Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(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 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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Annie Christian

Annie Christian

(Featured Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” William Blake, 1805.)

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 CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.

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Hard to Get

Hard to Get

(Featured Image: The “Spandex kids” backstage at the Roxy Theatre, November 26, 1979. Back row, L to R: Tim Devine, Warner Bros. product manager; Lou Wills, West Coast promotion/Black music marketing; Cortez Thompson, national promotion director/Black music marketing; J.J. Johnson, KDAY Los Angeles radio; Bobby Z. Middle row, L to R: singer Randy Crawford, Prince, Mo Ostin, Matt Fink, Gayle Chapman. Bottom row, L to R: André Cymone and the disembodied head of Dez Dickerson.)

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 further 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 Capri Theatre debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979). 

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