(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” 12″, 1983; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)
Having completed the majority of the Vanity 6 album over a few weeks at his home studio in Chanhassen, Prince was back at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles by the end of March 1982. The first song recorded during this block of sessions was intended for his own fifth album–though its salacious lyrics and heavy electronic sound kept it stylistically aligned with his latest side project.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” opens with one of the treated Linn LM-1 beats that had already taken their place among Prince’s sonic trademarks, just seven months after his introduction to the machine. A driving kick and snare rhythm lays the foundation, with synthesized handclaps punctuating every other measure. On the tenth measure, a hiccuping conga hit creeps in, and the claps, now swathed in reverb, grow more insistent. Finally, a pair of churning bass synths enter the mix: one four on the floor, one double-time. Once again, Prince’s interest in the emergent electronic music that would soon be dubbed techno is evident in the song’s indefatigable pulse; music critic and biographer Dave Hill would describe it as “a long, agitated throb from start to finish” (Hill 130). But where the previous year’s “Sexuality,” for example, was all pulverizing rhythms, “Let’s Pretend” sprinkles on a heaping spoonful of pop sugar, with a tinkling keyboard line that precisely mirrors Prince’s vocal melody.
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(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: Cover art for Vanity 6, 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably wondering where I am with my next Vanity 6 post. Well, with all the hubbub around Celebration 2019, I got the feeling that anything I posted last week would become background noise; then, a few freelance obligations caught up with me, so I had to turn my attention to those. Fortunately, those freelance obligations happen to be related to what I’m doing here–in this case, very related, as I decided to write about the Vanity 6 album for Spectrum Culture’s recurring Revisit/Rediscover feature:
If you’ve been reading my recent d / m / s / r posts, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar themes here; basically I’ve always wanted to evangelize on behalf of this album for a slightly more general audience, so I took this opportunity to regurgitate some of my recent thoughts. But this also gave me the opportunity to start thinking about a few of my upcoming posts, so expect to see a few of these ideas explored in greater depth here. As for when you can expect that, well, I have a review of the Ultimate Rave set in the pipeline for Spectrum on Thursday, so I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming by Friday. See you then!
(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: “There’s never been more love in the air!” Early 1970s Southwest Airlines ad; stolen from Flashbak.)
Following a month and a half of dates in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Midwest, Prince took a break from the Controversy tour in mid-January 1982. He spent the majority of this time in Los Angeles: attending the American Music Awards and laying down tracks at his new favorite studio, Sunset Sound. Most of the songs he recorded in these weeks were intended for his protégés (and budding rivals) the Time: “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” “The Walk,” and “Wild and Loose” would all end up on their second album, What Time is It? But the sessions also yielded what would become the closing track on Prince’s fifth album: a seductive ballad in the “Do Me, Baby” vein called “International Lover.”
In fact, according to Per Nilsen’s studio sessions Bible The Vault, “International Lover” very nearly ended up on What Time is It? as well. Recorded just a few days after “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” (January 11) and on the same day as overdubs for “The Walk” (January 14), its place in the chronology clearly suggests Prince had it in mind as a Time song; there’s very likely a tape somewhere with vocals by Morris Day. But in what would become a pattern for Prince with his spinoff acts, he ended up liking the song so much that he took it back for himself.
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