(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)
During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mindin late 1980 and early 1981, Prince talked to the press more than ever before–more, indeed, than he would again until the 1990s. His reasons were purely strategic. Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, had hired publicist Howard Bloom with the express goal of breaking their artist into the rock market; to accomplish this, Bloom helped Prince to shape his back story into a compelling and marketable artistic persona, which he then dutifully presented to every reporter who would listen. This was the birth of what we’ve been calling Prince’s “origin myth”: the Oedipal struggles with his mother and father; the sexual and creative utopia he found in André Anderson’s basement; the precocious sexuality and artistry that would find its full expression, conveniently enough, in the album he was currently promoting. The press ate it all up like the confection it was. Bloom “would tell people, ‘Prince sees sex as salvation,’ and then you’d see that in the Washington Post, the New York Times,” Cavallo told biographer Matt Thorne. “He comes up with that phrase and then ten writers use that phrase” (Thorne 2016).
Read enough of Prince’s interviews from the Dirty Mindera and Bloom’s talking points come into sharp relief: titillating racial and sexual ambiguity, a fierce desire for aesthetic authenticity, and an appetite for rebellion–all like proverbial catnip to rock’s punk-era tastemakers. But in one interview with Chris Salewicz of England’s New Musical Express, published in June of 1981, Prince made a specific claim that stands out amidst his more generalized myth-building. “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record,” he recalled. “A lot of anger came up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ‘Partyup’” (Salewicz 1981).
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!
Dirty Mind is an album with a reputation. Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker deemed it “positively filthy” (Tucker 1981). Self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau branded it with arguably his greatest one-liner: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home” (Christgau). And then, of course, there was the marketing: that provocative cover photo by Allen Beaulieu; those proto-PMRC stickers warning radio programmers to “audition prior to airing” (see above); the wave of interviews with the 22-year-old artist defiantly espousing his core values of unfettered sexuality and free expression. Almost invariably, from 1980 to 2017, critics have seen Dirty Mind as a turning point: the moment when Prince, swooning teen R&B lothario, became Prince, brash punk-funk libertine. “Nothing,” Tucker wrote, could have prepared us for the record’s “liberating lewdness” (Tucker 1981).
Yet, for those of us who have been following along at home, perhaps the most surprising thing about Dirty Mindis how unsurprising it feels. The album’s smutty disrepute rests, more or less, on two songs: the already-discussed “Head” and the even-more-notorious “Sister” (more on that later). On the other three-quarters of the record, however, Prince isn’t much more sex-obsessed than he was last time around. In fact, rather than a radical about-face for Prince, Dirty Mind is more accurately described as a refinement of what came before: stripping the music to its bare essentials, turning the innuendos unmistakably transparent. It’s different, but hardly unprecedented; if you didn’t see Dirty Mind coming after Prince, then you simply weren’t paying attention.
In early March, 1980–right around the same time Rick James was absconding with their Oberheim–Prince’s band took a break from the tour and spent a day at Disney World. “In Orlando, we decided to have some fun being tourists,” keyboardist Dr. Fink told journalist Mobeen Azhar. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun.’ I remember leaving him sitting outside the hotel room on the balcony, with his guitar. By the time we came back, he’d written ‘When You Were Mine’” (Azhar 23).
If “Head,” as suggested last week, was “the foundation upon which Prince’s racial, sexual, and personal preoccupations of the next decade were built,” then “When You Were Mine” laid the groundwork for his musical expansion. It was his first real foray into crossover territory: a masterful capital-“P” pop song with all the literary value of contemporary New Wave troubadours Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. It wasn’t Prince’s first classic song–that, again, would be “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–but it was his first standard: timeless, durable, and rewarding of endless reinterpretations by other artists.