Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on the Vanity 6 album at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The last song he recorded for the album, on April 5, 1982, was also the last song on the track list: a gauzy synthpop ballad arithmetically titled “3 x 2 = 6.”
More than any other song on the album, “3 x 2 = 6” reflects the personal relationship between Prince and Vanity (née Denise Matthews), which had blossomed in the months since their first meeting. “Prince became like a father to me,” Matthews later recalled. “He loves playing dad. The first thing he did when we met was to nurse me, take care of me. I was very dependent on him, [‘]cause I needed a father because of the terrible insecurity I had experienced as a child” (Nilsen 1999 105).
The song’s lyrics–officially, but almost certainly erroneously, credited to Vanity herself–foreground this sense of vulnerability. Instead of a “Nasty Girl” on the prowl, here she’s a sweet, shy young woman who looks up to Greta Garbo and lacks the “nerve” to approach the lead singer of her “favorite band in life.” Intriguingly, the song makes a motif out of Vanity pretending to be someone else: she is afraid to talk to the singer because she hates “to let [her] inner feelings show,” and she admires Garbo because the silent movie queen “never played the part of anyone’s fool.” As if to draw a line under this theme, the chorus even alludes directly to the gap between 23-year-old Denise Matthews of Niagara Falls, Ontario and her new, larger-than-life persona: “My made-up name is Vanity,” she sings, “‘cause a girl’s best friend’s her pride.”
Of course, this being a Vanity 6 track, there’s also a healthy undercurrent of titillation beneath the poignancy. One of the more puzzling lyrics in the song comes right after the line about Matthews’ “made-up name”: “a working girl don’t have to tolerate the mailman’s tricks.” The use of “mailman” has always struck me as an intentional, if oblique evocation of the old cliché of mail carriers as lustful figures, fathering illegitimate children with bored housewives (if the song had been released 20 years earlier, she might have sung “milkman”). Another interpretation comes from a recent episode of Josh and Christy Norman’s the Mountains and the Sea podcast: Vanity, as a “working girl” (i.e., a sex worker), doesn’t have to depend on the postal service for her paycheck; to paraphrase a later Prince song, she doesn’t have to worry about the mailman “putting her million-dollar check in someone else’s box.” Either way, the implication is clearly sexual. Still more head-scratching–and eye-rolling–is the titular lyric, which invokes the Vanity 6 breast-count motif with a dubiously mathematical platitude: “Everybody gets three years of tribulation unless they lie / But with a female, three times two equals six.”
But if “3 x 2 = 6” is meant to bare Vanity’s soul–much less anything else–it does so with a healthy dose of artifice. The fledgling singer, in what amounts by default to her vocal showpiece on the album, quavers her way through the song with the ersatz earnestness of a community theatre actress. When a more confident Brenda Bennett jumps in on the chorus, one imagines her throwing the frontwoman a life preserver. Somehow, though, it all kind of works; the gulf between the apparent emotional intimacy of Prince’s lyrics and the amateur dramatics of Vanity’s vocal performance make “3 x 2 = 6,” in its own way, as much of a perfect camp specimen as “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up).”
At least somewhat less of an acquired taste is the song’s musical backing, which is dominated by a dreamy synth line that mirrors the descending vocal melody. Unfortunately, the fact that this same melody persists through both the verses and chorus makes the whole thing start to feel monotonous by halfway through its five-minute runtime. Throw in some plodding live drums–played by an uncredited Dez Dickerson, who as a drummer is an excellent guitarist–and it becomes a bit of a slog. A short guitar solo does enliven things before the bridge, at which point Vanity finally breaks from the same old melody to declare, “That’s all I need to say because I think you understand / Unless, of course, in another life you were a man.” The pathos of these lines rings true, despite–and maybe a little because of–the chintziness of the performance. For a little over five minutes at the end of Vanity 6, Denise Matthews got to be a version of herself instead of somebody else’s sexual fantasy. The fact that she was so much better at the latter would be one of her life’s many tragedies.
Vanity 6 was released a little over four months after the completion of “3 x 2 = 6,” on August 11: the first of what had become a trilogy of Prince-related albums released in mid-to-late 1982. It did reasonably well for a record with only one hit single, peaking at Number 6 on the Billboard R&B chart and Number 45 on the Hot 200. On October 19, the trio made their official live debut at the Taste Show Lounge in Minneapolis–a milestone later dramatized by their successor group Apollonia 6 in Purple Rain–followed by dates in Detroit, Washington, DC’s Howard University, and the Ritz in New York. Less than a month later, they were back on the road as the first opening act on Prince’s 1999 tour.
Like the Vanity 6 album itself, their live sets were short, punchy affairs. Prince tasked his second opening act, the Time, with playing the backing tracks from behind a curtain–an arrangement that became a point of contention for the group when it only resulted in a nominal increase in their pay. Also behind the curtain was backing singer Jill Jones, who sang all of Susan Moonsie’s parts while the real Susan lip-synced onstage. The show would open with the Time playing an instrumental vamp while the girls strutted their stuff, introducing themselves by name and winking, “We just wanna play with you.” This introduction would segue seamlessly into a breakneck rendition of “Make-Up,” followed by a radically revised version of “Wet Dream” that catered to the Time’s funk chops, a hard-hitting “Drive Me Wild” with scorching guitar work by Jesse Johnson, and a borderline-manic “If a Girl Answers.” The closing number, of course, would be “Nasty Girl,” during which Vanity would strip off her tuxedo jacket and straddle her microphone stand. The whole thing would be over and done with in less than 20 minutes: wham, bam, thank you, ma’ams.
Notably absent was “3 x 2 = 6”–an omission that, given the group’s reviews, was probably wise. A particularly unsparing notice came from Pete Bishop of the Pittsburgh Press, who opined that the group would have been better named “Vanity Stinks.” “They moan and they pant and they rap and they breathe asthmatically; this is supposed to be sexy,” Bishop writes. “They wear frilly lingerie. They step, skip and march in unison like minor league Rockettes. They bend over and wiggle their fannies at the fans. ‘Do you think I’m a nasty girl?’ Vanity asked during the ‘song’ called ‘Nasty Girl.’ Yes, all three of you are–for pretending you have talent and charging people money to find out you don’t” (Bishop 1983 A-13).
These days, Vanity 6 is unlikely to inspire quite such an extremity of feelings; but they remain, to my mind at least, an underrated part of Prince’s first great creative peak in 1982. Their sole album served as a laboratory for some of the producer’s most forward-thinking musical ideas: from the razor-sharp Minneapolis Sound of “Nasty Girl” to the proto-techno of “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild.” And, while Vanity herself was admittedly no great shakes as a singer, her beauty, charm, and charisma made her an indelible icon of the ’80s. Even some of the group’s more retrograde aspects have aged surprisingly well in 2019: however unequivocally designed for the male gaze, they played their roles with just enough of a knowing wink to inspire generations of female (and other!) artists to live out their own fantasies on stage and in the studio. Like I wrote for Spectrum Culture a couple of months ago, it’s still Vanity’s little nasty world; we’re all just living in it.
And that, folks, is the end of our coverage of Vanity 6. I’ll be back on Monday with a roundup post for that album. Then, I’m happy to say that having reached my $50-a-month Patreon goal, I am now officially obliged to deliver a post a week starting in July! Thanks to Vegard Moen and John Loos III for pushing me over the edge this week: because of you and the other nine patrons, my next post on “If It’ll Make U Happy” will be up before Independence Day. If you’re reading this and you want to support the Patreon, then by all means check it out here.