As we’ve noted before, Prince credited the musical performances on Vanity 6 to his other protégé group, the Time–a fabrication that would later come true when they backed the girls from behind a curtain on the 1999 tour. Of the eight songs on the album, only one sounds particularly “Time-like”; but that one song fits the description to a T. With its Terry Lewis-written funk bassline and song-dominating comedic skit, “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” could almost pass for an escapee from the Time’s own sophomore album, What Time is It?
Like the skits from Time songs “The Walk” and “Wild and Loose,” the one in “If a Girl Answers” unfolds from a simple, even stereotypical comic situation: in this case, working girls Vanity and Brenda trying to figure out transportation to a party on their night off. Brenda suggests that they call “Jimmy”–a male suitor, possibly Jimmy Jam from the Time, but more importantly a person with a car. Vanity expresses her doubts: “And what if a girl answers?” Brenda shrugs, “Hang up.” But Vanity isn’t satisfied by that answer; Jimmy said she was his girl. Well, Brenda offers, “if a girl answers, don’t hang up, just talk about her.”
The exchange that follows–a duel of escalating gibes between Vanity (and, later, Brenda) and Jimmy’s new girlfriend–draws on many of the same Black and blue comedy tropes as its counterparts in the Time’s catalogue. The larger-than-life performances channel everything from LaWanda Page in roast mode to Millie Jackson’s raunchy midsong monologues. The inventive vulgarity of their barbs evokes that traditional African American game of verbal combat, “the dozens,” with references to the other woman’s “dead daddy” taking the place of the more customary maternal ur-insult.
But while its roots in Black nightclub comedy and “dirty blues” are undeniable, “If a Girl Answers” also carries the lipstick traces of another, more subcultural source. In the song’s most remarkable stylistic choice, the titular “girl” on the other side of the phone is portrayed by none other than “Jamie Starr,” in all his queen-bitch glory. The endemic queerness of Prince’s performance–as close to straight-up drag as he ever came–conjures another vibrant African American comic tradition: a devastating display of rapier wit with origins in Harlem’s underground ball culture, known as the “read.”
For the majority of us who were not part of New York’s 1980s ball scene, the best-known definition of “reading” came in 1990, with the release of documentarian Jennie Livingston’s outsider’s chronicle Paris is Burning. In the film, veteran drag queen and house mother Dorian Corey defines reading and its close cousin, shade, as “the real art form of insults.” The read, Corey explains, is an overt, ruthless display of verbal mockery: “You get in a good crack, and everyone laughs and ‘kikis’ because you’ve got a good read going.” Shade, on the other hand, is subtler, but in its own way just as cutting: “I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you, because you know you’re ugly” (Livingston 1990).
“If a Girl Answers” has no shortage of lines that fit the definition of both reading and shade–most of them, it should be noted, coming from Prince “herself.” When Prince informs Vanity that Jimmy can’t come to the phone because “he’s taking a shower,” she responds by throwing some initial shade: “Oh, I see–did he just take out the trash?” Prince immediately snaps back with a shady riposte of his own: “No, that’s somethin’ he used to do / Now he’s takin’ out me.” Vanity, feigning disinterest, asks Prince to tell Jimmy “he left his pants over here last night.” “That’s okay, you keep ’em,” “she” replies. “He won’t be needin’ ’em tonight.” When Vanity tries to play dumb–“oh, what’s the matter, is he going swimming?”–it sets Prince up for the shadiest remark in the song, a reference to the looseness of Vanity’s vagina: “Why, no, we was gonna go, but he said he did that last night.”
The moment when “If a Girl Answers” shifts from mere shade to a full-blown read comes soon after; following a heated exchange on the comparative merits of Jimmy and Prince’s deceased father, Vanity suggests that Prince spends so much time on “her” back that “she” might as well tie a mattress to it. Prince fires back, “I’m gonna need it, ‘cuz if I ever see your face I’m gonna fall and have a heart attack”–to which Vanity replies that the only thing she sees “falling” is the wig off Prince’s head. Once again, Prince one-ups “her” rival, braying, “I think I’d rather wear a wig than run a motel for roaches, ants and lice, dogs and cats in my hat!” But this, as it turns out, is one snap too far, as Brenda swoops in to advise the “tramp” on the other side of the phone to “take a bath in puke.”
What follows is an excoriating dressing-down, part read and part diss rap: “You see, the only kinda man that’d play with you is one that plays with himself / None of my friends could stand the sight of you, much less the smell / And if I wasn’t a lady, I’d take my money and buy you a brand new face / Then I’d take my underwear and stick it in your mouth and you’d love it ‘cuz you got no taste / And if that don’t work, call back your dead daddy and show him what you look like now / Honey, I bet he’d never come back ‘cuz you one ugly cow.” The battle won, Brenda hangs up with a decisive “click,” leaving the dust to settle over a funky instrumental outro.
It is, of course, entirely plausible that I’m reading too much into this song’s relationship with ball culture. I’ve already speculated at some length on the cues Prince may have taken from gay subcultures in his early career; but the appropriations described here are far more specific, requiring a more-than-passing knowledge of a regionally-specific movement that was still underground in mid-1982. The odds that Prince, an inveterate night owl with a nose for new trends, was dropping in on gay clubs in the early ’80s are quite high; the odds that he was attending house balls in Harlem are, I’ll be the first to admit, significantly lower. If he was paying tribute to the ritual of the read in “If a Girl Answers,” then it would have to have been a near-subconscious borrowing: channeling something he saw or heard without really knowing what it was or where it came from.
More likely, the queer undercurrents in “If a Girl Answers” are the result of parallel invention. Both Vanity’s and Brenda’s performances draw from archetypes that were popular among drag queens: Vanity, the sultry vamp; Brenda, the sassy, finger-snapping diva. Prince himself may be participating in a different kind of drag entirely, his character no more queer than Flip Wilson’s Geraldine. For all we know, as Hockeyfrilla observed on Twitter, the exaggerated camp qualities of both the song and Vanity 6 in general could be no more or less than a distorted view of female sexuality from a young, straight man’s perspective.
Yet I still maintain that there is something going on in “If a Girl Answers,” even if I can’t–and, frankly, am not qualified to–put my finger on precisely what it is. The song brings to mind the sense of kinship, recalled by author Hilton Als, among “the colored queens I had known growing up, who called Prince ‘Miss.’” Whether by accident or design, “If a Girl Answers” feels like a product of that side of Prince: a wink to Als’ “black queens who lip-synched to ‘Sister’ while voguing near the Hudson River in the clear light of night” (Als 2012 2). But whatever else it might mean and to whom, what I know for sure is that the song gave us all words to live by: “There’s two things we can’t stand / One’s a jive-talk man / And the other’s a jive-talk man with no money.” Can ya dig it? Click.
(This piece has been thoroughly revised since its initial posting because, quite frankly, it wasn’t up to snuff in its original form. Thanks in particular to J.M. Ellison for letting me know I needed to do better. Their essay on Under the Cherry Moon in the context of Minneapolis queer and transgender history is one of my favorite pieces of Prince scholarship; even in its revised form, my piece is a poor imitation at best. Finally, thanks to Snax for planting the kernel of this idea in my head when we recorded our podcast almost two years ago!)