Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”
More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.
There was little in Prince’s upbringing to predict the unorthodox interpretation of Christianity he would later adopt (and, it’s worth noting, ultimately reject). Like many African American musicians of his generation, he spent a significant amount of his youth in the Black church: both Glendale Seventh-day Adventist, where he reportedly attended services with his grandmother, and Park Avenue United Methodist, where he participated in summer youth ministries and, in 1996, married his first wife Mayte Garcia. He would later famously tell comedian Chris Rock that the only thing he got out of church was “the experience of the choir” (VH1 1997)–though, as Touré convincingly argues, there is a strain of identifiably SDA fire-and-brimstone rhetoric in many of his songs, including “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999,” and of course “Annie Christian.”
Before the release of Controversy, the main public evidence of Prince’s faith could be found in his liner notes. God was the first “person” he thanked on the inner sleeves of For You, Prince, and Dirty Mind–the last of which, when viewed alongside unapologetically carnal songs like “Head” and “Sister,” may have been received by his more devout listeners as a provocation. Meanwhile, his behind-the-scenes persona was taking on an increasingly messianic cast. Guitarist Dez Dickerson has recalled that during keyboardist Gayle Chapman’s early tenure in Prince’s band, she “was telling him that he had been blessed by God with some special dispensation, and because of that he couldn’t go to grocery stores or do the normal things that normal people do. He sort of ate all this up” (Hill 56).
Chapman, for her part, has suggested that this story was blown out of proportion: “I might have told him he was blessed by God simply because he was,” she told Touré. “So was I. It wasn’t because of anything special in particular. That’s what God does, in my belief” (Touré 113). But whether or not it was the result of an overfed ego, by 1981 there was “a running subtext” in Prince’s band: “a theme of ‘We were sent to help people see,’” as Dickerson puts it. “It was this sense that there was a certain enlightenment that he, and we, by default, were messengers of and we were there to bring this enlightenment to people who needed it” (112).
This new, proselytizing vein in Prince’s music was reflected in the stage show for the Controversy tour, designed once again by Roy Bennett. Along with a backdrop of Venetian blinds–“because of the sexual suggestions,” the designer explained–the set also featured a catwalk placed in front of a prominent stained-glass window (Nilsen 1999 92). During performances of “Controversy,” Dickerson told biographer Dave Hill, Prince “would go up on the catwalk… and stand in front of the window with his arms out” (Hill 111). While Dickerson expressed doubts that this pose was a conscious crucifixion reference, he did surmise that it “spawned something, whether he did do it on purpose or whether it was an accident. I think he definitely, purposely started to go down that path after a bit” (112).
Less ambiguous in its messianism was Prince’s curious decision to recite the Lord’s Prayer about halfway through the song, in what critic Brian Morton describes as “the deadest, flattest voice imaginable.” Some writers have interpreted this as an ironic move: including Morton, who asks, “is he being blasphemous or is he so tired of the whole schtick–the murderous world of ‘Annie Christian,’ the endless humping that follows in ‘Do Me, Baby’–that rote religion is his only weary solace?” (Morton 2007). Yet, aside from the fact that Morton answers his own question–if anyone were to get tired of “endless humping,” that person would not be Prince circa 1981–such interpretations seem colored by the secular humanist biases of most rock critics. The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman speaks for many of us when he writes that Prince’s devotional attitudes “unnerved” him. “It wasn’t just that I felt excluded by his Christian faith,” he writes. “It was that I was in a constant state of excitement regarding pop culture, and I believed in a separation of church and that state. Pop culture, to me, needed to be wilder and freer, and I thought that those impulses–which were already blooming in Prince’s music–should take precedence. If there was to be religion, I wanted it to be handled subversively, the way Prince incorporated the Lord’s Prayer into ‘Controversy’” (Greenman 2017 121).
Simply the fact that one could describe Prince’s prayer as “subversive,” however, demonstrates its effectiveness in repackaging a version of Christianity for post-punk audiences. As Dickerson explained to Touré, “There’s some redemptive purpose in exposing people to the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of this other jam. Because we are the messengers of some higher level of understanding in the guise of punk-funk or whatever the hell we were doing. He had a sense of being called, if you will. Of being a special messenger of some sort” (Touré 112-113). By delivering a traditional Christian liturgy in the style of a Kraftwerk song, Prince introduced an avant-garde edge which more secular-minded critics have interpreted as ironic; yet there is no evidence to suggest that he was being anything other than sincere, using contemporary musical tropes as a vessel for his deeply-held spiritual beliefs.
Indeed, Prince’s punk-funk evangelism feels in many ways like a New Wave version of “electric church music,” an idea espoused by Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s. As Hendrix explained to interviewer Dick Cavett in 1969, “Everything is electrified nowadays. So, therefore the belief comes into… through electricity to the people, whatever. That’s why we play so loud. Because it doesn’t actually hit through the eardrums like most groups do nowadays… We plan for our sound to go inside the soul of the person, actually, and see if they can awaken some kind of thing in their minds, ’cause there’s so many sleeping people” (Roby 203).
Like Prince, Hendrix’s “electric church” blurred the lines between God and self. “I believe in myself more than anything,” Hendrix said in an interview for his 1969 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. “And, I suppose in a way, that’s also believing in God. If there is a God and He made you, then if you believe in yourself, you’re also believing in Him. So I think everybody should believe in himself. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to believe in heaven and hell and all that stuff. But it does mean that what you are and what you do is your religion… when I get up on stage–well, that’s my whole life. My music is electric church music, if by ‘church’ you mean ‘religion.’ I am electric religion” (Shapiro 342). While Prince’s beliefs were more traditional than Jimi’s–we know, for example, that he very much did believe in “heaven and hell and all that stuff”–the way he expressed these beliefs similarly conflated worshipping God with rejoicing in his creation. As Greenman observes, it’s no mistake that Prince’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in “Controversy” is followed by “Prince’s own prayer: ‘People call me rude, I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black or white, I wish there were no rules’” (Greenman 55). In Prince’s electric (or neon?) church, neither is more sacred than the other.
This collapsing of the boundaries between sacred and profane is, writes popular music scholar Rupert Till, “part of, and also a result of, a spiritual revolution resulting from the emergence of postmodernity, in which popular cultural art[i]facts are fulfilling the roles traditionally associated with religions.” According to Till, Prince’s postmodern theology “mixes and confuses religion, spirituality, physicality, sexuality, dance, music, identity, ethnicity, and commerce” (Till 76). Some of this mixing and confusing can be seen in the characteristically postmodern–and Princeian–image that adorns the poster included with vinyl copies of the Controversy album. Prince is photographed in a shower stall, wearing only the black bikini briefs that had been a staple of his wardrobe since the 1980 Rick James tour. The high-contrast image has the effect of lightening Prince’s skin, leaving his ethnicity open to interpretation, while also evoking the aesthetic of a sleazy homemade porno. His slight, delicate frame is made incongruous by his substantial body hair: from the visible armpits to, scandalously, the tufts of pubic hair emerging from the bikini. At the bottom of the image, a vulgar stream of water trickles from the bulge of Prince’s crotch; at the top, a crucifix is mounted to the tiles, right next to the shower head.
Prince’s self-representation as a racially and sexually ambiguous pinup-cum-religious icon was a clear attempt to court (ahem) controversy. But it was also a succinct summary of the contradictions through which he chose to define himself: a kind of hypercondensed visual companion to “Controversy,” the song. This tension between surface shock value and profound personal meaning adds yet another meta-dimension to the multiple intersecting binaries Prince invokes and rejects throughout the song. As Touré writes, “Controversy” is on one level “a classic marketing technique”; Prince, not yet a star, is “making you wonder about him by telling you many others are wondering about him.” But the conversations he engineers also represent “the key schisms of his art if not of his life–his race, his sexuality, and his egotism versus his humbling relationship to a higher power. These are issues he’ll hash out in his music throughout his career” (Touré 95).
Yet if “Controversy” were only a thesis statement for the rest of Prince’s career, it would not hold the key place in his oeuvre that it continues to hold today. The song is, first and foremost, a banger: the hardest funk track released under Prince’s name to date and, as Greenman points out, the first of his many “epics”: “sprawling, multipart symphonies that move from place to place and state to state, alternating between deep grooves and salvos of innovation” (Greenman 54). At seven and a quarter minutes, it’s his longest album track yet, and his most purposefully arranged extended song from any source; the 12″ version of “Sexy Dancer” clocked in at 8:50, but was less substantial, as were the lengthy jams on the first Time album. The sheer amount Prince packs into these seven minutes–of grooves, of self-mythology, of sheer discursive funksmanship–makes it look like an exercise in concision. Needless to say, the three-and-a-half minute 7″ edit is pointless in comparison.
Finally, “Controversy” also stands as evidence of Prince’s ever-growing skills in the studio. While the mix was completed and overdubs were added in Los Angeles in August 1981, the bulk of the song was completed by Prince himself at his Kiowa Trail home studio. Engineer Bob Mockler recalled Prince playing him a rough mix of “Controversy” when he showed up to complete the album at Hollywood Sound Recorders: “I asked him, ‘Where did you do this?’” Mockler told biographer Per Nilsen. “He said, ‘I did it at home.’ He had done the track completely by himself in his home studio and I remember saying, ‘Well, if you did this alone, you don’t need me anymore’” (Nilsen 1999 79).
As I said way back at the beginning of this piece, “Controversy” was not Prince’s first classic song. But it was the one that came closest to summing up who he was as an artist, both musically and in the ideas he would come to represent. Nearly every Prince song to come would be related in some way to these ideas: Black and white, straight and gay, God and “me.” He would spend the next 35 years expanding, complicating, and revising them; and the song itself would remain in his live repertoire until the second-to-last show he played, at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre a week before his death. “Controversy” didn’t make Prince a star. But it did make him into a text: one that we’re still decoding to this day.