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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Review: Moments… Remembering Prince

Review: Moments… Remembering Prince

(Featured Image: Cover art for Moments… Remembering Prince by Marylou Badeaux.)

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 RainAround 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, however, to keep in mind what this book is and what it isn’t. In short,  Moments… is just 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: chiefly, the artist’s 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.

(Update: The hardcover version of Moments… Remembering Prince is now available on Amazon! You can support d / m / s / r by purchasing it–or anything else–using my affiliate link!)

Podcast: Am I Straight or Gay – A Conversation with Snax

Podcast: Am I Straight or Gay – A Conversation with Snax

(Featured Image: That Poster, 1981; © Warner Bros.)

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. In the meantime, remember that you can subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play; you can also stream individual episodes on Mixcloud. 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.

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Oh Hey, I’m in the Journal of African American Studies

Oh Hey, I’m in the Journal of African American Studies

(Featured Image: Cover art for Dig If You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman, from Amazon.)

No real post today–that’s coming tomorrow!–but I wanted to let you all know that the forthcoming special Prince issue of the Journal of African American Studies appears to be going to press. Also, I’m in it, with a revised and expanded version of my review of Ben Greenman’s recent book Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince. You can read that review–for free!–right here:

Ben Greenman: Dig If You Will the Picture

No word yet on when the full issue will be available, but you can keep on eye on the JAAS website for updates. And you definitely should keep an eye out, because the issue looks incredible: with contributions from scholars including Kimberly C. Ransom, whose name you’ve probably heard come up in my series of podcasts on recent Prince scholarship. Though I only played a very, very small role in the making of this publication, I’m still very proud of the role I played, and excited to read everyone’s work.

Podcast: Vous êtes très belle – Joni Todd and Karen Turman on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: Vous êtes très belle – Joni Todd and Karen Turman on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: Prince in French Dandy Mode, Under the Cherry Moon, 1986; © Warner Bros.)

Just under two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with two more presenters from the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference: Joni Todd and Karen Turman, who you may know by reputation as the “esoteric French panel.” But if all that sounds a little too highbrow, don’t worry; we mostly talked about Prince’s impeccable fashion sense and uncompromising artistic vision, just with a lot of references to Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Duchamp. It’s probably the only Prince podcast you’ll hear that mentions both “Pussy Control” and Walter Benjamin, and that’s the best endorsement I can possibly give.

As usual, if you like what you hear, you can subscribe to d / m / s / r on your podcast app of choice: iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play. If you want to help, you can also leave a review, which will make it easier for new listeners to find us. See you (hopefully) next week!

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