Last month I warned that October was going to be quiet, and I was true to my word; but there’s still some stuff to talk about this month, even if it isn’t the music releases the fanbase is clamoring for. Among other things, in this video I belatedly memorialize Wally Safford and talk about all the new and recent Prince books I need to catch up on. As always, thanks for your support; I’ll be back with another “real” post soon!
Here we are again, my first podcast in more than a year, and I couldn’t have asked for better guests than Harold Pride and De Angela Duff to discuss Prince’s fourth and quite possibly most underrated album, 1981’s Controversy. If you’ve been listening to these deep-dive album retrospectives, Harold needs no introduction; and, since the Prince scholarly community is a pretty small one, De Angela may not need one either. Suffice to say that she’s the biggest advocate of Controversy I know, and she makes a convincing case that it’s not only a great album in its own right, but also the linchpin of Prince’s entire career.
One quick note: you will likely notice that there was a significant drop in audio quality this episode; this was due to a perfect storm of technical issues that, unfortunately, left the low-quality Skype call recording as the only usable audio source from our conversation. I think you’ll get used to it, but I will assure you anyway that I’m taking steps to make sure we sound better next time. And yes, speaking of “next time,” I do have plans for more episodes in the coming months–probably not in October, but maybe one more before the end of the year, and then more to come in early 2023. If you want to hear the episodes as soon as they drop, remember to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using the links above!
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.
One of the best things about the ongoing renaissance in Prince literature is that there’s a little something for everyone. For those who want to be the proverbial fly on the studio wall, there’s Duane Tudahl’s exhaustive chronicle of the sessions that produced Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and a handful of other classic albums. For those with a desire to unshroud some (but not all) of his mystery, there’s the moving and surprisingly tasteful memoir by his first ex-wife, Mayte Garcia. For those more interested in parsing Prince’s cultural significance, there’s the book-length study by author Ben Greenman, as well as the upcoming volumes from the editors of the Journal of African American Studies and the convenors of this year’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford. And that’s not even to mention the (reportedly excellent) photo books by Steve Parke and Afshin Shahidi, for the more visually-inclined.
Moments… Remembering Prince doesn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories, but it is sure to appeal to a substantial audience all the same. Author Marylou Badeaux, former V.P. of Special Projects at Warner Bros. Records, was never anything more than professionally involved with Prince, but was present in his life for longer than most: almost two decades, from his signing in 1978 to his acrimonious departure from the label in 1995. And, while Badeaux wasn’t privy to the actual creation of Prince’s music, she was very much a part of the crucial, underexplored side of selling and promoting it, during a period that saw both his unquestioned commercial peak and a handful of troughs. As the first person from the Warner/Paisley Park camp to chronicle this side of the story in print, Badeaux has a unique and valuable perspective to share.
It’s important, though, to keep in mind what this book is and what it isn’t. In short, Moments… is what the title suggests: a series of short, vignette-like memories from Badeaux’s and Prince’s shared careers, tending more toward the prosaic than the earth-shattering. Readers well-versed in Prince lit may even find one or two of Badeaux’s better-known anecdotes absent from this telling: e.g., his notorious 1980 appearance at Warner H.Q. in full (/scant) Dirty Mind regalia. But what the book lacks in comprehensiveness, it makes up for in personality. Fans hungry for a glimpse at the “real Prince” will find plenty to savor in Badeaux’s recollections, including some genuinely charming interactions: my favorite involved an attempt to show Marylou some freshly-shot Graffiti Bridge footage on a video playback machine, with the parts he deemed “not ready” covered up by his motorcycle-gloved hand.
As a storyteller, Badeaux is engaging and personable, lending the book a pleasant, conversational tone. At times, I did wish for the presence of a stronger editorial hand; the chapters were a bit too bite-sized for me, with background details on certain places and events relegated to external article links. But I also have to appreciate–as I’m sure Prince would have–the fact that Marylou told her story the way she wanted it told, right down to the cover design. The result has some of the same quirky, homemade charm as the NPG Records releases of the late ’90s and early 2000s. At its best, Moments… is as much a scrapbook as it is a memoir; among the most engaging chapters is one composed entirely of photos of Paisley Park in the 1980s–a precious commodity now that photography has been banned within its hallowed halls.
There’s also a larger reason why Moments… is worth Prince fans’ attention; quite simply, Marylou puts a human face on a business relationship that still gets short shrift in certain parts of the community. In a time when conspiracy theories about W.B. knocking off Prince for his masters remain depressingly common, Badeaux’s clear affection and appreciation for the man and his art should remind us that there were people on both sides of the Warner conflict: people who may or may not have had Prince’s best interests at heart, but people nevertheless. And Marylou, to her credit, does seem to have had Prince’s best interests at heart–even if, like many of her peers, she found those interests increasingly difficult to comprehend. In the end, Badeaux experienced Prince’s death in much the same way as we did; and if Moments… is what it took for her to reckon with that loss, then we’re all lucky to be able to share in her journey.
This episode, I’m taking a little break from the University of Salford Purple Reign conference to talk to musician Paul Bonomo, a.k.a. Snax. We discuss Prince’s professional and personal impact on Paul, of course, but we also speak more broadly to the two-way flow of influence between Prince and gay culture–an area that’s been vastly underexplored in the popular discourse around the artist. I’m excited to see the extended conversation that comes out of this frank and at times provocative discussion.
Next episode, we’re returning to both Manchester and queerness with two presenters from one of the Purple Reign conference’s Gender and Sexuality panels: independent scholars Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford. If you like what you’ve heard of Snax, you can also follow him on Facebook and check out his new album, Shady Lights, when it releases on October 27.