Revisit: Vanity 6

Revisit: Vanity 6

(Featured Image: Cover art for Vanity 6, 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably wondering where I am with my next Vanity 6 post. Well, with all the hubbub around Celebration 2019, I got the feeling that anything I posted last week would become background noise; then, a few freelance obligations caught up with me, so I had to turn my attention to those. Fortunately, those freelance obligations happen to be related to what I’m doing here–in this case, very related, as I decided to write about the Vanity 6 album for Spectrum Culture’s recurring Revisit/Rediscover feature:

Revisit: Vanity 6

If you’ve been reading my recent d / m / s / r posts, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar themes here; basically I’ve always wanted to evangelize on behalf of this album for a slightly more general audience, so I took this opportunity to regurgitate some of my recent thoughts. But this also gave me the opportunity to start thinking about a few of my upcoming posts, so expect to see a few of these ideas explored in greater depth here. As for when you can expect that, well, I have a review of the Ultimate Rave set in the pipeline for Spectrum on Thursday, so I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming by Friday. See you then!

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Drive Me Wild

Drive Me Wild

(Featured Image: Susan and friend in the music video for “Drive Me Wild,” 1983; © Warner Bros.)

Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.

At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).

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Make-Up

Make-Up

(Featured Image: “Untitled (Make-Up),” Richard Prince, 1983.)

Even after recruiting Denise Matthews to be the group’s frontwoman, Prince still envisioned Vanity 6 as a girl group in the classic sense, with each member taking the lead on their respective songs. This gave him the opportunity to return to a pair of tracks originally recorded for the Hookers project in the summer of 1981, featuring Susan Moonsie on lead vocals. Though they date back to almost a year earlier than the rest of the album, “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild” sound cutting-edge. Like “All the Critics Love U in New York,” both songs seem to parallel the emerging sounds of Detroit techno–particularly “Make-Up,” with Susan’s deliberately cold, dispassionate vocals, a frenetic Linn LM-1 pattern, and a synth-bass line that resembles a computer processor clearing its throat.

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Sexuality

Sexuality

(Featured Image: Prince in the music video for “Sexuality,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me three full-length posts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversy was 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.”

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Let’s Work

Let’s Work

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Work” 12″, 1982; L to R: Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman. © Warner Bros.)

Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up,” “Wet Dream,” “Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”), as well as other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,”  “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”

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.” The song, inspired by a dance Prince had seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,” had been kicking around as early as 1979; its title appears in one of Prince’s notebooks in what appears to be an early, handwritten tracklist for the Prince album, alongside “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Bambi,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” “With You,” “Still Waiting,” “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” “Sexy Dancer,” and “Darling Marie.” When it didn’t make it onto the album, Prince allegedly tried to release it as a non-LP single; but Warner Bros. didn’t bite, a minor setback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

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