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 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.
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.
dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.
I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.
Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.
I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.
(Featured Image: Marylou and Prince, 1979; photo from Moments… Remembering Prince by Marylou Badeaux.)
This is the last d / m / s / r podcast of 2017, and I have to say we’re going out on a high note. It was my honor and privilege to speak with Marylou Badeaux: a former Warner Bros. executive who worked closely with Prince for his 17 years with the label, and the author of the newly-released memoir Moments… Remembering Prince. You can probably tell that I was a little nervous at the beginning of the conversation, but we warmed up quickly and had a great chat about Prince and his relationship with the label that, for better or worse, defined his era of peak artistic achievement.
Now, I have one last item of business to conduct before the podcast goes on holiday break. There are actually two winners of my contest for iTunes and Stitcher reviews–one for each platform. The first is Louise Be, for her eloquent and incredibly flattering review on Stitcher; the second is Mafalda Taborda, who not only left a very nice review on iTunes, but was also the first person to review the podcast on any platform. Louise and Mafalda, if you’re reading and/or listening to this, please email me and let me know which of the two recent Prince books you would prefer me to send: Marylou’s Moments, or Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions. And for everyone else who participated–and those who didn’t!–thanks for making the first year of the dance / music / sex / romance podcast such a pleasure to put together. I can’t wait to see where things go in 2018.
First, allow me to make my customary apology for how quiet it’s been around these parts lately: October was a disaster for me on several fronts, and my free time has taken an according hit. Fortunately, Darren Husted has come through with my latest guest appearance on his chronological Prince podcast, Prince: Track by Track. We’re talking about one of my favorite dark-horse cuts from Lovesexy, “Dance On”: