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Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, if airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

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Lacunae

Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

In the fall of 1972, André Anderson walked into the new student orientation at Bryant Junior High and locked eyes with a kid who reminded him of himself. “I didn’t know any of these people, and they just looked weird,” he told Wax Poetics in 2012. “I looked down the line, and I saw this kid and I thought, ‘He looks cool.’ I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, how you doin’? My name is André.’ He said, ‘My name is Prince.’ I said, ‘What are you into?’ He said, ‘I’m into music'” (Danois 2012).

André was into music, too. He played horns, guitar, and bass; Prince played piano and guitar. In addition to their mutual talent, both teens were mutually ambitious: André later recalled to Billboard magazine how he “started talking about how [‘]I’m going to be this[’]. And he’s [‘]yeah, me too[’]. Next thing you know we became best friends.” They went back to John Nelson’s house, where Prince was living at the time, and jammed; Prince showed off his expertise with the theme songs from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Peanuts. That same day, they learned of a weird coincidence: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play in the Prince Rogers Trio with Prince’s father John. Pretty soon–“maybe within the week or month,” according to André–he and Prince had formed a band of their own with Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith (Cymone 2016). The group went through the usual teen-band assortment of quickly-discarded names–“the Soul Explosion,” “Phoenix” –before finally settling on “Grand Central.”