(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 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.
Continue reading “Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?”
(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)
During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mind in late 1980 and early 1981, Prince talked to the press more than ever before–more, indeed, than he would again until the 1990s. His reasons were purely strategic. Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, had hired publicist Howard Bloom with the express goal of breaking their artist into the rock market; to accomplish this, Bloom helped Prince to shape his back story into a compelling and marketable artistic persona, which he then dutifully presented to every reporter who would listen. This was the birth of what we’ve been calling Prince’s “origin myth”: the Oedipal struggles with his mother and father; the sexual and creative utopia he found in André Anderson’s basement; the precocious sexuality and artistry that would find its full expression, conveniently enough, in the album he was currently promoting. The press ate it all up like the confection it was. Bloom “would tell people, ‘Prince sees sex as salvation,’ and then you’d see that in the Washington Post, the New York Times,” Cavallo told biographer Matt Thorne. “He comes up with that phrase and then ten writers use that phrase” (Thorne 2016).
Read enough of Prince’s interviews from the Dirty Mind era and Bloom’s talking points come into sharp relief: titillating racial and sexual ambiguity, a fierce desire for aesthetic authenticity, and an appetite for rebellion–all like proverbial catnip to rock’s punk-era tastemakers. But in one interview with Chris Salewicz of England’s New Musical Express, published in June of 1981, Prince made a specific claim that stands out amidst his more generalized myth-building. “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record,” he recalled. “A lot of anger came up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ‘Partyup’” (Salewicz 1981).
Continue reading “Partyup”
(Featured Image: Cover art for “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” by Joe Jackson, 1979; © A&M Records.)
In early March, 1980–right around the same time Rick James was absconding with their Oberheim–Prince’s band took a break from the tour and spent a day at Disney World. “In Orlando, we decided to have some fun being tourists,” keyboardist Dr. Fink told journalist Mobeen Azhar. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun.’ I remember leaving him sitting outside the hotel room on the balcony, with his guitar. By the time we came back, he’d written ‘When You Were Mine’” (Azhar 23).
If “Head,” as suggested last week, was “the foundation upon which Prince’s racial, sexual, and personal preoccupations of the next decade were built,” then “When You Were Mine” laid the groundwork for his musical expansion. It was his first real foray into crossover territory: a masterful capital-“P” pop song with all the literary value of contemporary New Wave troubadours Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. It wasn’t Prince’s first classic song–that, again, would be “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–but it was his first standard: timeless, durable, and rewarding of endless reinterpretations by other artists.
Continue reading “When You Were Mine”
(Featured Image: Cover of The Rebels, 1980; © Warner Bros.)
Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!
The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.
Continue reading “The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline”
(Featured Image: Prince 4Ever, 2016; photo by Justine Walpole, © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)
This Monday, November 21, marked the seven-month “anniversary” of Prince’s untimely passing. A day later, we got the first officially-sanctioned posthumous release of his music: Prince 4Ever, a two-disc (or, for those like me living firmly in the digital era, 40-track) compilation spanning the 15 years from the release of his 1978 debut album to his acrimonious 1993 falling-out with Warner Bros. Records. Most of 4Ever is, quite frankly, not for People Like Us: the majority of its track listing overlaps with previous compilations Ultimate, The Very Best of Prince, and The Hits/The B-Sides–still the O.G., as far as I’m concerned–and more often than not the versions included are the vastly inferior single edits. There are a few previously uncompiled mixes (most notably a blessedly rap-free “Alphabet St.”), as well as some deeper cuts: “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy makes its first appearance on CD as an individually-sequenced track, and the 1989 movie tie-in “Batdance” is collected for the first time since its initial release. I also appreciate the sprinkling of fan-favorite songs, like the (amazing) 1981 U.K.-only release “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and the (even more amazing) 1986 single “Mountains.” In general, though, if you’re reading this blog, there is nothing here you haven’t heard before–with one possible exception. I’m talking, of course, about “Moonbeam Levels.”
Recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions in July of 1982, “Moonbeam Levels” has been circulating since the mid-to-late 1980s, when it was initially mislabeled as “A Better Place 2 Die.” It’s acquired a reputation in the ensuing decades as one of the best, and best-known, outtakes in Prince’s voluminous catalogue. In 2013, the song even received a few noteworthy public performances: first by Elvis Costello with Princess (a.k.a. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Prince, and later by the man himself, as part of a piano medley supporting protégée Shelby J at the City Winery in New York. Now, you know I have all kinds of opinions about Prince outtakes, but I’m not even gonna front: “Moonbeam Levels” was a great choice for the first officially-released “bootleg” to see the light of day after Prince’s death. So, now that it’s finally seen a legitimate release, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to put our usual chronological content on hold and take a closer look at the song.
Continue reading “Moonbeam Levels”