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Vanity 6, 1982

3 x 2 = 6

Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on the Vanity 6 album at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The last song he recorded for the album, on April 5, 1982, was also the last song on the track list: a gauzy synthpop ballad arithmetically titled “3 x 2 = 6.”

More than any other song on the album, “3 x 2 = 6” reflects the personal relationship between Prince and Vanity (née Denise Matthews), which had blossomed in the months since their first meeting. “Prince became like a father to me,” Matthews later recalled. “He loves playing dad. The first thing he did when we met was to nurse me, take care of me. I was very dependent on him, [‘]cause I needed a father because of the terrible insecurity I had experienced as a child” (Nilsen 1999 105).

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Vanity 6, 1982

If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)

As we’ve noted before, Prince credited the musical performances on Vanity 6 to his other protégé group, the Time–a fabrication that would later come true when they backed the girls from behind a curtain on the 1999 tour. Of the eight songs on the album, only one sounds particularly “Time-like”; but that one song fits the description to a T. With its Terry Lewis-written funk bassline and song-dominating comedic skit, “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” could almost pass for an escapee from the Time’s own sophomore album, What Time is It?

Like the skits from Time songs “The Walk” and “Wild and Loose,” the one in “If a Girl Answers” unfolds from a simple, even stereotypical comic situation: in this case, working girls Vanity and Brenda trying to figure out transportation to a party on their night off. Brenda suggests that they call “Jimmy”–a male suitor, possibly Jimmy Jam from the Time, but more importantly a person with a car. Vanity expresses her doubts: “And what if a girl answers?” Brenda shrugs, “Hang up.” But Vanity isn’t satisfied by that answer; Jimmy said she was his girl. Well, Brenda offers, “if a girl answers, don’t hang up, just talk about her.”

The exchange that follows–a duel of escalating gibes between Vanity (and, later, Brenda) and Jimmy’s new girlfriend–draws on many of the same Black and blue comedy tropes as its counterparts in the Time’s catalogue. The larger-than-life performances channel everything from LaWanda Page in roast mode to Millie Jackson’s raunchy midsong monologues. The inventive vulgarity of their barbs evokes that traditional African American game of verbal combat, “the dozens,” with references to the other woman’s “dead daddy” taking the place of the more customary maternal ur-insult.

But while its roots in Black nightclub comedy and “dirty blues” are undeniable, “If a Girl Answers” also carries the lipstick traces of another, more subcultural source. In the song’s most remarkable stylistic choice, the titular “girl” on the other side of the phone is portrayed by none other than “Jamie Starr,” in all his queen-bitch glory. The endemic queerness of Prince’s performance–as close to straight-up drag as he ever came–conjures another vibrant African American comic tradition: a devastating display of rapier wit with origins in Harlem’s underground ball culture, known as the “read.”

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Revisit: Vanity 6

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably wondering where I am with my next Vanity 6 post. Well, with all the hubbub around Celebration 2019, I got the feeling that anything I posted last week would become background noise; then, a few freelance obligations caught up with me, so I had to turn my attention to those. Fortunately, those freelance obligations happen to be related to what I’m doing here–in this case, very related, as I decided to write about the Vanity 6 album for Spectrum Culture’s recurring Revisit/Rediscover feature:

Revisit: Vanity 6

If you’ve been reading my recent d / m / s / r posts, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar themes here; basically I’ve always wanted to evangelize on behalf of this album for a slightly more general audience, so I took this opportunity to regurgitate some of my recent thoughts. But this also gave me the opportunity to start thinking about a few of my upcoming posts, so expect to see a few of these ideas explored in greater depth here. As for when you can expect that, well, I have a review of the Ultimate Rave set in the pipeline for Spectrum on Thursday, so I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming by Friday. See you then!

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Vanity 6, 1982

Wet Dream (Wet Dream Cousin)

Of the three Vanity 6 songs originally recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981, “Wet Dream” sets itself apart in a few key ways. First, unlike “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild,” it isn’t hard proto-techno, but glistening synthpop in the “Private Joy” vein. And second, rather than Susan Moonsie, it features vocals by Denise Matthews–better known as the woman who put the “Vanity” in Vanity 6.

The singer on the original Hookers version of “Wet Dream” isn’t documented. Prince Vault assumes Jamie Shoop, which is as good a guess as any; it’s also possible that Prince simply laid down his own guide vocals, or cut the basic track as an instrumental. But whatever the specifics, he returned to the song in the spring of 1982 to add vocal overdubs by Vanity and Brenda Bennett. The results, like most Vanity vocal tracks, were mixed.

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Vanity 6, 1982

Drive Me Wild

Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.

At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).