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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Podcast: New Power – A Conversation with Takuya Futaesaku, Author of Words of Prince

Podcast: New Power – A Conversation with Takuya Futaesaku, Author of Words of Prince

(Featured Image: Japanese newspaper coverage of Prince’s arrival in the country, September 1986.)

I gave myself a little hiatus from the dance / music / sex / romance podcast after Celebration 2018, but now we’re back in business with guest Takuya Futaesaku, author of the book Words of Prince. Takki and I talk about his book and his experiences as a Prince fan in Japan; it was a pleasure to speak with him, so hopefully it will be a pleasure to listen, too!

You can check out my review of Words of Prince here on the d / m / s / r blog. You can also subscribe to the podcast on your aggregator of choice (iTunesStitcher, Google Play), and consider leaving a review to help spread the word. Special thanks this episode go to Crystal for helping me track down the Japanese shows you’ll hear during the podcast! I’ll be back soon, hopefully next week, with another blog post.

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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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Roundup: The Time, 1981

Roundup: The Time, 1981

(Featured Image: Cover art for The Time, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

Folks, it’s been a whole-ass seven months since the last roundup post on Dirty Mind–where has the time gone? Dunno, but here at least is where the Time has gone (sorry): five posts on the first album by Prince’s first and arguably most accomplished protégé act. My ranking this time is decidedly anti-climactic, since I basically organized them in ascending order of preference as I wrote. And yes, the fact that I didn’t even devote a full post to “After Hi School” should give you an idea of where it would have ranked if I had. Anyway, here goes:

5. “Girl” Only the second song I’ve written about so far (after “With You” that I’ve actively disliked–but my dislike is really, really active. Apologies to the track’s defenders, but I don’t know which is more grating to me: Morris’ whiny lead vocal or Prince’s dog-howling-at-the-moon harmonies. I would have gladly taken an extra five and a half minutes of “Get It Up” over this.

4. “Oh, Baby” The best ballad on The Time purely by default. I actually barely remember this song even after having written 600 words on it. But I guess no memory beats bad memories, so Number 4 it is.

3. “Get It Up” Now we’re talking. The Time is the definition of an uneven debut album, with half of its songs among the worst things they ever recorded and the other half among the best; “Get It Up” definitely belongs to the latter half. The only reason it isn’t ranked higher is because it’s still missing the spark of unique personality that the remaining two songs manage to achieve; but if there’s a version with just Prince’s vocals locked away in the Vault, I need it yesterday.

2. “The Stick” Maybe the best song about dicks ever to be co-written by a lesbian? I dunno, don’t quote me on that, but a great song regardless, and a tongue-in-cheek preview of the auto-erotic innuendos Prince would take to the next level with “Little Red Corvette.” Plus, any opportunity for me to reference Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos has earned a special place in my heart.

1. “Cool” Maybe the definitive Time song–and certainly, as we explored, the one with the longest history in Prince’s career. Without “Cool,” Jerome would have never brought Morris that mirror–truly, an alternate timeline too terrifying to contemplate.

dirtymind-tagcloudtimeroundup

Another roundup post also gives us the opportunity to take another look at the ol’ tag cloud. The main change to note here is the debut of Kiowa Trail and Chanhassen, cementing (along with France Avenue/Edina) Prince’s lifelong presence in the Minneapolis suburbs. Also, Gayle Chapman is no longer among the top tags, having been replaced here as in Prince’s band by Lisa Coleman. Sorry, Gayle…but hey, if you ever wanna come on the podcast for an interview, we can try to get you back on the board. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the average length for these Time posts was, it was my lowest ever: a paltry 833 words, barely over half of the average post length for Dirty Mind. I make no promises that I’ll be as brief in the future.

Next week is the third anniversary of d / m / s / r (where has that time gone?), so I’ll hold off on the state-of-the-blog stuff until then. In the meantime, rest assured that I’ll keep plugging away, probably until we’re all dead. Onward to (the rest of) Controversy!

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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