Even after recruiting Denise Matthews to be the group’s frontwoman, Prince still envisioned Vanity 6 as a girl group in the classic sense, with each member taking the lead on their respective songs. This gave him the opportunity to return to a pair of tracks originally recorded for the Hookers project in the summer of 1981, featuring Susan Moonsie on lead vocals. Though they date back to almost a year earlier than the rest of the album, “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild” sound cutting-edge. And, like the later “All the Critics Love U in New York,” both seemingly parallel the emerging sounds of Detroit techno: particularly “Make-Up,” with its deliberately cold, dispassionate vocals, frenetic Linn LM-1 pattern, and synth-bass line that resembles a computer processor clearing its throat.
It is, of course, difficult to establish what Prince might have been listening to before he recorded “Make-Up”–particularly since the song’s precise recording date remains unknown. But the track bears more than a passing structural resemblance to “Sharevari,” a proto-techno single released by Detroit group A Number of Names in 1981. The two songs share a percolating electronic pulse, a faux-European air of detached sophistication, and a chorus that repeats the title to a simple call-and-response rhythm: “Share / Vari”; “Make / Up.” Both also include keyboard lines with an exotic, vaguely Middle Eastern feel. It’s possible, however, that Prince and the producers behind A Number of Names were simply working from the same pool of shared influences: “Sharevari”’s stylistic elements can themselves be traced back to tracks like 1979’s “Moskow Diskow” by the Belgian electronic group Telex–or even further, to 1978’s “The Robots” by Kraftwerk.
Lyrically, “Make-Up” matches its arrangement’s ice-cold glamour with a portrait of Moonsie as a fembot at her toilette. My fellow track-by-track Prince blog 500 Prince Songs describes the song as a “YouTube make-up tutorial given by the Kraftwerk shop dummies”; Susan blankly recites the step-by-step of her routine, her voice barely even registering annoyance when an off-camera, presumably male partner interrupts her: “Hush / See what you made me do?” The only real emotion she shows is when she frets to herself over what to wear on her date, before eventually settling on the Vanity 6 uniform of choice: “If I wear a dress / He will never call / So I’ll wear much less / I guess I’ll wear my camisole.”
The image of Susan as a docile, Stepford Wife-like figure programmed for male visual pleasure is unsettling, but mitigated by the fact that Prince has been on her side of the make-up brush: when she tells her boyfriend, “Smoke a cigarette / I’m not ready yet,” it feels less like a sexist joke about women taking forever to get ready, and more like Prince commiserating over just how much time it takes to get one’s eyeliner right. It also helps that the original guide vocal, released on 2019’s Originals compilation, is a dead ringer for Susan’s; the only notable difference is that, while Susan “always” combs her hair, Prince “hate[s] to” comb his.
At just over two and a half minutes long, “Make-Up” scans as an appealing throwaway on the Vanity 6 album; but as 500 Prince Songs observes, its influence extends beyond its lowly origins to become “an icy crucible of dance music worlds.” Notably, an electroclash-flavored version by Philadelphia-based rapper Amanda Blank was released in 2009. If anything, it sounds more dated than the Prince/Vanity 6 original; great “Make-Up” is timeless.
(This post has been updated to include the 1981 Prince version released on Originals.)
(Amanda Blank, 2009)