Prince’s first side project, the Time, began with a fundamental musical concept: They were a vehicle for the hardcore funk and R&B from which he had mostly steered away in his own career, with an added touch of New Wave rock and roll in the vein of contemporary acts like the BusBoys. Everything else about the group, from their boutique vintage wardrobe to frontman Morris Day’s tongue-in-cheek pimp persona, was an elegant outgrowth of this conceit. By contrast, Prince’s second side project, the Hookers, began with an image, and not an especially sophisticated one–the name pretty much summed it up. So it’s no surprise that the music he composed for the group in mid-to-late 1981 had a distinct whiff of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck: There was minimalist electro-punk (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up”), New Wave-ized girl group pop (“Wet Dream,” “Jealous Girl”), and, with “Money Don’t Grow on Trees,” even a dash of vintage R&B.
The first four tracks recorded for the Time’s second album were all good to great: “The Walk,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” “Wild and Loose,” and “777-9311,” each a highlight of the group’s overall catalogue. So, to truly live up to the legacy of their 1981 debut, they were long overdue for some filler. Recorded around the same time as “777-9311” in late Spring 1982, “Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody” was exactly that: a slight, palate-cleansing trifle to fill out the first side of the album.
But it isn’t just its throwaway nature that makes this track feel like a callback to the early days of the Time. It’s also the sound: retro rock’n’roll with a dash of New Wave kitsch, not dissimilar from one of Prince’s formative influences for the group, the BusBoys–and, of course, more than a little reminiscent of his own contemporary material. In particular, “Oneday”’s squiggly main synth line recalls “Horny Toad”–another song recorded around the same time and later released as the B-side for “Delirious”–with all of the rough edges and, frankly, most of the appeal buffed away.
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 331⁄3 revolutions 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.
Prince, as we’ve discussed, had been harboring ambitions to write and produce for other artists since virtually the moment he signed to a record label himself. But after his partnership with Sue Ann Carwell and his “ghost band” the Rebels both fell through, his focus turned by necessity to his own music. It wasn’t until after the release of Dirty Mind that Prince shifted gears back to his budding Svengali ambitions, and plans for a new protégé act began to take shape.
At first glance, it seems strange that Prince would be so intent on fostering other artists at this early stage in his career. There was, of course, the issue of his prolificacy; as the non-LP single release of “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” demonstrated, he was already beginning to write and record more quality music than could be contained by his own albums. It’s also a matter of record that Prince was a fan of Taylor Hackford’s 1980 film The Idolmaker: a dramatization of the life of rock and roll promoter and manager Bob Marcucci, who had discovered, groomed, and promoted teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In retrospect, however, the most compelling rationale for Prince’s Svengali streak comes from one of his earliest collaborators, David “Z” Rivkin. The way Rivkin tells it, Prince wanted to be at the center of a “scene” in Minneapolis, so he made one in his own image: “he said, ‘It’s better if there’s a lot of people doing the same style, because that way it looks like a movement,’” Rivkin recalled to author and researcher Duane Tudahl. “He said, ‘I want to have an army going forward[,] that way no one can deny it’” (Tudahl 2017 344). Just as he’d done with the “Uptown” mythology, Prince was inventing the conditions for his own success.