(Featured Image: With an old friend at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, January 25, 1982; that’s Steve Fargnoli in the background. Photo stolen from Consequence of Sound.)
Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in mid-January 1982 concluded with–and was most 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 1980’s 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 Favorite Soul/R&B 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. Records, 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.”
(Featured Image: Prince presides over his domain on the cover of Planet Earth, 2007; © NPG Records.)
It’s been a little bit of a crazy week, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait a while longer for my next real post on “All the Critics Love U in New York”; but I haven’t been completely lax in my Prince-writing duties. Over at Spectrum Culture, where I occasionally lend my pen, I reviewed the new batch of vinyl reissues from Prince’s mid-2000s “comeback” era:
These weren’t my favorite albums when they came out, and to be frank they still aren’t (though 3121 aged pretty damn well); but they cover a period of great historical interest, and I’m glad they’re being made available for a new audience. If you haven’t picked up your own copies yet and you want to support d / m / s / r, you are welcome to do so through these Amazon affiliate link: Musicology, 3121, Planet Earth.
On a somewhat Prince-related tip, I also wrote a piece for Spectrum this week about Beck’s Midnite Vultures, which is turning 20 this year in what I can only interpret as an act of personal aggression against me. You can read it here and find out why I think it actually owes less to Prince than to David Bowie, specifically 1975’s Young Americans:
Next week, I’ll finally have a little more time to do some writing for himself (a.k.a., this blog). I’m also recording another batch of Prince: Track by Track episodes tomorrow, the first of which you should be hearing very soon. Perhaps, at some point, I will also get some sleep.
(Featured Image: Notorious “baby groupies” Lori Mattix and Sable Starr; photo stolen from Miss Pandora.)
As noted earlier, Prince began work on the Time’s second album during a three-week break from the Controversy tour, where the group was serving as his opening act and occasional thorn in his side. It thus makes sense that what would become the album’s opening track, “Wild and Loose,” centered around one of the most prevalent scenarios in the life of a touring musician: the backstage (and back-of-bus) dalliances between the band and their young, female admirers.
Just as he had with the Time’s earlier song, “Cool,” Prince tapped his own band’s guitarist, Dez Dickerson, to help write the song: “Prince called me on the phone with a song title,” he told the alt-weekly Nashville Scene in 2014, “and about 15 minutes later, I called him back with lyrics based on the title” (Shawhan 2014). Dez, who had spent years touring in journeyman rock groups before linking up with Prince, had more familiarity with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle than anyone else in the camp. But his take on the song “kept the content rated G,” as he later recalled, so “Prince altered it somewhat from my original version” (Dickerson 205). The final lyrics, when viewed from a contemporary lens, seem calculated to shock and titillate: “Hangin’ by the backstage door, decked out like a queen / Your body’s sayin’ 21, but your face says 17.”
(Featured Image: Richard Gere in the poster for Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, 1980; © Paramount Pictures.)
Prince may have taken back one of the ballads he wrote for the Time’s second album, but he was at least considerate enough to leave them a backup: “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” was recorded at Sunset Sound on January 11, 1982, three days before “International Lover” and the completion of “The Walk.” It was–along with another song that remains unreleased, “Bold Generation”–the first track completed for What Time is It? And, unlike its erstwhile sibling “International Lover,” it was destined for Morris Day to sing.
The concept behind “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” is pretty much exactly what the title suggests: Morris–and by extension, Prince–inhabiting the role of a sex worker who longs for the intimacy to “make love without taking off my clothes.” The conceit was something of a departure from the Morris Day persona to date, which read more as an aspiring pimp than a gigolo. But then, gigolos were experiencing something of a resurgence in the early ’80s: Paul Schrader’s neo-noir American Gigolo had released to some attention in early 1980, making a star out of both leading man Richard Gere and costume designer Giorgio Armani. It’s hardly far-fetched to imagine Gere’s character, with his taste for Italian suits and the high life, influencing the Time’s visual aesthetic; certainly his refusal to engage gay clients, however unconvincing, would have helped to mitigate male sex work’s homosexual connotations.
(Featured Image: Prince’s electric church in the music video for “Controversy,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)
Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”
More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.
Continue reading “Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?”