If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)

If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)

(Featured Image: Dorian Corey in Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston, 1990; © Academy Entertainment.)

As we’ve noted before, Prince credited the musical performances on Vanity 6 to his other protégé group, the Time–a fabrication that would later come true when they performed the girls’ backing tracks from behind a curtain on the 1999 tour. Of the eight songs on the album, only one sounds particularly “Time-like”; but that one song fits the description to a T. With its Terry Lewis-written funk bassline and song-dominating comedic skit, “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up” could almost pass for an escapee from the Time’s own sophomore album, What Time is It?

Like the skits from Time songs “The Walk” and “Wild and Loose,” the one in “If a Girl Answers” unfolds from a simple, even stereotypical comic situation: in this case, working girls Vanity and Brenda trying to figure out transportation to a party on their night off. Brenda suggests that they call “Jimmy”–a male suitor, possibly Jimmy Jam from the Time, but more importantly a person with a car. Vanity expresses her doubts: “And what if a girl answers?” Brenda shrugs, “Hang up.” But Vanity isn’t satisfied by that answer; Jimmy said she was his girl. Well, Brenda offers, “if a girl answers, don’t hang up, just talk about her.”

The exchange that follows–a duel of escalating gibes between Vanity (and, later, Brenda) and Jimmy’s new girlfriend–draws on many of the same Black and blue comedy tropes as its counterparts in the Time’s catalogue. The ladies’ larger-than-life performances channel everything from LaWanda Page in roast mode to Millie Jackson’s raunchy midsong monologues. The inventive vulgarity of their barbs evokes that traditional African American game of verbal combat, “the dozens,” with references to the other woman’s “dead daddy” taking the place of the more customary maternal ur-insult.

But while its roots in Black nightclub comedy and “dirty blues” are undeniable, “If a Girl Answers” also carries the lipstick traces of another, more subcultural source. In the song’s most remarkable stylistic choice, the titular “girl” on the other side of the phone is portrayed by none other than “Jamie Starr,” in all his queen-bitch glory. The endemic queerness of this performance–as close to straight-up drag as Prince ever came–conjures another vibrant African American comic tradition: a devastating display of rapier wit with origins in Harlem’s underground house ball culture, known as the “read.”

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Prince Track by Track New Year’s Roundup

Prince Track by Track New Year’s Roundup

(Featured Image: European 12″ cover for “A Love Bizarre,” 1985; photo by Rebecca Blake, © Warner Bros.)

As usual, I took the last couple weeks of December off for the holidays, which meant I didn’t post the links to my last two appearances on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast. So here they are now: one of my favorite tracks from Prince’s extended universe, as well as one of the most forgettable. I’ll let you guess which one is which:

Prince Track by Track: “Hynoparadise”
Prince Track by Track: “A Love Bizarre”

With this bit of business out of the way, I’m now officially on track to kick off the blog for 2019. We’ll start tomorrow with a belated post from one of our alternate timelines, then it’s back to the Time’s second album next week. Happy New Year!

The Walk

The Walk

(Featured Image: The Time get ready to walk a hole in their Stacy Adams on the back cover of What Time is It?, 1982; L to R: Jesse Johnson, Morris Day, Monte Moir, Jimmy Jam, Jellybean Johnson, Terry Lewis. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

While work on the Time’s second album didn’t formally begin until January 1982, at least one track had an earlier genesis: according to Prince Vault, the original 2″ tape of “The Walk” stored in the Paisley Park Vault (and, now, at Iron Mountain in Los Angeles) was labeled with a date of July 1, 1981. This suggests Prince recorded something by that title–either an early version or the actual basic track–in his own home studio, a few weeks before the release of the Time’s first album on July 29.

And that makes a lot of sense, because “The Walk” is the track from What Time is It? that most resembles the style of its predecessor. It’s long: nine and a half minutes, to be exact, roughly halfway between the lengths of “Get It Up” and “Cool.” And, like both “Get It Up” and “The Stick,” it moves at a sauntering pace, driven by an unhurried “walking” bassline and singer Morris Day’s casual, half-spoken vocals. The titular “Walk”–a dance-craze homage in the tradition of “Let’s Rock”–references both the song’s moderate tempo and Prince’s early instructions to Morris while the pair were developing his stage presence: “Walk, put your hand in your pocket, and be cool,” as the frontman later summarized (Crandell 2015).

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Dance to the Beat

Dance to the Beat

(Featured Image: The Time at Sam’s, October 7, 1981. L to R: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Monte Moir. Photo stolen from prince.org.)

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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Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?

(Featured Image: A queer moment on the Controversy tour, 1981; photo © Lynn Goldsmith.)

Note: This is the second of three posts on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.

Am I straight or gay?

In the same 1981 Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).

The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hillburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mind and, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.

These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 2: Am I Straight or Gay?”