Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?”

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Home Recordings, 1976

Home Recordings, 1976

(Featured Image: Prince at the piano, circa 1976; photo stolen from prince.org.)

“Guess how many times I’ve changed addresses,” Prince asked at one point in a 1979 interview with Cynthia Horner of the African American teen magazine Right On! “Twenty-two times!” (Horner 1979) His typically charming, almost childlike delivery made it seem like an amusing anecdote; for what it’s worth, it was also probably an exaggeration. But beneath the wide-eyed ingénue act, he was revealing something profoundly sad about himself. For about six years during his childhood, Prince’s living situation was unstable at best; at worst, he was functionally homeless.

The period of instability ended around the same time that Prince formed his first band, thanks to the same catalyst: André Anderson, whose mother Bernadette took him in around 1974, and with whom he lived until after he signed with his first manager in late 1976. It was at the Anderson household where Prince made his earliest home recordings, at the ages of 17 and 18. But it was in his proverbial “wilderness period” when he established the fierce independence and drive–as well as the distrust of and distance from others–that would define his art, for better and worse, in the decades to come.

Continue reading “Home Recordings, 1976”