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.
As you may or may not know, Dystopian Dance Party is the other, more irreverent project I do with my sister Callie. We recently launched a physical magazine, the first issue of which is dedicated to art and writing inspired by the music of Prince. On this episode of the DDP podcast, Callie and I are joined by our friend Erika Peterson to talk about her work for the magazine–an exhaustive guide to the 3 Chains O’ Gold film–the most absurd/surreal moments of Celebration 2018, and our ongoing beef with Questlove. It’s definitely a bit looser and sillier than the average d / m / s / r podcast, but if you enjoy my other stuff, you should enjoy it:
For those of you who haven’t picked up the magazine yet, we’re also offering the opportunity to get it for free, along with a set of rewards otherwise exclusively made available to our Kickstarter backers. All you have to do is follow Dystopian Dance Party on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and/or Tumblr, and share a link to this episode with us tagged so we know you did it. Toward the end of May, we’ll choose one or two people to receive a free copy of the magazine, a sheet of custom-designed stickers, three buttons, and a poster of the cover art by Callie. None of this stuff is available anywhere else, so take advantage of this chance to get your hands on it!
And if you can’t get enough of Erika, remember that she also recently appeared on our friend KaNisa’s excellent Muse 2 the Pharaoh podcast. Take a listen if you haven’t already:
Finally, an update on my next post for d / m / s / r. I had been planning to get something out by the end of the week, but I decided to make some changes which resulted in a delay: basically, I was writing separate posts on “The Stick” and “Cool,” but I decided to combine the two and just write a longer post on “Cool” that also touches on “The Stick” (and “After Hi School,” in case anybody was waiting for that). I fully expect to have this post out next week–which means that we’re finally going to be done with the Time’s first album! After that, we’ll turn to another 1981 outtake, and then back to Controversy. I also have plans for a few podcasts in the pipeline, so there’s plenty to look forward to!
As of this writing, there is no public record of the order in which the songs on the Time’s first album were recorded (fingers crossed that Duane Tudahl can scare up some details when he gets around to writing his book on the 1981-82 studio sessions). It’s generally agreed, however, that the song Prince used to get Warner Bros. interested in the project was the one that became its lead single and opening track: “Get It Up.”
As a proof of concept for the Time project, “Get It Up” makes a lot of sense. It is, first of all, familiar territory. According to Bobby Z, the song came out of Prince’s jams with his touring band, and it shows: more than any other song on The Time, “Get It Up” sounds like the missing link between Dirty Mindand Controversy(Nilsen 1999 86). The brittle New Wave funk arrangement and wheedling Oberheim synthesizer, played once again by guest soloist Matt Fink, bear Prince’s immediately identifiable fingerprints–that, and the fact that his backing vocals are clearly audible throughout the track.
dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.
I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.
Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.
I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.
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!