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Ephemera, 1983

Katrina’s Paper Dolls

Like many of Prince’s songs about women, “Katrina” feels like textbook projection: What else, after all, were Vanity 6, Jill Jones, or even the Time, if not “paper dolls” for him to play with and discard once he grew bored?

A little over a year after their first meeting in January 1982, Prince and Denise Matthews (better known as Vanity) had cultivated an image as pop music’s sexiest power couple: the royal bride and groom of his imminent purple reign. Early in 1983, the pair posed for fashion photographer Richard Avedon in a shot that would make the cover of Rolling Stone that April. Looking like mirror reflections–or incestuous twins–they fixed the camera with identical, kohl-blackened stares: she embracing him from behind, two fingers tucked suggestively down the front of his jeans. In the coming months, Prince would plan to take their relationship to an even larger venue, slating Vanity to play the leading lady in his forthcoming motion picture debut.

But there was trouble in paradise. The strong-willed couple clashed frequently–not least because Prince insisted on seeing other women at the same time as Matthews, including her Vanity 6 bandmate Susan Moonsie and his backing singer Jill Jones. A song inspired by their relationship from around this time, “Wonderful Ass,” pokes fun at the disconnect between their undeniable sexual chemistry and their equally undeniable emotional incompatibility: “My sensibilities you aggravate,” Prince croons, but “you got a wonderful ass.” Another, “Strange Relationship,” opts for a more trenchant self-critique: “Baby, I Just Can’t Stand 2 See U Happy / More Than That[,] I Hate 2 See U Sad.”

Jones, who shared a dressing room with Vanity 6 during the 1999 tour, recalled Prince giving a cassette tape with both songs on it to Matthews: “She’d play it before the show while me, Susan, and all of us [were] getting dressed,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “It wasn’t discreet.” Prince and Vanity, she added, actually did have a “Strange Relationship”: “It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad. Because she started dating other people… and he got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’ So she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back in” (Tudahl 2018 40).

Prince and Vanity on the cover of Rolling Stone, April 28, 1983; photo by Richard Avedon.

[Vanity] started dating other people… and [Prince] got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’

Jill Jones

Another song, recorded on March 1, 1983 between tour stops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t seem to have made it onto Vanity’s tape. But “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” does appear to have been inspired by Prince’s most famous paramour: not only because Denise Matthews’ middle name was Katrina–though that certainly would have been a specific name for him to use by coincidence–but also because the song’s lyrics and general tone of melancholy evoke her dwindling place in his life at the time.

The song’s “Katrina” is a Penelope-like figure, going through a series of ritual motions while her lover is away. But instead of endlessly weaving and unraveling a shroud like Penelope, Katrina makes her titular paper dolls: one “for every day her old man’s been gone.” And unlike Penelope’s shroud, which represents her fidelity to her husband, Katrina’s paper dolls represent the empty sexual encounters she carries out in his absence: literally two-dimensional playthings that “all look the same” and “play the same games.”

Like the Vanity 6 track “3 x 2 = 6”–with which the song also shares its gauzy synthpop feel–“Katrina’s Paper Dolls” shows a remarkable sensitivity to the woman behind Vanity, the man-eating sex goddess of Prince’s fevered fantasies. The chorus reflects ruefully on the pitfalls of being a woman desired for her physical beauty above all else: “There’s no way to tell who’s real and who’s not / Baby, it’s so much harder when your body’s hot.” But there’s also a kind of cruelty in painting a portrait this revealing, only to lay it aside with a dispassionate shrug. The line on which he ends the chorus, “maybe that’s what makes her world go ’round,” effectively lets the “old man” off the hook for his own role in “Katrina”’s lonely promiscuity. At the same time, like many of Prince’s songs about women, “Katrina” also feels like textbook projection: What else, after all, were Vanity 6, Jill Jones, or even the Time, if not “paper dolls” for him to play with and discard once he grew bored?

Uniquely among Prince songs from early 1983, “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” was recorded at neither Sunset Sound in Los Angeles nor Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio in Chanhassen, but rather at Universal Recording Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. According to Murielle Hamilton, his soon-to-be-ex-tour manager, it wasn’t the only track he recorded in this fashion: During the 1999 tour, Hamiton told Tudahl, Prince “would just go to a studio locally… and record for five or six hours, and so there’s a million tapes out there that no one has ever even heard” (Tudahl 2018 36).

[Prince] would just go to a studio locally… and record for five or six hours and so there’s a million tapes out there that no one has ever even heard.

Murielle Hamilton

An earlier version of “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” recorded during a solo rehearsal session sometime in early 1982, is also circulating. Like the rest of that session–which also includes an embryonic version of “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” a pair of early sketches for “Purple Rain” and a lengthy jam on the 1980 outtake “Lisa”–it’s pretty bare-bones: Just a few reverb-drenched verses and the chorus over minimalistic synth pads and the incessant pulse of the Linn LM-1. But it shows that Prince had written the core of the song quite some time ago–within months, in fact, of his first encounter with Vanity.

Still more intriguing is the rumored later version–or versions–of the song, dating from mid-March 1986. Curiously, Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman claimed in a 2009 online Q&A that she, her sister Cole Ynda, and guitarist Wendy Melvoin wrote the song without Prince’s involvement: “He just gave us some studio time at this place and asked us to go record something.” It’s unclear whether she’s talking about a different track than the one Prince recorded in 1983–though, again, two completely separate songs titled “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” would be an awfully big coincidence–or whether Prince reused elements of “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” when he added to the new track by Coleman, Melvoin, and Ynda. In any case, Tudahl writes about several recordings that are “rumored to exist”: including a 14-minute “experimental demo… consisting of piano and layers of vocals” by Ynda, a two-and-a-half-minute “condensed and embellished version of the demo” with Prince and Ynda sharing vocals, and a three-and-a-half minute version with Prince alone on vocals (Tudahl 2018 36).

Magazine ad for Vanity’s 1984 debut solo album, Wild Animal; photo stolen from Retro Music Ads on Twitter.

In the end, though, it feels appropriate to give the last word on “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” to the woman who seemingly inspired it: Denise Katrina Matthews. As we’ll discuss in the months to come, Vanity ultimately left the Prince camp during the making of Purple Rain. She was replaced, both on record and on screen, by Patricia Kotero: a sweet-faced model and aspiring actress, who could also less charitably be described as a “paper doll” version of Vanity. In November 1984, days after the Purple Rain tour kicked off, Vanity would release Wild Animal, her first solo album for Motown Records. One track on that album, “Samuelle,” sounds for all the world like a response to “Katrina’s Paper Dolls”—most explicitly in the lines, “I do recall / Carnivals were filled up with / Crazy guys and paper dolls / Thought it would last forever.”

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure if a 36-year-old Vanity deep cut is actually commenting on a 37-year-old Prince bootleg–especially now that both artists are no longer here to confirm or deny, having passed away within weeks of each other in early 2016. But I, at least, am satisfied with the poetic symmetry at play here: the same haunting, beautiful, slightly cold-hearted little song, bookending a fast-burning love affair that continues to fascinate almost four decades later. “Love will make you lonely,” indeed.

(Thanks to LitPurpleIncense on Genius for pointing out the “paper dolls” lyric in “Samuelle”–something I wouldn’t have caught otherwise! Thanks, also, to Bree for becoming my newest patron. I plan on knuckling down and getting back to bread-and-butter song posts for the next few months, so expect the next post–on “Jungle Love”–to come a lot sooner than this one did!)

“Katrina’s Paper Dolls”
Electric Fetus / Spotify / TIDAL

2 replies on “Katrina’s Paper Dolls”

Ah, Vanity and Prince… I know it’s silly, but in my head I’m convinced she and Prince were each other’s the one. I think the paper dolls were his later proteges. Attempts to create copies of her to fill the space she left.

There’s definitely something about them: all those songs he wrote, the fact that several later partners/protégées strongly resembled her, and then of course the two of them passing away so close to one another. It’s a pretty irresistible story.

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