As I’ve alluded a few times recently, the last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic in my neck of the woods; but I still had to make the time to participate in this month’s #PrinceTwitterThread series on 1995’s The Gold Experience. I know I remain, somewhat unfashionably, an ’80s Prince guy, but The Gold Experience is one of my faves from the ’90s and “Endorphinmachine” is an absolute banger. Check out the thread below, and be sure to also make your voice heard on the poll I posted pitting the raw original mix against the clunktastic album version. Also, stay tuned to @PrinceThread on Twitter; the series just got started, and is going all the way through the Record Store Day release of The Gold Experience on Saturday the 18th!
Hey, everyone! I’m still toiling away at my next post on the Time’s “Ice Cream Castles”; it’s almost ready, just needs some finishing touches. Meanwhile, a little bird told me that my presentation from last month’s #SexyMF30 virtual symposium is now up on YouTube, so I thought I’d share that just to make sure you all know I’m not dead. As always, I had a blast at the symposium; shoutout to my co-panelists, Steven G. Fullwood, Robert Loss, and Edgar Kruize, as well as moderator Monroe France, all of whose work pushed me to continue raising the bar in my annual cosplay as a pop culture scholar. You can see all of us in action in the panel discussion below:
As usual, I’d also like to share a few of my favorite presentations from throughout the symposium. It should be noted that this is by no means an exhaustive list; each and every presentation I was able to see was well worth my time, and I recommend every reader peruse De Angela Duff’s YouTube channel and see what catches your eye. Just take the recommendations below as a few good places to start.
Also on the fashion tip (and someone with whom I already have recorded a podcast!) was Karen Turman, who did a fabulous presentation on the aesthetics of the “Sexy MF” song and music video. Of particular note for me: she cited Rena Clamen’s fantastic article on Prince and consent, which to my knowledge was only ever published in the now-out-of-print magazine my sister and I released back in 2018. If you’re interested, I posted a Twitter thread about this blast from the past and how much it meant to me.
Much of my favorite material around the “Love Symbol Album” is the extramusical material (hence my own presentation’s focus on transmedia storytelling), so I’d be remiss not to mention the 3 Chains o’ Gold movie roundtable featuring Kamilah Cummings, Rhonda Nicole, Tonya Pendleton, Casey Rain, and one of my faves, Melay Araya, moderated by Eloy Lasanta:
All in all, it was another great weekend, and just what the doctor ordered during a time when it can be difficult to stay motivated due to [gestures at the entire world]. Thanks as always to De Angela for putting together such an incredible event and an even better community. Count me in for the Triple Threat symposium later this year–and every other one, for that matter!
Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.
John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).
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, if airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy 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 331⁄3 revolutions 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.
The earliest known Prince song has no title…or lyrics, or a melody. It was just a rhythm, supposedly banged out on a pair of rocks by five-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson–or “Skipper,” as he was more commonly known–soon after he saw his father’s band perform in 1963. Just as few details are remembered about the second earliest known Prince song–except for the fact that it involved larger rocks (Ro 4). Even the third earliest known Prince song has been lost to memory. All we know is that Prince was seven when he wrote it on the family piano, and that it was called “Funk Machine”–though even that much is questionable, as the likely earliest musical reference to “funk,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” was released in 1967, two years after “Funk Machine” was supposedly written.
All of these stories may well be apocryphal; knowing Prince, who often played fast and loose with the facts of his life in recounting them to the media, they probably are. At the very least, it’s likely that these earliest compositions stretched the definition of what one might reasonably consider a “song” (though, who knows–maybe “Rock Jam #2” would later be resurrected as the drum machine pattern from “1999”). The point of such tales, however, is to establish a more fundamental fact: that Prince, more or less from his first memories, was saturated in the act of music-making. “Music is made out of necessity,” he wrote in 1992. “It’s a fact of life. Just like breathing” (Prince 1992).