The Prince oeuvre, song by song, in chronological order.
Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.
I think it’s obvious from the conversation that we all had a great time (and if you’re looking for an extra great time, try taking a drink every time De Angela–whose favorite Time album is famously Pandemonium–pops into the live stream to interject). It was extremely flattering to be asked to share the “stage” with folks as knowledgeable about the Time and their place in the R&B scene as Ivan and Ricky, and KaNisa did a stellar job as always moderating. Can’t wait to do this again next year!
Before last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of1999, “Vagina” was known only by its title and its reputation–both of which were among the most tantalizing, and titillating, of any songs in Prince’s Vault. Few outside of Prince’s inner circle at the time of recording had heard it–and those who had, most notably former engineer David Z, simply described it as “obscene.”
It would have been impossible for any song to live up to such a reputation; “Vagina” certainly doesn’t, though it does stand as one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe’s previously-unreleased Vault tracks. Recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio in November 1981, the song finds Prince in stripped-down punk-rock mode–just him and his Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster; even the “percussion,” such as it is, is simulated with his mouth. As biographer Alex Hahn observed in a Facebook post soon after the passing of musician Andy Gill, Prince’s guitar work here “very much evokes” Gill’s playing with the English post-punk group Gang of Four–particularly when he “bangs the strings of his guitar in a percussive manner at the very outset of the song.” It’s a strikingly different sound from the rest of the music Prince was making ahead of his fifth album, which even in late 1981 was tending more toward synthesizers and drum machines than guitars–see, for example, the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch” recorded in the same month.
If you visited princesongs.org over the weekend, you may have already noticed that D / M / S / R’s long-delayed migration from WordPress.com to a self-hosted blog is finally complete! Well, mostly complete, anyway: I’m still working on getting the podcast feed back up and running, and I still need to figure out how to transfer a couple of stray comments over from the old site. I’m also having issues setting up the Patreon WordPress plugin–ironically one of the reasons I originally decided to self-host–so for now we’re going to have to handle Patreon-exclusive posts the same, slightly inelegant way we did on the old site.
But still, D / M / S / R looks and feels different now, and I hope you like it. I personally think it’s a lot slicker-looking and more readable; the WordPress theme I used (their default 2020 theme, believe it or not) puts a lot of emphasis on the content, and I followed their lead by cutting back on the sidebars and other bells and whistles. Also, you may notice that “Dance / Music / Sex / Romance” is now properly capitalized; this, like my original decision to use lower-case letters, is 100% based on what I think looks better with the default font.
But enough about that. We’re here to check in on my progress on this crazy project, which I started just about four years and one month ago. Last year, you might recall, I was wringing my hands over producing only 26 posts from June 2018 to May 2019. I had hoped to improve my output for 2019-20, but, well, you know what happened; a confluence of internal and external factors, most notably but not exclusively including a global pandemic, resulted in my taking an unprecedented three months off of all nonprofessional writing. In case you’re wondering, my total number of posts for this past year was 21, counting the Patreon-exclusive “bonus track” post for “You’re My Love.”
This is normally where I would start wringing my hands and making apologies and promises and self-deprecating jokes about being done with the project in 2036 (a number, by the way, that I am increasingly considering to be a genuine ballpark estimate). Here’s the thing, though: if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that shit is unpredictable and mostly outside my control. We’re all lucky to have made it past the halfway point of 2020 at all; worrying about “productivity” in times like these is just going to make my hair go gray more prematurely than it already is.
So this year, I’m not making any apologies or promises. Instead, I genuinely want to celebrate what I achieved in the past year, which was as challenging a year for me as any in recent memory. First and foremost, I got through three albums:
Besides that, the Patreon I launched last year–despite being suspended for almost as many months as it was in operation–has held more or less steady at a very respectable 20 monthly supporters. In fact, I want to welcome two new patrons, Alexander Ostroff and Anthony John Battaglia, who came on board just in the last week. The Patreon, you might recall, was meant to help my productivity, and on sum I think it has; this year has just been such a bastard that it’s hard to point to any objective evidence to support my gut feeling. As always, I’m appreciative of any support (including non-monetary), and not in the least offended if my work is not a priority for you to pay for at any given time. Do what you’ve gotta do! But I am going to be earning those Patreon dollars this month, and in the months to come, with a mix of early and exclusive posts that I think you’ll like.
Last but not least, the blog relaunch finally gave me the opportunity to make those revisions to old posts I’ve been promising for, oh, about two years now. I made a bunch of tiny formatting tweaks to almost every post, but if you’re interested in seeing some more substantial revisions, they’re linked below:
Now, for what to expect in Year Five: I recently put together a rough plan for what might be called the “long Purple Rain era,” which includes Purple Rain proper along with Around the World in a Day, the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life, and the self-titled albums by Apollonia 6 and the Family. It comes to a total of 75 posts–roughly three years of writing, at my recent pace. My ambitious goal is to get it done a lot sooner: I’d love to wrap up Around the World in a Day by December 2021, so I can be writing about Parade by 2022. I think it’s technically possible if I can stay close to a post a week in the next 17 months; but, again, I’m not going to make any promises. A lot can happen (or not) in a year.
What I can say is that I’m feeling more invigorated about this project than I have, probably, since the year I launched it; and whether I make my ambitious goal or not, I want to make the fifth year of D / M / S / R its best yet, in terms of quantity but also (and more importantly) quality. Thank you to everyone who has supported this blog in any way since 2016; I hope you keep reading and enjoying it in the years to come, however many there end up being. I’ll leave you with this video I put together for last month’s DM40GB30 symposium, which I think does a good job of encapsulating my current philosophy about the blog:
(P.S. One last bit of housekeeping: the move to self-hosting unfortunately means that, if you subscribed to email alerts for my old WordPress.com blog, you’ll need to resubscribe for this one. Scroll down to the footer and you should see a box that reads “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” I promise this is the last time I’ll be relaunching like this in the foreseeable future, so this should be a one-time inconvenience!)
Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors and leaks, it finally became official: the next expanded reissue from Warner Bros. and the Prince Estate is Sign “O” the Times, and it’s a doozy: 8 CDs (13 LPs, for the wax-inclined) and a DVD covering the full breadth of Prince’s output from late 1985 to early 1987. I won’t be “officially” writing about this music until 2021 at the earliest (more on that later), but damned if I can’t share some preliminary thoughts about it now. Here they are, disc by disc (and, in the case of the Vault discs, track by track)…
I was looking forward to De Angela Duff’s virtual symposium celebrating 40 years of Dirty Mind and 30 years of Graffiti Bridge. But I didn’t know I needed it until I was there. It’s been, I think, a rough year for everyone. Those of us who listen to epidemiologists are about to enter our fourth month of staying home and staying isolated to flatten the curve of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, police brutality is running rampant across the country, with yet another man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks, joining the depressingly long list of recent victims of state-sanctioned murder, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and David McAtee. Under conditions like these, it’s hard to feel much enthusiasm about anything. Speaking for myself, I’ve been at a low ebb in creativity and motivation for a while, even before everything went to shit.
It’s hard to overstate, then, how energized I felt from the first moments of the symposium last Friday. Seeing familiar “faces” in the chat (Darling Nisi, Harold Pride, Erica Thompson, Arlene Oak, Annie Ward, Chris Aguilar-Garcia, Zack Stiegler, and Jason Breininger, to name just a few), and hearing from others who know me from my work, was a timely reminder that I’m not out here alone; that there is a vibrant, welcoming community that shares my passion. The whole thing felt like a warm hug–something that, in these times of social distancing, is in desperately short supply.
I’d also forgotten how exciting it is to hear new research from others in a shared area of expertise. I’ve been out of the academic game for a while, and my last conference even as an independent scholar was Prince from Minneapolis back in 2018. I didn’t realize how much I missed the intellectual stimulation events like this provide. As this blog attests, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Dirty Mind, but last weekend’s presentations gave me new ways to think about it: from Christopher A. Daniel’s vital excavation of contemporary discourse by music critics of color; to Steven G. Fullwood’s acute analysis of the ways Prince synthesized punk and disco to carve out liberatory new territory in popular music; to C. Leigh McInnis’ rousing, almost Pentecostal oration on the “street philosophy” of Dirty Mind and the ways it reshaped Black masculinity in the early 1980s.
Even more impressive were the ways presenters found to cast Graffiti Bridge–a project that has never been among my favorites–in a new light. Both Monique W. Morris and Robert Loss applied a richness and rigor of analysis to the film that was, frankly, above and beyond what the script demanded; while Kirsty Fairclough (of Salford Purple Reign conference fame) and Casci Ritchie made solid arguments for the film on the basis of its aesthetics. I don’t think I’ll ever be a Graffiti Bridge convert, but I thought more about the movie last weekend than I’ve thought about it in the past 30 years, and that in itself is an achievement.
What made DM40GB30 especially timely, however, were the ways its hosts, guests, and presenters spoke directly to the current historical context. The keynote by André Cymone and Jill Jones (see above) included lengthy discussions of what it was like for a Black person to grow up (in André’s case), or move to (in Jill’s), Minneapolis: a city that, as we know all too well, has often failed to live up to the “Uptown” mythology Prince helped invent. Journalist Hasit Shah also spoke to this context in his presentation, making the argument that “Uptown” is not the uncritical celebration of multiculturalism which it has become in some sections of the fan community, but “a fucking protest song.” Even the weekend-closing musical set by musician Chris Rob incorporated numerous shout-outs to George Floyd, demonstrating that the music Prince recorded in 1980, 1990, and everywhere in-between has lasting social relevance beyond basic fan nostalgia.
If you were at the symposium and noticed I didn’t mention your favorite presentation, it’s probably because I didn’t catch it. I regrettably missed the majority of both the Dirty Mind roundtable, with BBC Manchester presenter Karen Gabay, musician Nicolay, journalist Keith Murphy, and former Right On! magazine editor Cynthia M. Horner (!); as well as its Graffiti Bridge equivalent, with the recurring panel of De Angela, Zaheer Ali, Anil Dash, Miles Marshall Lewis, and Elliott H. Powell. I plan to rectify this–and rewatch a lot of other presentations that I missed, in full or in part–once the video archive of the symposium is available in July.
Mostly, though, I intend to ride the creative and intellectual high I experienced last weekend for as long as humanly possible. I came out of DM40GB30 feeling renewed, inspired, and ready to throw myself into this and other projects–something I haven’t felt in a good, long while. I would, of course, jump at the chance to participate in next year’s symposium, which will celebrate 40 years of Controversy, 30 years of Diamonds and Pearls, and 20 years of The Rainbow Children. But even if I don’t get that chance, I will definitely be attending. Events like this are much too precious and rare to take for granted.
(Thank you so much to De Angela Duff, who clearly put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears–and a decent amount of her own money–into making this thing happen; and to Arthur Turnbull, who did a great job helping to steer the ship. Also, thanks to everyone who tuned in to my roundtable on the Time’s Pandemonium with KaNisa, Ricky Wyatt, and Ivan Orr on Sunday evening–I hope you had even a fraction of the amount of fun I did!)