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.
(Featured Image: My quick ‘n’ dirty d / m / s / r logo, apologies to Warner Bros. and Andy Warhol.)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole two years since I launched dance / music / sex / romance. I want to thank everyone who’s been following along thus far; many of you, I know, have been here pretty much from the beginning. If you need a refresher on (most of) what’s happened since the last year-end round-up, here you go:
So, what have we done in the last 12 months? A little less than I promised this time last year, but also a lot more. If you look purely at the number of songs covered on the blog, my progress has slowed significantly: a mere 20, versus last year’s 45. If I keep up this pace, the 2036 end point I semi-jokingly offered last year just might become a reality. But I’ve also been doing a lot more than I was doing in June 2017. The podcast has taken on a life of its own; I’ve become a regular guest on another podcast, Prince: Track by Track; I wrote an essay about Prince and New Wave for publication in an anthology on Prince and the Minneapolis Sound; I presented on two panels at the Prince from Minneapolis conference; I launched my own magazine, thanks in large part to the support and goodwill of a small but dedicated group of readers.
I’m not gonna lie, I have more plans for extracurricular activities in 2018-19. Some of them depend on external forces outside my control; some of them you’ll probably be hearing about in the near future. But I also think that the next 12 months of d / m / s / r will be a little bit of a “back to basics” move. I really want to get through more than two albums by next June; I really want to go back to my weekly post routine. I have some thoughts about how to make this possible with my other commitments, which I’ll be sharing in the near future. For now, if you’ve been reading this blog, thanks for hanging in there for the lean times and thanks for your support. And if you’ve just started reading, welcome! I hope you enjoy this labor of love as much as I continue to.
As warned/promised last month, I have been up to my neck in drafting my chapter for the upcoming Prince and the Minneapolis Soundanthology (which is now two days late as of this writing–sorry, editors). As always, however, my much more consistent colleague in chronological Prince studies Darren Husted has come to the rescue with another episode of his podcast Prince: Track by Track featuring yours truly:
As usual, I picked a track that I consider a bit of a dark horse favorite. I hope you enjoy listening as Darren somehow manages to reference an obscure Michael Cera coming-of-age film, and I spend a solid minute and a half clearly describing a vagina without actually saying the word “vagina.”
We’ll be back to our regular schedule (I hope) next week, assuming I finish my chapter and/or my editors don’t kill me first. Have a great weekend!
January hasn’t been as productive on the blog front as I’d hoped–blame it on me actually having to work at my day job. Unfortunately, I don’t think next month will be much of an improvement, as I’ll be dedicating a lot of my blog-writing time to finishing my chapter for the upcoming Prince and the Minneapolis Soundanthology. Luckily, I have some excess productivity from last month to help me out, with another appearance on Darren Husted’s excellent podcast Prince: Track by Track. This time around, we’re discussing an underrated track from the album, “ Wanna Melt with U”:
Slower-than-planned pace aside, I do still have a little bit saved up for the rest of the month: namely, a podcast episode of my own with scholar Kimberly Ransom. And, whatever else happens in February, I plan to at least start the month off right with the first of my posts on the 1981 debut by the Time. See you soon!
(Featured Image: Prince at the El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, 2004; Chambers is behind him on the left. Photo by M. Caulfield.)
It’s been over half a year since the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference, but I keep connecting with people who presented there and whose topics of research are too interesting not to discuss. This time, I’m talking to actor and playwright Chambers Stevens, who has a fascinating theory about the influence of improv training on Prince’s approach to life and performance. But we aren’t just retreading Chambers’ presentation from the Salford conference; he also has some hilarious stories to share about his own run-ins with Prince (and Chaka Khan), as well as some thoughts about the peculiar nature of Prince fandom. We had a lot of fun recording this–hopefully you’ll have fun listening as well!
And speaking of fun, there’s still a little more time to participate in my giveaway for a free copy of Duane Tudahl’s new book Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984. The rules are simple: just subscribe to d / m / s / r on your podcast app of choice (logging into iTunes or Stitcher and searching “dance music sex romance” should do the trick), and leave a review. It doesn’t have to be a positive review; feel free to rake me over the coals if you want, just make it well-written. On Tuesday, December 12, I’ll look at all the reviews that have been submitted, pick my favorite–again, not necessarily the most positive!–and announce the winner on the next episode of the podcast. Oh, and speaking of that next episode, this is one you’re not going to want to miss: I was fortunate enough to speak to the one and only Marylou Badeaux, former V.P. of Special Projects at Warner Bros. Records and author of the upcoming memoir Moments: Remembering Prince. Come back and listen to it next week!