It was a stroke of good timing that just as Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to guest on another track-by-track podcast, Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind. Similar to my and Darren’s respective projects, Jason’s is to go through the full Prince catalogue song by song, but with a specific focus on lyrics that pleases my inner lit major. It also made for an ideal opportunity to talk about some songs that I didn’t get to talk about on Track by Track, starting with “Head” from Dirty Mind:
Press Rewind: “Head”
It was a pleasure talking to Jason about the second dirtiest song on one of my favorite albums. And if you enjoyed it as much as I did, you’re in luck: we also recorded another episode talking about the first dirtiest song on the album, which should be coming out in the next couple of weeks.
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2 replies on “Press Rewind: “Head””
Well, I listened to the podcast for both Head and Sister. Don’t have much to say about Head. But Sister is a different story. The whole time I was listening I was saying, It’s deeper than that. It’s deeper than that. You know that when it comes to sex and pain and Prince you have to look a little deeper. With Head, I can’t find much below the surface but I have to hand it to you that you noted Prince’s very traditional view of sex and marriage in that song. True. True.
I already sent my comment to Jason and was probably more wordy than I would have liked to be. I often end up doing a lot of my thinking as I type. It is a song I have given thought to in the past wondering what the real story was. And just like so many of his songs and films, there is most likely an emotional truth.
One thought I have had since I wrote my response to Jason was because this song is about the sexual subject of incest, we see it under that lense. Prince says he is half a man, and sexually he is physically functional at 16, but that does not mean he is mature emotionally. His step-sister, on the other hand, is 32. She has an apartment and a job. She is twice his age. She has an advantage over him. How did he feel as this unemployed and sometimes-homeless-in-his-past, 16-year-old? Insecure and vulnerable; Maybe like half a man?
When he uses the phrase “Incest is everything it’s said to be,” it throws the listener off balance because it is normally used referring to something pleasurable. But here, the listener has to ask “What DOES everyone say about incest?” “It’s creepy, dehumanizing and scary!” He does this deliberately to create dissonance, to cause you to “trip on it” and take notice, to do a double take. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable, but this is not.
I think that the chorus in this song is most important. “Oh sister, don’t put me on the street again.” He’s been there probably more than once. Could it be that while he was at his sister’s when he visited her in New Jersey in search of a recording contract that he felt vulnerable in that situation? I do think that this song has an emotional connection to that time where he felt really alone and vulnerable, having cut his connection with his band, taking a risk going out east and possibly feeling uneasy in his relationship with his sister. Here is another situation where he does not feel in control of his life. And there is probably no situation where one feels more out of control than incest.
The reason I even have looked at this song for things below the surface is that Questlove pointed out that Prince is not the dominant one. He is the victim Because it is upbeat, there is this juxtaposition that allows this song to get in under the radar of the mind and enter the subconscious; a disturbing topic that slips in undetected, just like the insidious experience of incest.
Just some serious thoughts on this song. Looking at it in this way takes all of the “fun” out of it. There is a reason for the beat. It makes a taboo subject listenable. He puts it out there because he wants the listener to think and feel something about this thing that often goes unspoken, unfelt and unremembered.
This is for you Zach. I just want to tell you that I find your writing very thoughtful and so much more successful in expressing the deeper meaning of the subject of Prince’s lyrics than when you join someone on their podcasts. You do much better when you are in charge. I have come back to lyrics over and over, trying not to overthink things too much, but put pieces together that gives an accurate picture of the person and artist that he was.
I enjoy your writing and YOUR podcasts especially the ones with Jane Clare Jones. Those were amazing!
Yeah, this is a hard one to get right. I always come away from the song feeling like I’m being dared to take it too seriously; but then there’s also the danger of not taking it seriously enough, because as you point out there’s usually an emotional truth behind Prince’s lyrics even when he isn’t being literally truthful. I definitely think it makes sense that the feelings of abandonment and desperation in the song would have come from a real place.