most of his childhood was predominantly Black. After the 1967 uprising in North Minneapolis, the city’s public school system was desegregated, and Prince was among the students who were bussed to the majority-White Kenwood Elementary School for about a year; his fifth grade class photo from John Hay Elementary after he returned in 1968 also includes a fair amount of White kids (see above). He would be bussed again, as part of another desegregation experiment, from Lincoln Junior High to Bryant in the early 1970s (Swensson 2017). But Prince’s closest friends, from elementary to high school, were all Black: André Anderson, Terry Jackson, Paul Mitchell, and so on.

Prince also spent a significant amount of time as a teenager in the rehearsal space of The Way: a North Minneapolis youth center, located on Plymouth and Morgan Avenues and opened after the neighborhood’s first taste of civil unrest in 1966. In addition to fostering many of the North Side’s young, Black musicians–including Prince, André, Morris Day, Sonny Thompson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis–The Way also offered classes in African American history with a militant edge (Swensson 2017). “We considered ourselves part of the black power movement,” Mahmoud El-Kati, an activist and co-founder of The Way, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2016. “We wore ‘Black Power’ on our T-shirts and ‘Black is Beautiful’ on the back of them. We wanted to help our people become independent from the doctrine of white supremacy” (Furst 2016).

[The Way] considered ourselves part of the black power movement… We wanted to help our people become independent from the doctrine of white supremacy.

Mahmoud El-Kati
Dirty Mind-era promo photo, 1980; © Warner Bros.

But if Prince wasn’t as close to the racial “borderline” as he claimed, it was clearly a major part of his early-’80s crossover strategy to appear that way. In the same Rolling Stone interview quoted above, Adler described Prince as “the son of a half-black father and Italian mother,” presumably from information supplied by the artist himself (Adler 1981). The same racial makeup shows up in another interview with Barbara Graustark from the same period, eventually reprinted in Musician magazine in 1983. That same year, Rolling Stone would print another quote, in which Prince described his father’s lineage as “black and Italian” and his mother as “a mixture of a bunch of things” (Miller 1983). Perhaps the most imaginative version of his heritage was reported by Chris Salewicz of NME, who identified Prince’s father as “Italian-Filipino” and his mother as “black” (Salewicz 1981).

The ethnic back stories Prince provided to interviewers weren’t just inconsistent; they were, in fact, invented out of whole cloth. Like most Americans, John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw were technically of mixed ancestry, but they identified as Black–not Italian, and certainly not “Filipino.” Jill Jones, a longtime protégée who Prince had discovered singing with his Dirty Mind tour opening act Teena Marie, has surmised that he borrowed the spurious background from her own: “When we met, he was like, ‘You’re half what?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m half Italian and black,’ and it was like, ‘Oh, okay, I can see that–I can make this work,’” she recalled to music journalist Alan Light. “He went on tour, and when he came back, he was Italian and black” (Light 24).

When we met, [Prince] was like, ‘You’re half what?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m half Italian and black,’ and it was like, ‘Oh, okay, I can see that–I can make this work’… He went on tour, and when he came back, he was Italian and black.

Jill Jones

Prince’s racial line-blurring was, as we’ve discussed, strategically motivated. From the earliest days of his recording career, transcending the music industry’s de facto race barrier had been a driving preoccupation. His resistance to being categorized as a “Black artist” came up multiple times in press from the Dirty Mind and Controversy eras. “I think society says if you’ve got a little black in you[,] that’s what you are,” he told Graustark, before flatly concluding, “I don’t” (Graustark 114). To Salewicz, he claimed, “I don’t necessarily look on myself as a member of the black race–more a member of the human race” (Salewicz 1981). The “post-racial” styling even extended to his album art and promotional images for Dirty Mind: photographer Allen Beaulieu told music magazine The Fader that Prince hired him in part because his high-contrast black-and-white photos made African American models appear lighter-skinned (Raiss 2016).

Bob Dylan plays with identity in a 1965 press conference.

In the words of cultural critic Touré, “Prince was passing as biracial for the same reason some Blacks have, throughout history, passed for white: to attempt to sidestep racism and access the benefits of white-skin privilege or at least to acquire the freedom and power over his destiny that often springs from white-skin privilege” (Touré 103). Certainly, this is accurate–and explains why darker-skinned artists like Rick James and Alexander O’Neal, for whom such passing was not possible, would criticize Prince for what they saw as the abandonment of his Black identity. But there’s an unmistakable element of self-conscious performance in Prince’s racial obfuscation: a trickster’s approach that has more in common in some ways with the proto-punk media provocations of Bob Dylan (née Robert Zimmerman) than the historical White-passing narrative. His shifting answers to questions of his parentage gesture to the constructed nature of not only his own identity, but also racial identity writ large. Or, as he puts it in “Controversy,” “life is just a game, we’re all just the same / Do you want to play?”

Appropriately, it was in Prince’s music where this performative post-racialism found its fullest expression. It’s no mistake that, after the arena-rock experiments on For You and Prince failed to find a crossover audience, his next move was to embrace New Wave–a genre that, as pop music scholar Theo Cateforis writes, was not only “predominantly performed and consumed by white middle-class musicians and fans,” but also specifically “connoted whiteness” (Cateforis 74). According to Cateforis, the jerky, neurotic stage presence of archetypal New Wave frontmen like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads’ David Byrne, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh invokes “the physical tensions of white middle-class society, specifically its obsessive focus on bodily control and emotional discipline” (94).

But New Wave, as we’ve noted, was also a rare point of intersection between the mostly-Black R&B audience and the mostly-White rock audience in the late ’70s and early ’80s, particularly in urban markets like New York and Detroit. By mid-1981, White New Wavers were pervasively appropriating the rhythms–and, in the cases of artists like Talking Heads and Detroit’s Was (Not Was), even some of the specific musicians–of Black dance and funk music. Prince’s trick was to invert this relationship, placing New Wave’s robotic, awkwardly funky grooves in service to the musical lineage of James Brown and Sly Stone.

The resulting hybrid was unlike anything else on either side of 1981 pop’s racial divide. “Controversy” comes in on the “One,” James Brown-style, with a chicken-scratch rhythm guitar part that would make Jimmy Nolen proud; but the steady, machinelike bass drum pulse breaks every rule of traditional funk. The keyboards, as critic and biographer Dave Hill observes, similarly undermine the conventions of horns in R&B music, which “tend to provide either bulging, ostentatious punctuation, or intense melancholia”; here, however, “the ‘horns’ are slaves to the beat. This is nothing to do with spurious distinctions between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ instruments,” Hill writes, but “simply the way the rhythmic elements are forced together, emphasized by layers of chanted vocals where he drops his falsetto for the first time” (Hill 98).

In fact, Prince’s falsetto isn’t “dropped,” but obscured: layered just beneath another vocal track in a lower register. Like the aforementioned funk guitar, this ghost falsetto is a signifier of Black musical aesthetics amidst what Hill describes as the song’s “combative, almost oppressive tension” (Hill 98)–to which we might draw a connection with the aforementioned “bodily control and emotional discipline” of Whiteness (Cateforis 94). The more prominent vocals are sung-spoken, as on “Annie Christian,” in a low, robotic monotone that recalls the delivery of Anglo synth-poppers like Gary Numan or Daniel Miller of the Normal.

It’s in this voice that Prince–or, rather, a litany of multi-tracked Princes–delivers one of “Controversy”’s most famous lyrics, the post-racial mini-manifesto, “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” Rather than sublimating his Blackness, however–the usual subtext of “post-racial” ideology–Prince ends the chant by reaffirming it, cutting loose with an impressive scream straight out of the African American gospel tradition. As Touré explains it:

“One of the central features of gospel is that ecstatic climactic scream that recalls both religious transcendence and sexual orgasm. It usually comes after the singer has left the structure of the music and even seems to have left behind the boundaries of language: At that point, they leap over the highest pitch that we’ve heard in the music to give us a high, long-sustained note that represents the spirit entering the body and lifting it up to a place of transcendence and superhuman ecstasy. If it’s done authentically, it seems as if the singer could not have reached that height, that superhuman place, without being here and now in this church and with the choir pushing him and the spirit in his body lifting him. That’s what[‘s] so thrilling and affirming to the congregation–that they can see the spirit entering someone and working on them and pushing them up to a place of superhuman strength that they could not have reached without the aid of the spirit. It tells the congregation that through faith and the spirit we all can find the superhuman strength needed to get through the tribulations of life, especially Black life in America. Some scholars call this the ‘gettin’ over’ moment, I prefer to call it the ‘gettin’ the spirit’ moment, and it’s as much a major part of [the] Black American music experience as it is a part of the Black church musical experience.”

Touré (122)
Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren indulge in post-racial provocation not unlike Prince’s; photo by Helmut Newton, 1985.

It’s here, however, that one might begin to parse the limits of the kind of postmodern identity play in which Prince had begun to indulge. The irony of applying Touré’s analysis of “gettin’ the spirit” to “Controversy” is, of course, that in this scenario there is no church, no choir, no congregation–just Prince, holed up in his Kiowa Trail studio with a 16-track recorder and an indefatigable work ethic. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for “post-racial” politics in general, which tend to seek individualistic solutions for the systemic problem of White supremacy.

Writing about another of Prince’s race songs, “Uptown,” Hill makes a trenchant comparison to the Black Power movement and its more readily identifiable influence on stylistic forebears like P-Funk’s George Clinton: “Black consciousness emerged in the sixties as a defense against the belittling, dominating consciousness of white society,” he writes. “But while Prince’s idealism was intense, and inspired by dreams of liberty which were no less vivid, his ‘Uptown’ scenario comprises a rainbow coalition of diverse individuals whose minds have shed all shackles of class, race and sex. For Prince, to define himself as ‘black’ would be a restriction rather than a display of strength and pride. As such, it was a more escapist formulation than that of Clinton. But it would also enable him to conquer markets Clinton’s embrace of his own ‘blackness’ caused him to be excluded from” (Hill 90-91).

Nor were White, left-leaning critics the only ones to view Prince’s identity politics with suspicion. Hill quotes an article from Soul Teen, one of the first publications to champion Prince’s work, about the emerging “Punk Funk” wave, including Jamaican American supermodel turned musical provocateur Grace Jones and the BusBoys, Prince’s early inspiration for the Time: “Are these black Punk Acts [sic] and New Wavers… shunning their traditional black roots in favor of a little cosmic Uncle Tomming or are they merely climbing over the walls built by the white man and designed to keep black music microcosmic?” the article’s author asks. “Are they depriving their own people of the talent they lavish so freely on whites or is it all a shrewd endeavor to take a big chunk out of that lucrative white market, thereby creating a solid money base and a black musical force to be reckoned with?” (Hill 85).

Are these black Punk Acts and New Wavers… shunning their traditional black roots in favor of a little cosmic Uncle Tomming or are they merely climbing over the walls built by the white man and designed to keep black music microcosmic?

Soul Teen
Top: Unretouched photo for the Controversy album cover by Allen Beaulieu, 1981. Bottom: Post-human Prince on the final cover; © Warner Bros.

These questions would remain unresolved, in true postmodern form, for the rest of Prince’s critical and commercial peak in the 1980s; on “Controversy,” simply posing them was the point. There’s an interesting photo currently floating around the Internet, from Allen Beaulieu’s forthcoming book Prince: Before the Raineither an outtake or the unretouched original from the Controversy cover sessions (see above). After decades of familiarity with Prince’s almost waxen-skinned, mannequinlike visage on the finished cover, it’s striking to see him in the same pose, but looking somehow more real: his nose wider and less contoured; his lips seemingly less pursed, slightly fuller; his facial hair looking more naturally-grown, less airbrushed-on; the textures of his straightened, but still identifiably kinky hair more obvious to the eye. Juxtaposing this alternative image with the final version, the deliberately unnerving plasticity of the latter is even more pronounced. It suggests the malleability of Prince’s persona in this era: reconfigurable, musically and even racially, to serve the needs of his audience. As he sings on “Controversy,” “Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?”

(Elements of this post drew upon my essay “Rude Boy: Prince as Black New Waver,” which is due for publication in 2019 or 2020 in the collected volume Prince and the Minneapolis Sound. These brief excerpts were used with confidence that by the time they appear in print, they will have been heavily revised.)

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One reply on “Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?”

Wow, in addition to the great post, thanks for the Controversy untouched pic. I always wondered why he looked so different on that cover, it never really crossed my mind that the pic was altered. This may have been the beginning of his overall somewhat “caucasionized” appearance. I think that Prince, in his best life, wanted to be about the soul, the essence or spirit not the body…even though his “Sodom and Gomorrah” carnal ways might make you think otherwise. Like the song, what a dichotomy… peace (God knows he was in search of it).

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