(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)
During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mindin late 1980 and early 1981, Prince talked to the press more than ever before–more, indeed, than he would again until the 1990s. His reasons were purely strategic. Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, had hired publicist Howard Bloom with the express goal of breaking their artist into the rock market; to accomplish this, Bloom helped Prince to shape his back story into a compelling and marketable artistic persona, which he then dutifully presented to every reporter who would listen. This was the birth of what we’ve been calling Prince’s “origin myth”: the Oedipal struggles with his mother and father; the sexual and creative utopia he found in André Anderson’s basement; the precocious sexuality and artistry that would find its full expression, conveniently enough, in the album he was currently promoting. The press ate it all up like the confection it was. Bloom “would tell people, ‘Prince sees sex as salvation,’ and then you’d see that in the Washington Post, the New York Times,” Cavallo told biographer Matt Thorne. “He comes up with that phrase and then ten writers use that phrase” (Thorne 2016).
Read enough of Prince’s interviews from the Dirty Mindera and Bloom’s talking points come into sharp relief: titillating racial and sexual ambiguity, a fierce desire for aesthetic authenticity, and an appetite for rebellion–all like proverbial catnip to rock’s punk-era tastemakers. But in one interview with Chris Salewicz of England’s New Musical Express, published in June of 1981, Prince made a specific claim that stands out amidst his more generalized myth-building. “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record,” he recalled. “A lot of anger came up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ‘Partyup’” (Salewicz 1981).
(Featured Image: Purple Rain Tour Shirt, 1984; photo stolen from the Current.)
It’s been just under two months since I started interviewing presenters from this spring’s interdisciplinary Prince conference at the University of Salford, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the results. But all good things must come to an end, so I had planned to make this chat with writer Erica Thompson the last of my post-conference podcasts. It would have been a great choice, too; Erica’s presentation was the result of many years of research for a book project on Prince’s spiritual journey, so our conversation was less about the conference in particular and more about her findings more generally: a nice segue into future, less Manchester-centric episodes.
But just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in. Contrary to my own statements in this episode, I have already set up another interview with a few presenters from one of the conference’s gender and sexuality panels. So basically, expect me to keep interviewing scholars from the Purple Reign conference until the next milestone in Prince scholarship comes along. And in the meantime, please enjoy my and Erica’s conversation about the importance–and, sometimes, difficulty–of understanding Prince’s religious faith in relationship with his art.
As usual, I invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play for mobile listening; you can also stream episodes on Mixcloud. And keep listening, because there’s good stuff–Purple Reign-related and otherwise–coming up in the near future!
Just under two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with two more presenters from the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference: Joni Todd and Karen Turman, who you may know by reputation as the “esoteric French panel.” But if all that sounds a little too highbrow, don’t worry; we mostly talked about Prince’s impeccable fashion sense and uncompromising artistic vision, just with a lot of references to Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Duchamp. It’s probably the only Prince podcast you’ll hear that mentions both “Pussy Control” and Walter Benjamin, and that’s the best endorsement I can possibly give.
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“I write everything from experience,” Prince claimed during an interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. “Dirty Mind was written totally from experience.” At this point, Salewicz wrote, he asked Prince if he’d experienced incest, as discussed on the album’s penultimate track “Sister.” “How come you ask twice?” Prince reportedly shot back (Salewicz 1981).
“Sister” is a song that defies critical analysis–mostly because Prince wanted it to. At the time of its release, rock critics assumed he was being deliberately provocative; Prince, however, vigorously and repeatedly denied this was the case. “I don’t try to do anything to shock people or to make money,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland. “That would make me a hooker” (Sutherland 1981). Whether the interview subject was wearing thigh-high nylons at the time was, regrettably, left to the imagination.
By insisting on the veracity of his lyrics in 1981, Prince created an interesting bind for potential scholars of his work. Shrug a song like “Sister” off as a joke, and one risks trivializing a serious trauma; take it at face value, and one can appear credulous–not to mention potentially libelous. The wisest approach, in my estimation, is the one taken by cultural critic Touré in his 2012 book about Prince: “‘Sister,’” he writes, “is key to understanding Prince, whether it’s true or not[;] he wants it to be a central part of his past, or part of the mythology that he’s creating, and thus a seminal part of what he wants you to think about him” (Touré 89). Touré compares “Sister” to “the creation myth for a superhero: My hypersexual older sister seduced me and taught me all about wild sex as she made love to me and dominated me and all of that turned me into what I am today” (90). Its position near the end of Dirty Mind–right after “Head”–is thus significant. Having given us six songs indulging, to various degrees, his erotomania, now Prince takes us back to the Freudian root of his “dirty mind”: the “reason for my, uh, sexuality.” It’s only fitting that at that root is something that reads like the filthiest PenthouseForum letter ever written.