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.
If you want to keep in the loop for our forthcoming Dirty Mindpodcast, you can subscribe to dance / music / sex / romance on your aggregator of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play); and if you like what we’re doing and want to spread the word, please leave us a review! In the meantime, the d / m / s / r blog will return next week with one last track from 1981.
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.
Note: This is the second of three posts on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
Am I straight or gay?
In the same 1981Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).
The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hillburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mindand, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.
These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.
Last week, I made my long-awaited, surreal, exhausting pilgrimage to the Twin Cities to attend the Prince from Minneapolis conference and Paisley Park’s Celebration 2018. I have complicated feelings, which I’m still processing–and will continue to do so, with the help of some other people who were there, on the podcast in the coming weeks. For now, though, I have some basic reactions to Celebration, and to the newly-released Prince song that was debuted on the event’s first day.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Celebration coming in–reports of last year’s event suggested a combination music festival, fan convention, and cult indoctrination–but in my experience, it was basically a corporate retreat for hardcore Prince fans. There were hours of panel discussions with ex-band members Gayle Chapman, Dez Dickerson, Matt Fink, and Bobby Z; photographers Allen Beaulieu, Nancy Bundt, Terry Gydesen, and Nandy McLean; and dancers Tomasina Tate and, um, Wally Safford. There were screenings of Prince concerts from the Piano & A Microphone, HitnRun 2015, and–via the associated “Prince: Live on the Big Screen” event at the Target Center–Welcome 2 America tours. There were live performances by Sheila E, fDeluxe (née the Family), and a (fantastic) new supergroup of New Power Generation alumni dubbed the Funk Soldiers. And, of course, there was the debut of the music video for Prince’s previously-unreleased studio version of his pop standard “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
As warned/promised last month, I have been up to my neck in drafting my chapter for the upcoming Prince and the Minneapolis Soundanthology (which is now two days late as of this writing–sorry, editors). As always, however, my much more consistent colleague in chronological Prince studies Darren Husted has come to the rescue with another episode of his podcast Prince: Track by Track featuring yours truly:
As usual, I picked a track that I consider a bit of a dark horse favorite. I hope you enjoy listening as Darren somehow manages to reference an obscure Michael Cera coming-of-age film, and I spend a solid minute and a half clearly describing a vagina without actually saying the word “vagina.”
We’ll be back to our regular schedule (I hope) next week, assuming I finish my chapter and/or my editors don’t kill me first. Have a great weekend!