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Controversy, 1981

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

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, if airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy 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 331revolutions 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.

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For You, 1978

I’m Yours

There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977 test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).

It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than of pragmatism. As we’ve noted before, Prince was aware of the segregated nature of the pop market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to “cross over” was driven in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.

The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (read: White) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from Black-oriented teen magazines like Right On!Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”