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Ephemera, 1983

Vibrator

A bold demand for a woman’s right to sexual pleasure, filtered through the distinctly 20th-century male anxiety of being replaced in the bedroom by a machine.

After returning to Minnesota from Los Angeles at the end of April 1983, Prince continued work on a prospective second album for Vanity 6. On Saturday, April 30, he cut the initial basic tracks for “Sex Shooter” and “Promise to be True,” both of which would be reworked extensively before eventually seeing release (or, in the later case, not seeing it). The following day, he revisited “No Call U”–a holdover from the 1999 sessions of the previous year–and recorded a new song called “Moral Majority.”

The latter, named after the notorious Christian Right movement led by televangelist Jerry Falwell, is described by sessionographer Duane Tudahl as “a synth-based track about nonconformity with lines like[,] ‘don’t want to be like anyone, I want them all to stare.’” While not in circulation, it reportedly features a gang vocal recorded by Vanity, Brenda Bennett, Susan Moonsie, manager Jamie Shoop, and Brenda’s husband Roy, while crammed into the bathroom of Prince’s Chanhassen home. “I remember… sitting on the handle of the toilet, right in the middle of the session,” Roy recalled to Tudahl. “It gave away where we were” (Tudahl 2018 81).

Later that month, Prince would record two other potential Vanity 6 tracks containing a similar cocktail of topical vulgarity. “G-Spot,” later recorded by backing singer Jill Jones for her 1987 solo album, was inspired by the so-called “Gräfenberg spot”: a (likely apocryphal) erogenous zone of the vagina that had captured the popular imagination through the 1982 bestseller The G Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality. Meanwhile, “Vibrator” commemorated a popular sex toy during a watershed year in its own journey to the American mainstream.

“The Greatest Medical Discovery Ever Known”: a turn-of-the-century ad for an “electric manipulator” minces no words; photo stolen from On the Next Page, or the Vibrator Blog.

The vibrator has a long and fascinating history, of which it’s worth going into a truncated version here. The earliest electric vibrators were medical instruments used by 19th-century doctors to treat a wide range of ailments, including arthritis, constipation, and tumors. A particularly seductive hypothesis, advanced by historian Rachel Maines in her 1998 book The Technology of Orgasm, was that these same doctors would also bring their women patients to orgasm (or, in Victorian parlance, “paroxysm”) as a clinical treatment for the famously ill-defined feminine affliction of “hysteria”; this story, however, was later debunked by other scholars such as Hallie Lieberman. Instead, Lieberman argues, it wasn’t until vibrators were marketed for home use at the turn of the 20th century that women consumers “embraced their erotic potential”–and even then, only “covertly at first” (Lieberman 2020).

The ensuing decades saw advertisers selling vibrators largely via euphemism: openly touting nonsexual applications (e.g., for beauty or weight loss), while hinting at their efficacy as masturbation aids. A 1908 ad for the hand-powered Bebout model promised it was “[i]nvented by a woman who knows a woman’s needs”; a 1956 Sears catalogue advertised the “[n]ew, more powerful Kenmore Vibrator-Massager” as producing a “soothed, relaxed, ‘great-to-be alive’ feeling.” The parallel late-1960s developments of the sexual revolution and the introduction of cordless “personal massagers,” like the Hitachi Magic Wand, led to more overt acknowledgment of vibrators’ sexual uses: notably including an endorsement in the landmark 1972 manual The Joy of Sex (Bell 2018).

Which brings us to 1983 and the founding of California-based sex toy manufacturer Vibratex, known as the first company to import so-called “dual-action” vibrators (that is, vibrators with both internal and external components for simultaneous vaginal and clitoral stimulation) from Japan to the United States. Early models such as the Beaver and Kangaroo paired brightly-colored shafts with external “ticklers,” made from a synthetic jelly-like substance and shaped like animals to circumvent Japanese obscenity laws (Hsieh 2020). While the products wouldn’t truly enter the zeitgeist until 15 years later–when HBO’s Sex and the City aired an episode in which Charlotte (Kristin Davis) becomes addicted to her Vibratex Rabbit Pearl–they were, nevertheless, immediately popular.

Whether Prince was aware enough of the dual-action vibrator’s popularity to write a song about it is, of course, a matter of conjecture; but if the aforementioned inspiration for “G-Spot” tells us anything, it’s that he clearly had his ear to the ground in 1983 when it came to issues of women’s sexuality. On the other hand, he could have gotten the idea from somewhere closer to home: Jill Jones, who briefly cohabited with Prince and Vanity around this time, recalled that “Denise [Vanity] had this massager that she used, and it was for her back, because she had a bad back, and it sounded like a lawn mower” (Tudahl 2018 87).

[Vanity] had this massager that she used… because she had a bad back, and it sounded like a lawn mower.

Jill Jones
Vanity 6 (L to R: Brenda, Vanity, Susan), circa 1983; photo stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia, © Warner Bros.

Like, frankly, the majority of Vanity 6 songs (see also: “Nasty Girl,” “Wet Dream,” “Bite the Beat,” and so on), “Vibrator” is a bold demand for a woman’s right to sexual pleasure, filtered through a straight man’s perspective: in this case, the distinctly 20th-century male anxiety of being replaced in the bedroom by a machine. Over the appropriately mechanical chug of the Linn LM-1, Vanity vents her frustration with a man who spends all his time with “the boys” rather than attending to her needs, before introducing us to her “new love,” the titular personal massager. “His patience can’t be beat,” she purrs; “I guess you could say that you’re obsolete.”

Vanity’s vocal performance on “Vibrator” is a masterpiece of camp; with no irony whatsoever, I’d go so far as to say that it’s her finest achievement as an actor. She changes registers with reckless abandon: moving from a sultry whisper to an archly affected pout to borderline-unhinged mirth in just a handful of lines. Before the third verse, we hear the vibrator start to hum–it does, indeed, sound like a motor turning over–and she continues to speak-sing through waves of (presumably) simulated ecstasy. But as her pleasure builds, it’s steadily overtaken by rage at the absent boyfriend: “Now I’m just a plaything,” she spits, “Your ego-feeding female sex machine / Well, you can take a hike, mister / ‘Cause you’re the poorest excuse for a man I’ve ever seen / Eat your heart out, sucker!” In short, she goes for broke; and while it’s still far from a conventionally “good” performance, the complex range of emotions on display makes one wonder what she might have achieved with the right opportunities in her future film career.

Aspiring sex toy saleswoman Jill Jones during the filming of Purple Rain, circa 1983; photo stolen from Soulhead.

What we might call the second act of “Vibrator” abandons this bizarre, quasi-feminist psychodrama for the more familiar waters of light sex comedy. But, unlike Prince’s recent efforts on the Time’s “Chili Sauce” and “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” this skit is actually, unreservedly funny. After firing up her “love” again, Vanity finds to her dismay that it has run out of juice (the sound of the mighty machine, now sputtering in and out of life, is itself a pretty good aural gag). So, she sets out to buy more batteries. The first store she visits is tended by none other than Jill Jones, who can’t contain her shock when she sees the device (“Oh my, God! Look at the size of that thing!”) and tries to steal away with it to the storage room. This allows Vanity to show yet another side of her persona, as she snaps, “Nah, I’ll tell you what! You and your rubber gloves can go downstairs, and I’ll take my business elsewheres!”

It’s when she reaches the second store, though, that the skit really takes off. This time, the clerk is played by Prince, reprising what I still think of as his drag persona from “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up).” It’s a triumphant return: from his hilariously aggressive greeting (“Well, what do you want?!”) to his sarcastic response when she explains that she needs her “body massager” for her back (“Yeah, my back’s been actin’ up, too… In fact, it acts up every time my boyfriend leaves!”). Finally, 10 (!) batteries in hand, Vanity heads back home, and it’s on to the third and final act.

More Prince fans have heard the last two minutes of “Vibrator,” in which Vanity finally achieves the satisfaction her no-good man denied her, than are probably aware of it. Prince sampled this moment a few times later in his career: on the Madhouse tracks “Seven” and “24” (part of the “Dopamine Rush Suite” from the jazz-funk side project’s unreleased third album), then, most famously, on “Orgasm,” the closing track of his 1994 album Come. As the latter title implies, it’s pretty much straight-up aural erotica; it’s also the one part of the song where Vanity seems not to be acting at all. As Jones recalled, “After I recorded my part I ended up leaving the studio and went upstairs, and she went down there and then that thing just (makes loud grinding noise).” Later, she told Tudahl, Vanity “alluded… that they did this experimentation thing. Anything for art! I was watching TV and it was really loud and it didn’t take a genius!” (Tudahl 2018 88).

[Vanity] alluded… that they did this experimentation thing. Anything for art! I was watching TV and it was really loud and it didn’t take a genius!

Jill Jones

On the circulating recording of “Vibrator,” Vanity’s climax gives way to the opening pulse of “G-Spot,” forming a kind of diptych of female sexual pleasure. Whether Prince ever got as far as sequencing the tracks on an album configuration is unlikely, however. Brenda Bennett, two-sixths of Vanity 6, even expressed her doubts that “Vibrator” was ever intended for the public, telling Tudahl, “as far as I could tell, there was no way he would release it” (Tudahl 2018 88). On that point, I’m not so sure: while there’s little doubt that the Parents Music Resource Center would have had a field day with the song–as, indeed, they did with “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby,’” another ode to a sex toy from Vanity’s 1984 solo album Wild Animal–the Time’s very-much-released Ice Cream Castle got away with a similarly explicit interlude (albeit, admittedly, one with nowhere near the verisimilitude of Vanity’s performance).

But whatever Prince had planned originally, Vanity ended up going solo, and the first two-thirds of “Vibrator” were consigned to the Vault. The song never appears to have been considered for successor group Apollonia 6: presumably, and wisely, out of recognition that the new frontwoman didn’t have her predecessor’s range. If there’s any fitting end to this story, it’s this little tidbit I found while searching “vanity 6 vibrator” on YouTube this week: It appears that there’s now a dual-action vibrator on the market called–wait for it–the Vanity. It goes without saying, of course, that born-again Christian evangelist Denise Matthews would not have been pleased to have her former stage name permanently tied to a sex toy; still, I’m pretty sure Vanity would have been proud.

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