(Featured Image: Dorian Corey in Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston, 1990; © Academy Entertainment.)
As we’ve noted before, Prince credited the musical performances on Vanity 6 to his other protégé group, the Time–a fabrication that would later come true when they performed the girls’ backing tracks from behind a curtain on the 1999 tour. Of the eight songs on the album, only one sounds particularly “Time-like”; but that one song fits the description to a T. With its Terry Lewis-written funk bassline and song-dominating comedic skit, “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” could almost pass for an escapee from the Time’s own sophomore album, What Time is It?
Like the skits from Time songs “The Walk” and “Wild and Loose,” the one in “If a Girl Answers” unfolds from a simple, even stereotypical comic situation: in this case, working girls Vanity and Brenda trying to figure out transportation to a party on their night off. Brenda suggests that they call “Jimmy”–a male suitor, possibly Jimmy Jam from the Time, but more importantly a person with a car. Vanity expresses her doubts: “And what if a girl answers?” Brenda shrugs, “Hang up.” But Vanity isn’t satisfied by that answer; Jimmy said she was his girl. Well, Brenda offers, “if a girl answers, don’t hang up, just talk about her.”
The exchange that follows–a duel of escalating gibes between Vanity (and, later, Brenda) and Jimmy’s new girlfriend–draws on many of the same Black and blue comedy tropes as its counterparts in the Time’s catalogue. The ladies’ larger-than-life performances channel everything from LaWanda Page in roast mode to Millie Jackson’s raunchy midsong monologues. The inventive vulgarity of their barbs evokes that traditional African American game of verbal combat, “the dozens,” with references to the other woman’s “dead daddy” taking the place of the more customary maternal ur-insult.
But while its roots in Black nightclub comedy and “dirty blues” are undeniable, “If a Girl Answers” also carries the lipstick traces of another, more subcultural source. In the song’s most remarkable stylistic choice, the titular “girl” on the other side of the phone is portrayed by none other than “Jamie Starr,” in all his queen-bitch glory. The endemic queerness of this performance–as close to straight-up drag as Prince ever came–conjures another vibrant African American comic tradition: a devastating display of rapier wit with origins in Harlem’s underground house ball culture, known as the “read.”
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(Featured Image: “This Main Course is Finger Lickin’ Great!” Poster for the BFI-acknowledged cinema classic Hot Lunch, 1981; © Essex Pictures.)
The completed Vanity 6 album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from late 1981 or early 1982 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have been a reference to Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). “He spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).
In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, “I would play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).
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(Featured Image: “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (“蛸と海女”), Hokusai, 1814.)
Of the three Vanity 6 songs originally recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981, “Wet Dream” sets itself apart in a few key ways. First, unlike “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild,” it isn’t a hard proto-techno dance track, but a glistening synthpop confection in the “Private Joy” vein. And second, rather than Susan Moonsie, it features vocals by Denise Matthews–better known as the woman who put the “Vanity” in Vanity 6.
The singer on the original Hookers version of “Wet Dream” isn’t documented. Prince Vault assumes Jamie Shoop, which is as good a guess as any; it’s also possible that Prince simply laid down his own guide vocals, or cut the basic track as an instrumental. But whatever the specifics, he returned to the song in the spring of 1982 to add vocal overdubs by Vanity and Brenda Bennett. The results, like most Vanity vocal tracks, were mixed.
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(Featured Image: Susan and friend in the music video for “Drive Me Wild,” 1983; © Warner Bros.)
Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.
At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).
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(Featured Image: “Untitled (Make-Up),” Richard Prince, 1983.)
Even after recruiting Denise Matthews to be the group’s frontwoman, Prince still envisioned Vanity 6 as a girl group in the classic sense, with each member taking the lead on their respective songs. This gave him the opportunity to return to a pair of tracks originally recorded for the Hookers project in the summer of 1981, featuring Susan Moonsie on lead vocals. Though they date back to almost a year earlier than the rest of the album, “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild” sound cutting-edge. Like “All the Critics Love U in New York,” both songs seem to parallel the emerging sounds of Detroit techno–particularly “Make-Up,” with Susan’s deliberately cold, dispassionate vocals, a frenetic Linn LM-1 pattern, and a synth-bass line that resembles a computer processor clearing its throat.
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