Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

(Featured Image: Prince’s electric church in the music video for “Controversy,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

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.

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Annie Christian

Annie Christian

(Featured Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” William Blake, 1805.)

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.

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Prince Track by Track: “Girl”

Prince Track by Track: “Girl”

(Featured Image: Ooh wee baby, your body’s like no other; photo stolen from Darling Nisi’s Tumblr.)

As warned/promised last month, I have been up to my neck in drafting my chapter for the upcoming Prince and the Minneapolis Sound anthology (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:

Prince Track by Track: “Girl”

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!

Broken

Broken

(Featured Image: Dirty Mind-era promo photo, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost momentum in the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.

Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; for the third time in his brief career, Prince’s attempt to get out on the road had been vexed, and he was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.

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