It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the color purple took on the deep significance it would come to hold in Prince’s creative universe. The reference to a “purple lawn” in his 1976 song “Leaving for New York” was an interesting piece of trivia, but it felt more like an early attempt at Joni Mitchell-esque lyrical impressionism than the genuine birth of a motif. It wasn’t until much later, after the pastel pinks and blues of 1979’s Prince and the stark monochrome of 1980’s Dirty Mind, when the color began to show up in earnest. The album cover for 1981’s Controversy featured a lavender font, with Prince sporting one of his trademark studded trenchcoats in a matching color. And of course, at some point after he moved into his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Prince had the exterior painted from its original cream color to an electric purple.
Whether the color’s private importance to Prince was a recent development or a long-simmering fixation, however, it was on his fifth album in 1982 that he finally shared it with the world. 1999 is rife with lyrical references to purple: it’s the color of the title track’s apocalyptic sky; the “rock” he invites listeners to “take a bite of” in “D.M.S.R.”; the “star in the night supreme” to which he compares his lover in “Automatic”; the promised “love-amour” and the “high” he craves in “All the Critics Love U in New York.” The album’s artwork, too, is dominated by purples of all shades: from the deep royal purple of the background to the phallic, red-tinged shades of the lettering, to the cool violet tones of the inner sleeve photo of Prince with his backing band. Yet not even this veritable explosion of purple makes as clear a statement as another song, recorded at some point during the 1999 sessions and titled simply “Purple Music.”
Note: This is the second of three posts on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
Am I straight or gay?
In the same 1981Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).
The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hilburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mindand, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.
These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.
(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 NMEalongside 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 Mindsessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”
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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