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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Let’s Work

Let’s Work

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Work” 12″, 1982; L to R: Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman. © Warner Bros.)

Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers and other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,” “Gym Class,” “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”

According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” He recorded the song, inspired by a dance he’d seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,”  with the intention of rush-releasing it as a non-LP single in the summer of 1981. But Warner Bros.–mindful, perhaps, of the moribund U.K. performance of his previous loosie, “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”–didn’t bite: a minor setback for Prince that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

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Cool

Cool

(Featured Image: 1981 publicity photo for the Time. L to R: Jesse JohnsonTerry LewisMorris DayJimmy Jam, Jellybean JohnsonMonte Moir. © Warner Bros.)

While guitarist Dez Dickerson’s most fleshed-out contribution to The Time was the aforementioned “After Hi School,” it was his work as a lyricist that had the more lasting impact. Dickerson wrote lyrics for at least three songs recorded in April of 1981 and (most likely) intended for the new side project. Two of these, “Dancin’ Flu” and “I Can’t Figure It Out,” we only know as titles from The Vault; but the third, “Cool,” would become the Time’s second single and one of their trademark songs. “Prince called me up one day with the title and asked me to write some lyrics to go with it,” Dez recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I called him back about 20 minutes later with the song” (Nilsen 1999 86).

According to Dickerson, the genesis for “Cool” came during the Dirty Mind tour, on a night when the band was hanging out with Warner Bros. A&R exec Ted Cohen. “I had this voice that I adopted at times, and, that night I just kind of got ‘stuck’ in it, cracking jokes,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “I fell into this thing where I kept telling Ted, ‘Ted, man, you bad! Ain’t nobody bad like you, Ted!’ Well, you guessed it–the voice and the phrase ‘ain’t nobody bad…’, which would later become the signature of the Time’s banter, came from that night” (Dickerson 137).

While I am skeptical of attributing the whole “Morris Day” persona to Dez alone–both Prince and André Cymone, not to mention Morris himself, are also on record as having used the hoarse, jive-talking “pimp voice” most publicly identified with the Time–it is certainly true that “Cool,” and Dickerson’s “ain’t nobody bad but me” lyric, played an essential role in bringing that persona to life. Equal parts smooth and clownish, “Cool” laid the parameters for the hair-slicking, Stacy Adams-wearing, two-stepping caricature from which Morris remains publicly inseparable to this day.

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The Stick

The Stick

(Featured Image: From Kustom Kar Kommandos, Kenneth Anger, 1965. © Fantoma Films.)

Despite the band name on the label and the six musicians credited on the sleeve, the Time’s first album is often remembered as a thinly veiled solo effort by Prince. This, however, isn’t strictly true: not only was frontman Morris Day largely responsible for the album’s drum tracks, but Prince also drew heavily on his inner circle for songwriting assistance.

Guitarist Dez Dickerson wrote the lyrics for “Cool”–more on that later–and, less successfully, was solely responsible for “After Hi School.” “The idea was for the record to have a youthful vibe,” Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir, so he recorded a four-track demo for a song “where the main character is a kid about to graduate, facing the usual questions from adults, and decisions to be made. Prince liked it, but changed it from its original AC/DC-ish rhythm to a more up-tempo Brit/New Wave feel” (Dickerson 112). The song’s faux-Farfisa accompaniment does recall Prince’s New Wave-flavored “When You Were Mine”; but the cloying lyrics and Morris’ still-untutored vocals do it no favors.

For the album’s most fruitful collaboration, however, Prince didn’t have to look far: in April of 1981, keyboardist and recent Los Angeles transplant Lisa Coleman was still living in his home at 9401 Kiowa Trail. “My room was upstairs,” she later told biographer Matt Thorne, “so he would call me down. ‘Lisa, would you help me do this string part? What about these lyrics? Can you finish this verse?’ He involved me. I punched him in while he was playing the drums, whatever it was” (Thorne 2016). Lisa’s backing vocals are prominent throughout The Time: she, along with Sue Ann Carwell, is one of the “Various Girlfriends” credited in the liner notes. And it was Lisa who provided the lyrical spark–and maybe more–for the album’s comically raunchy closing track, “The Stick.”

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