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#1plus1plus1is3: Controversy Presentation and Panel

Late last month, De Angela Duff uploaded the presentation I delivered at her #1plus1plus1is3 virtual symposium back in March. I had the privilege of sharing the Controversy panel with Christopher A. Daniel, Steven G Fullwood, Edgar Kruize, and moderator C. Liegh McInnis. My paper, “I Wish We All Were Nude: Allen Beaulieu’s Infamous ‘Shower Poster’ as Aesthetic Linchpin and Artifact,” was definitely the silliest of the four, so my thanks once again to De Angela for her indulgence.

One quick correction, which came up in the chat at the symposium: While Allen Beaulieu was involved in the Controversy poster shoot, the actual image that made it onto the poster was taken by none other than Lisa Coleman! So, Lisa, if you ever want to come on my podcast and spend an entire hour talking about nothing but this photo, consider this your open invitation.

If you can’t get enough of me and my pandemic hair, below is the Q&A I did with Christopher, Steven, Edgar, and C. Liegh:

Finally, I’d like to share a few of my favorite presentations from the symposium. It isn’t an exhaustive list–my real recommendation is that you watch every video on De Angela’s channel!–but if you’re looking for a good place to start, you can’t go wrong with these.

Erica Thompson on the influence of Christian values (and Prince’s dad) on The Rainbow Children:

Robert Loss on work and racial capitalism in The Rainbow Children (and also the infamous “Avalanche”):

KaNisa Williams’ audiovisually stimulating exegesis of The Rainbow Children/One Nite Alone era:

My favorite “discovery” of the symposium, Melay Araya, on the Diamonds and Pearls videos’ place in Prince’s canon as a filmmaker:

Kamilah Cummings on Diamonds and Pearls and the “myth of colorblindness” in Prince’s work:

Harold Pride on “Gett Off” as Prince’s “quintessential maxi single”:

And, last but not least, the aforementioned C. Liegh McInnis on the lyrics of Diamonds and Pearls, which had us reconsidering, of all things, the poetic merits of “Jughead”:

In short, the symposium was an absolute joy, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. I’m already counting the days until next year’s “Triple Threat” symposium on 1999, What Time is It?, and Vanity 6!

(Edit: I posted too soon and didn’t include this great recap video De Angela posted on Monday! It captures so much of the fun we all had that weekend. See you again at #TripleThreat40!)

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Vanity 6, 1982

Drive Me Wild

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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1999, 1982

All the Critics Love U in New York

Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in January 1982 concluded with–and was likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.

Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with the flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.

It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros., and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Dance to the Beat

During the weeks leading up to the release of their debut album in July 1981, Prince had honed the Time into a formidable live unit. “He brought stuff out of us that we didn’t think we could do,” keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled. Left to their own devices, the band would “rehearse for like four hours and think we were tired. We’d go through the set twice and sit around and talk for two hours.” But with Prince as taskmaster, “we’d work five or six hours straight, over and over, no breaks… He would give us keyboard parts that were impossible. We would be like, ‘We can’t play these.’ He would be like, ‘Yeah, you can, and while you’re playing them I want you to do this step of choreography and sing this note of harmony.’ Couple of days later we’d be doing it. A month later we’d be on tour and it would be automatic. He was a great motivator and the thing that made him a great motivator was that he works so hard himself. He’s always squeezing the most out of everything” (Nilsen 1999 87).

That summer, the Time made their live debut in a showcase for Warner Bros. executives at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard–the same venue where, three years earlier, Prince had held auditions for his own backing band. “It was just 10 or 12 of us,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in the label’s “Black Music” division, told biographer Per Nilsen. “We went down there after work one day to be shown this new Warner Bros. group that was produced by Jamie Starr. No one knew who Jamie Starr was. They turned off all the lights, and this diminutive little character with a veil walked in to stand behind the console and mix it. Somebody says, ‘That’s Jamie Starr!’ And I looked and said, ‘No, that’s Prince!’” (Nilsen 1999 87).

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Everybody Dance

During the lull between the first and second legs of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s relationship with publicist Howard Bloom began to bear fruit. Bloom had been hired by Prince’s manager Bob Cavallo at the end of 1980, in advance of the artist’s first headlining tour. Their goal was to finally achieve what Prince had been trying to do since 1978: break out of the music industry’s R&B “ghetto.”

Bloom, as he would be the first to proclaim, was the right man for the job. At the time, he told biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “it was incredibly unhip for any white person to work with any black artist. There was a wall, and it was segregation to the nth degree” (Hahn 2017). But Bloom, a White man of Jewish descent, had a reputation for flouting this segregation: “I was considered the leading ‘Black’ publicist in the music industry,” he recalled to K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I worked with more Black acts and I learned more about Black culture than anybody else in the PR field” (Dyes 2014). Bloom, then, was one of the few in the music industry who took notice after Prince’s second album went platinum without ever “crossing over” from the R&B charts. Now, all he had to do was harness his client’s obvious star power, and make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.