October 19, 2018 marks the 39th anniversary of Prince’s self-titled second album–not the most glamorous occasion, perhaps, but reason enough to reassemble the review panel from our For You podcast for a reappraisal. Once again, Zach is joined by Harold and KaNisa for a track-by-track discussion of this underappreciated album, its resonances throughout Prince’s career, and why it still matters.
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(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)
In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me threefull-lengthposts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversywas about more than just self-analysis and myth-building. It was also, more than any other Prince album to date, engaged with the outside world: using the artist’s increasingly well-defined persona as the basis for a distinctive–if not always coherent–worldview.
The centerpiece of this new worldview was the album’s second track, “Sexuality.” Picking up immediately after “Controversy” leaves off–scarcely a beat goes by between the former song’s final synth glissando and the ecstatic yelp with which Prince opens the latter–“Sexuality” addresses the listener with a direct call to arms. “Stand up everybody / This is your life,” the singer announces. “Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight.” His language draws deliberately on the gospel tradition: like the allegorical train in the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” “you don’t need no money”–or, indeed, clothes; you just get on board. It becomes clear that this is no conventional hymn, however, once the chorus hits: “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need / Sexuality, let your body be free.”
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.
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.