Controversy, 1981 Roundup Posts

Roundup: Controversy, 1981

It’s a little hard to believe that I posted my Dirty Mind roundup almost exactly one year ago today. The ensuing year has been hectic for mostly day-job-related reasons, but I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride again. As always, thanks for coming along with me on this journey.

I have a weird relationship with Controversy; catch me when I’m wearing my critic hat and I’ll probably tell you it’s Prince’s second-weakest record of the ’80s (sorry, Batman). But it’s also an essential stepping-stone to his more anointed classics of that decade: it’s hard to imagine 1999 or even Purple Rain without Controversy there to lay the groundwork. And while it clearly has lower lows than its more-loved predecessor, it also has higher highs: no single song on Dirty Mind was as epochal as Controversy’s title track.

Anyway, here’s how I rank the tracks (at least for today):

8. “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” As recently as a couple of months ago, I would have put “Annie Christian” in the bottom spot. But over the summer while listening to Controversy on vinyl, I had an epiphany: “Annie Christian” actually kinda slaps. So I guess that makes “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” the album’s low point by default, and the shoe frankly fits: it’s short, silly, and pretty right-wing to boot. I kinda like the demented pace and delivery, though.

7. “Annie Christian” Look, I only said it “kinda” slaps. Still feels like a rough draft for better songs–namely “Something in the Water,” as frequent commenter Arno pointed out–but it’s peak New Wave Prince, which means I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

6. “Jack U OffLet me be clear that I have affection for this song because: a) I love all of Prince’s rockabilly moments, and b) it is so goddamn stupid. But as much as I don’t condone throwing garbage at performers, I can kind of understand why the crowd at the Rolling Stones shows reacted the way they did. On the other hand, I can totally imagine Mick Jagger singing this song and killing it. Can Mick Jagger please sing this song?

5. “Sexuality” I suspect this may be my most surprising placement on this list, as I know it’s well-loved; I love it too, for its futuristic synthpop pulse and its introduction of the signature “Prince scream” (“IOWA,” as he memorably spelled it on Twitter). I guess I just feel like the “tourists” sermon, delightfully weird as it is, takes a little bit of the wind out of its sails. Anyway, anything in the top five is splitting hairs–it’s a great track.

4. “Let’s WorkIf I were judging based on the album cut alone, this probably would swap places with “Sexuality”; I’m giving it the nod for the 1982 12″ mix, which is 110% My Shit. “Hard dick and bubblegum is all you get!”

3. “Private Joy” Okay, maybe this one is my most surprising placement, and I can’t promise that it isn’t partly reactionary; it’s just that I so often see this song being dismissed as candyfloss filler, and it’s so much more than that. Not only the introduction of Sunset Sound and the Linn LM-1, two cornerstones of Prince’s mid-’80s peak, but also just a weird, densely-arranged pop concoction that only Prince could have made. Listen to all of the voices he uses in the mix! A low-key art-pop masterpiece and a preview of even better, weirder things to come.

2. “Do Me, Baby” The opposite of “Let’s Work,” this one would probably be lower if it weren’t for the completely bonkers denouement of the album version, in which Prince self-pleasures and self-soothes alone in the studio at Sunset Sound. This is a song that really separates the men from the boys, as it were: if you can’t hang with Prince after hearing him whimper, “I’m so cold… hold me,” then you probably can’t hang with Prince. Keep in mind, this is only track three of the album… he’s already come (at least) once, and there’s still a whole vinyl side to go!

1. “Controversy” (Parts 1, 2, & 3I guess I kinda showed my hand by citing it at the beginning of the post, but then, I’m sure the fact that I wrote a combined total of over 6,500 words on “Controversy” was a clue to my affection. If you want to know who Prince was–at least in the first half of the ’80s–just listen to this song. Preferably loud.

To no one’s surprise,  Controversy was my most loquacious series of posts yet: approximately 1,758 words per song (counting “Controversy” as three) vs. 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, 1,379 for For You, and a mere 833 for The Time.

Next week, I’ll be jumping back into Controversy-era ephemera with a quick post on a widely-bootlegged cut from 1981. Also, another review podcast with Harold and KaNisa! See you then.

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

7 replies on “Roundup: Controversy, 1981”

This album convinced me PRN was more than a shallow flash in the pan…it hooked me on PRN and I couldn’t let go.

I can totally understand that! While I wasn’t experiencing the albums in real time, it was the song “Controversy” that made me feel like, OK this isn’t just some fun ’80s pop guy, this is really compelling art.

Roundup?!?! Already??? What have I missed? What did Zach miss? WT-. . . . . Oh, . . I forgot that the conversation stopped about mid-album. It had been a while and I guess I forgot that you had already covered a few of the songs a while back. (I had to review.) I really have missed your blog. It has a balance of being conversational and also academic at the same time. Your writing about Prince also lacks the incessant gushing that I find difficult to digest at times. We all know he was an amazing artist that will never be repeated, but he was human and I like when you are willing to point that out.

I love your roundup! Your comments on “Jack You Off” are hilarious. I think I can agree with your ordering of the songs. “Sexuality” is not a great song melodically and it does not seem to have a great hook or riff but it is one song that has caused me to really have to think about what he is saying: the double entendre of “in the second coming, anything goes,” his meaning of “tourists” and, of course, “the new breed.” This song is loaded with things to think about and I think that is why it does not “sail” like “Controversy.” There is incongruity there that causes me to stop dancing and frown, and maybe there is a good reason for that and somehow in keeping with the message of the song.

I agree that this was a very important record in Prince’s career journey. Its singles did not do badly on the charts. “Do Me, Baby” was covered by others and was a part of Prince’s repertoire for many years. I’m sure you have seen the video of Prince singing “Do Me” on Oprah in 1996, 15 years later! And how old was he when he wrote that song? And finally, “Controversy,” according to what I read in the Wiki, was considered the 8th best album of 1981. Not bad.

Enjoy your journey!

Thank you! Yes, I’m trying to pick up the pace so there’s a little more consistency and not half an album then the other half six months later… last week was unusually productive but a post a week is gonna be my target!

thanks for the shout out, I’ve been immensely enjoying this blog, more than most any other podcast/blog/info outlet. You consistently add information I didn’t know (got on the Prince train after hearing How Come You Don’t Call Me on a friend’s 1999 single) and have opinions that make me revisit songs with new ears. (although I still cannot figure why anyone would be interested in Do Me Baby, especially the cringe inducing second half 🙂 )

I hope you can keep it up and if you feel the need for a contrary opinion, you can always contact me!

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