Roundup: Controversy, 1981

Roundup: Controversy, 1981

(Featured Image: 1981 promotional poster for Controversy; © Warner Bros.)

It’s a little hard to believe that I posted my Dirty Mind roundup almost exactly one year ago today. The ensuing year has been hectic for mostly day-job-related reasons, but I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride again. As always, thanks for coming along with me on this journey.

I have a weird relationship with the Controversy album; catch me at a moment when I’m wearing my critic hat and I’ll probably tell you it’s Prince’s second-weakest record of the ’80s (sorry, Batman). But it’s also an essential stepping-stone to his more anointed classics of that decade: it’s hard to imagine 1999 or even Purple Rain without Controversy there to lay the groundwork. And while it clearly has lower lows than its more-loved predecessor, it also has higher highs: no single song on Dirty Mind was as epochal as Controversy’s title track.

Anyway, here’s how I rank the Controversy tracks (at least for today):

8. “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” As recently as a couple of months ago, I would have put “Annie Christian” in the bottom spot. But over the summer while listening to Controversy on vinyl, I had an epiphany: “Annie Christian” actually kinda slaps. So I guess that makes “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” the album’s low point by default, and the shoe frankly fits: it’s short, silly, and pretty right-wing to boot. I kinda like the demented pace and delivery, though.

7. “Annie Christian” Look, I only said it “kinda” slaps. Still feels like a rough draft for better songs–namely “Something in the Water” from 1999, as frequent commenter Arno sagely pointed out–but it’s peak New Wave Prince, which means I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

6. “Jack U OffLet me be clear that I have affection for this song because: a) I love all of Prince’s rockabilly moments, and b) it is so goddamn stupid. But as much as I don’t condone throwing garbage at performers, I can kind of understand why the crowd at the Rolling Stones shows reacted the way they did. On the other hand, I can totally imagine Mick Jagger singing this song and killing it. Can Mick Jagger please sing this song?

5. “Sexuality” I suspect this may be my most surprising placement on this list, as I know it’s well-loved; I love it too, for its futuristic synthpop pulse and its introduction of the signature “Prince scream” (“IOWA,” as he memorably spelled it on Twitter). I guess I just feel like the “tourists” sermon, delightfully weird as it is, takes a little bit of the wind out of its sails. Anyway, anything in the top five is splitting hairs–it’s a great track.

4. “Let’s WorkBased on the album version alone, this probably would swap places with “Sexuality”; I’m giving it the nod for the 1982 12″ mix, which is 110% My Shit. “Hard dick and bubblegum is all you get!”

3. “Private Joy” Okay, maybe this one is my most surprising placement, and I can’t promise that it isn’t partly reactionary; it’s just that I so often see this song being dismissed as candyfloss filler, and it’s so much more than that. Not only the introduction of Sunset Sound and the Linn LM-1, two cornerstones of Prince’s mid-’80s peak, but also just a weird, densely-arranged pop concoction that only Prince could have made. Listen to all of the voices he uses in the mix! A low-key art-pop masterpiece and a preview of even better, weirder things to come.

2. “Do Me, Baby” The opposite of “Let’s Work,” this one would probably be lower if it weren’t for the completely bonkers denouement of the album version, in which Prince self-pleasures and self-soothes alone in the studio at Sunset Sound. This is a song that really separates the men from the boys, as it were: if you can’t hang with Prince after hearing him whimper, “I’m so cold… hold me,” then you probably can’t hang with Prince. Keep in mind, this is only track three of the album… he’s already come (at least) once, and there’s still a whole vinyl side to go!

1. “Controversy” (Parts 1, 2, & 3I guess I kinda showed my hand by citing it at the beginning of the post, but then, I’m sure the fact that I wrote a combined total of over 6,500 words on “Controversy” was a clue to my affection. If you want to know who Prince was–at least in the first half of the ’80s–just listen to this song. Preferably loud.

As always, I’ve captured the tag cloud for posterity:

timeroundupcontroversy-cloud

Not much change from The Time roundup back in May, though I did notice that Gayle Chapman snuck back in! Meanwhile Owen Husney (whose book I still need to read) and Pepé Willie (who should probably write a book) are still hanging on for dear life. We haven’t heard the last of either of them, incidentally. Also, to no one’s surprise,  Controversy was my most loquacious series of posts yet: approximately 1,758 words per song (counting “Controversy” as three) vs. 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, 1,379 for For You, and a mere 833 for The Time.

Next week, I’ll be jumping back into Controversy-era ephemera with a quick post on a widely-bootlegged cut from 1981. Also, another review podcast with Harold and KaNisa! See you then.

Also, whoops, almost forgot the Spotify playlist!

Advertisements

Private Joy

Private Joy

(Featured Image: Prince’s not-so-private joy, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer; photo stolen from the Analog Synth Museum.)

By June of 1981, Prince had recorded mostly complete versions of “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and, possibly, “Sexuality,” at his home studio in Chanhassen. He recorded four more songs that month at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles: “Let’s Work,” “Do Me, Baby,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” and “Jack U Off.” The HSR sessions were completed with Bob Mockler, the engineer who had helped put the finishing touches on both Prince and Dirty Mind. According to biographer Per Nilsen, Prince booked a full week at the studio, but completed the songs in a handful of days: “We just worked so fast together,” Mockler recalled. “Prince would just go and put the drum part on the tape, and then he’d put everything to the drums, playing a bass part, then a keyboard part, then a guitar part, background vocals, a rough lead vocal. Once he got the backing tracks down, he did a serious lead vocal. Everything was in his head. We’re out of there in a day with a finished track” (Nilsen 1999 80).

Two months later, Prince returned to Hollywood to finish his fourth album; but equipment problems necessitated that he move operations from HSR to nearby Sunset Sound. He booked Sunset’s largest room, Studio 3, as a “lockout session,” meaning that “he had that studio 24 hours a day for as long as [he] wanted,” engineer Ross Pallone recalled. Pallone would have the studio ready each afternoon around four; Prince “would show up sometime between [eight] and 10, and we would work all night… I remember going home to my house between [four] and [six] in the morning, and sleeping till about [two], then going back to the studio every day” (Brown 2010).

One of the perks of the lockout session was that Prince “could have anything equipment-wise he wanted set up in there–be it outboard gear or musical instruments–and no one could touch it,” Pallone told author Jake Brown (Brown 2010). The artist took this opportunity to record a new song, “Private Joy,” with a brand new toy: the Linn LM-1, a state-of-the-art drum machine designed by musician and engineer Roger Linn. Released in 1980, the LM-1 was the first drum machine to use digital samples of live acoustic drums, rather than the synthesized white noise and sine waves utilized by earlier models. Prince wasn’t the first artist to own an LM-1; Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Leon Russell, Boz Scaggs,  Stevie Wonder, and even Daryl Dragon–the “Captain” of Captain & Tennille–all ordered theirs direct from Linn (Vail 292).  But more than any of his contemporaries, it was Prince who would leave an indelible mark on the machine’s prominence in popular music and its expressive possibilities.

Continue reading “Private Joy”

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

(Featured Image: Prince’s electric church in the music video for “Controversy,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.

Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?

Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”

More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?”

Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

(Featured Image: A queer moment on the Controversy tour, 1981; photo © Lynn Goldsmith.)

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 1981 Rolling 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 Mind and, 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.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?”

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

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, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop 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.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?”