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 331⁄3 revolutions 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.
Allow me to begin this post with a few simple facts: when I first started guesting on Darren Husted’s chronological Prince: Track by Trackpodcast last September, I had just started writing about 1980’s Dirty Mind, and Darren was in the middle of 1985’s Around the World in a Day. Now, a little more than six months later, I’m a few tracks away from starting 1981’s Controversy, and Darren is over halfway through Come from nineteen-fucking-ninety-four. Whatever, it’s not a race, etc. Here’s us talking about “Papa,” one of the weirdest, toughest listens in Prince’s body of work:
For the first d / m / s / r podcast of 2018 (!), it was my pleasure to speak with budding educational historian and Prince scholar Kimberly C. Ransom. Kimberly presented at the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference last May–those of you who listened to my series of podcasts on that event probably heard her name come up once or twice–and her essay, “A Conceptual Falsetto: Re-Imagining Black Childhood Via One Girl’s Exploration of Prince,” was published last fall in the Journal of African American Studies’special Prince issue. If any of my listeners haven’t checked out that issue yet, I’m hoping this interview will offer some incentive: Kimberly’s essay in particular brilliantly interweaves her lifelong love for Prince with an incisive critique our often-pathologized discourses of Black childhood. She also has a surprisingly lovely singing voice.
As we embark on a brand new year of dance / music / sex / romance, allow me to direct your attention to our iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play feeds; if you feel compelled to subscribe, rate, or review us on your service of choice, it will be much appreciated. And of course, if you enjoy the podcast (or blog!), don’t be afraid to spread the word. Lots more exciting things to come!
(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).
“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.