Note: This is the second of three posts on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
Am I straight or gay?
In the same 1981Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).
The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hillburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mindand, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.
These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.
According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” He recorded the song, inspired by a dance he’d seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,” with the intention of rush-releasing it as a non-LP single in the summer of 1981. But Warner Bros.–mindful, perhaps, of the moribund U.K. performance of his previous loosie, “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”–didn’t bite: a minor setback for Prince that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.
Around the same time that Prince was co-opting Flyte Tyme for his project with Morris Day, he was also falling out with another of his oldest comrades: the co-founder of Grand Central and his closest musical partner, André Cymone.
André’s and Prince’s musical fates had been linked since the moment they first locked eyes in the Bryant Junior High gymnasium. Both were budding multi-instrumentalists, the children of talented jazz musicians: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play bass with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson. Both, too, possessed a preternatural drive far beyond the norms of their age and circumstance. “There was a sixth sense between the two of us,” Cymone told Billboardin 2016. “It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning” (Cymone 2016).
During the lull between the first and second legs of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s relationship with publicist Howard Bloom began to bear fruit. Bloom had been hired by Prince’s manager Bob Cavallo at the end of 1980, in advance of the artist’s first headlining tour. Their goal was to finally achieve what Prince had been trying to do since 1978: break out of the music industry’s R&B “ghetto.”
Bloom, as he would be the first to proclaim, was the right man for the job. At the time, he told biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “it was incredibly unhip for any white person to work with a black artist. There was a wall, and it was segregation to the nth degree” (Hahn 2017). But Bloom, a white man of Jewish descent, had a reputation for flouting this segregation: “I was considered the leading ‘Black’ publicist in the music industry,” he recalled to K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I worked with more Black acts and I learned more about Black culture than anybody else in the PR field” (Dyes 2014). Bloom, then, was one of the few in the music industry who took notice after Prince’s second album went platinum without ever “crossing over” from the R&B charts. Now, all he had to do was harness his client’s obvious star power, and make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.
(Featured Image: Purple Rain Tour Shirt, 1984; photo stolen from the Current.)
It’s been just under two months since I started interviewing presenters from this spring’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the results. But all good things must come to an end, so I had planned to make this chat with writer Erica Thompson the last of my post-conference podcasts. It would have been a great choice, too; Erica’s presentation was the result of many years of research for a book project on Prince’s spiritual journey, so our conversation was less about the conference in particular and more about her findings more generally: a nice segue into future, less Manchester-centric episodes.
But just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in. Contrary to my own statements in this episode, I have already set up another interview with a few presenters from one of the conference’s gender and sexuality panels. So basically, expect me to keep interviewing scholars from the Purple Reign conference until the next milestone in Prince scholarship comes along. And in the meantime, please enjoy my and Erica’s conversation about the importance–and, sometimes, difficulty–of understanding Prince’s religious faith in relationship with his art.
As usual, I invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play for mobile listening; you can also stream episodes on Mixcloud. And keep listening, because there’s good stuff–Purple Reign-related and otherwise–coming up in the near future!