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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Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

(Featured Image: London punks, circa 1977. Photo by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon; stolen from BBC News.)

Prince’s adoption of a punk aesthetic in late 1980 and early 1981 was, as we’ve seen, an act of calculation; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that it was only that. For one thing, Prince’s New Wave songs were simply too good to have been born of strategic considerations alone. For another, as his cousin Charles Smith recalled, the artist was a known fan of “the whole English scene… He’d always been into David Bowie and that kind of stuff” (Nilsen 1999 72).

It thus stands to reason that when Prince finally made his way to punk’s epicenter, London, in June of 1981, his P.R. approach combined thinly-veiled opportunism with genuine homage. He promoted his one-off date at the West End’s Lyceum Ballroom with a pair of high-profile magazine interviews: one with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, and the other with Chris Salewicz, whose tenure at NME alongside writers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had helped frame the discourse around British punk. Warner Bros. even took the opportunity to release a U.K.-exclusive single in advance of his visit: a distinctly New Wave-flavored outtake from the Dirty Mind sessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”

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Partyup

Partyup

(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)

During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mind in 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 Mind era 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).

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