Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.
Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?
Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”
More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.
Last time–good lord, was that really two weeks ago?!–we touched upon how the spartan conditions and technical limitations of Prince’s Wayzata, Minnesota home studio helped lay the groundwork for what became his signature sound. This time, we actually have a concrete example to discuss: the sole ballad to appear on his 1980 album Dirty Mind, “Gotta Broken Heart Again.”
On paper, “Broken Heart” is familiar territory for Prince; its borrowings from the early 1960s soul music of artists like Sam Cooke recall the similar homages of songs like “So Blue” and “Still Waiting.” But those tracks had felt labored: as if Prince, not fully comfortable singing in a hand-me-down style, had overcompensated by loading up the mix with fussy and (in the case of “Still Waiting”’s pseudo-pedal steel) even self-mocking touches. Here, though, circumstances forced him to sit with the material and approach it on its own terms–and the result was his finest experiment with the style to date.
A week and a half ago, I recorded what was supposed to be a single, one-to-two-hour podcast with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones; needless to say, we ended up talking for almost six hours, which necessitated us splitting the conversation into parts. In this second installment, we begin with a discussion of Ben Greenman’s new book, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, & Genius in the Music of Prince; but that discussion quickly branches out into more interesting conversations about Prince’s supernatural ability to enter “flow,” his unparalleled understanding of women’s desire, and his complicated relationship with spirituality and religion.
Next week, we’ll dig into another recent book about Prince–the memoir of his ex-wife, Mayte Garcia–and begin to take full stock of our feelings in the wake of his passing last April. If you missed the first episode, you may want to check it out before listening; also, I’m happy to announce that dance / music / sex / romance is now on all the major podcast aggregators (iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play), and available for streaming on Mixcloud. If you like what we’re doing, please do subscribe and leave a review on your service of choice; this will help increase our visibility on the respective platforms. As always, thanks for listening!
In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied, “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).
It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).