October 19, 2018 marks the 39th anniversary of Prince’s self-titled second album–not the most glamorous occasion, perhaps, but reason enough to reassemble the review panel from our For You podcast for a reappraisal. Once again, Zach is joined by Harold and KaNisa for a track-by-track discussion of this underappreciated album, its resonances throughout Prince’s career, and why it still matters.
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During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mindanti-war song “Partyup” to the recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “Thank God we got a better President now,” he said, with “bigger balls” than his predecessor Jimmy Carter. “I think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.” Salewicz, good leftist rock journalist that he was, didn’t know how to take this sudden detour into conservative politics. “Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out,” he wrote (Salewicz 1981).
Indeed, as a Midwesterner who grew up in the shadow of the 1980s, I can attest to hearing more than a few anti-Carter rants like the one Prince engaged in–even, in my case, many years after the comparative merits of the Gipper and the Peanut Farmer had relinquished any claim to relevance. Yet it’s also hard not to read a subversive undertone into his abrupt political endorsement. As Salewicz pointed out, there was unmistakable homoeroticism in Prince’s singling out of the president’s “balls” for praise; you can almost hear him smirk when he goes on to say, “He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth is his one big asset” (Salewicz 1981). But whatever Prince’s actual thoughts on Reagan’s mouth and/or balls, the Salewicz interview was an early indication that even this sexually and racially ambiguous libertine had a soft spot for the Ur-Republican president–at least when it came to the Cold War.
Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”
More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.
As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.
“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.
My recent run of guest appearances on Prince: Track by Track has taken me out of my comfort zone, into some albums that I frankly don’t care much for. But now we’ve finally reached Crystal Ball, allowing me to return–however briefly–to the warm embrace of 1986. But first, Darren Husted and I had to address the elephant in the room that is Crystal Ball’s disastrous 1998 release. As I note, there may be a lesson to be learned in this for those who want Prince’s estate to be run “the way he would have done it.” Listen to both episodes below:
I’ll be back on Track by Track to discuss another epic from Crystal Ball later this month; before then, you can expect another track or two from Controversy. It’s taken some time, but I’m finally getting back to the grind!