Dirty Mind is an album with a reputation. Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker deemed it “positively filthy” (Tucker 1981). Self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau branded it with arguably his greatest one-liner: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home” (Christgau). And then, of course, there was the marketing: that provocative cover photo by Allen Beaulieu; those proto-PMRC stickers warning radio programmers to “audition prior to airing” (see above); the wave of interviews with the 22-year-old artist defiantly espousing his core values of unfettered sexuality and free expression. Almost invariably, from 1980 to 2017, critics have seen Dirty Mind as a turning point: the moment when Prince, swooning teen R&B lothario, became Prince, brash punk-funk libertine. “Nothing,” Tucker wrote, could have prepared us for the record’s “liberating lewdness” (Tucker 1981).
Yet, for those of us who have been following along at home, perhaps the most surprising thing about Dirty Mindis how unsurprising it feels. The album’s smutty disrepute rests, more or less, on two songs: the already-discussed “Head” and the even-more-notorious “Sister” (more on that later). On the other three-quarters of the record, however, Prince isn’t much more sex-obsessed than he was last time around. In fact, rather than a radical about-face for Prince, Dirty Mind is more accurately described as a refinement of what came before: stripping the music to its bare essentials, turning the innuendos unmistakably transparent. It’s different, but hardly unprecedented; if you didn’t see Dirty Mind coming after Prince, then you simply weren’t paying attention.
“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazinein 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”
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!
Yesterday, I spent an unbelievably self-indulgent six hours on Skype with Jane Clare Jones, preparing and recording a podcast to mark the first anniversary of Prince’s death (because of our unbelievable self-indulgence, it will actually be several podcasts). The first installment of our conversation should be ready to post by Friday; but in the meantime, here’s another conversation from last year with my sister Callie, which ran on our blog Dystopian Dance Party just over a week after we heard the terrible news. In case you’re concerned–I know emotions are raw this week–it’s mostly a joyous discussion, focusing on Prince and what he means to us rather than the tragic conditions of his end. I thought now was as good a time as any to share it with a wider audience. Show notes are here, and I’ll be back tomorrow with a review of another recent addition to the canon of Prince literature.