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1999, 1982

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since Prince three years earlier. In late April and early May of 1982, he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in Los Angeles to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular OB-SX hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction tropes with an organically soulful melody and jazzy acoustic piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

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

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Controversy, 1981

Annie Christian

As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.

“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by cable news–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan and Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Hard to Get

By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).

Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.

The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. “I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979).