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.
Around the same time that Prince was co-opting Flyte Tyme for his project with Morris Day, he was also falling out with another of his oldest comrades: the co-founder of Grand Central and his closest musical partner, André Cymone.
André’s and Prince’s musical fates had been linked since the moment they first locked eyes in the Bryant Junior High gymnasium. Both were budding multi-instrumentalists, the children of talented jazz musicians: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play bass with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson. Both, too, possessed a preternatural drive far beyond the norms of their age and circumstance. “There was a sixth sense between the two of us,” Cymone told Billboardin 2016. “It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning” (Cymone 2016).
I have to begin with another apology: I had hoped to get this last installment of the podcast up early in the week, but I’ve been busy with job interviews, house hunting, and most recently, an illness that is definitely audible on the outro I recorded last night. But here, at last, is the final full installment of my now month-old conversation with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones. This is the one we’ve been building up to for the last month: a reckoning with the psychological factors that led to last year’s deeply tragic, avoidable death. But in case you’re concerned this will be prurient muckraking in the Prince: The End/When Doves Crytradition, please know that it’s coming from a place of genuine love, and is grounded in research rather than wild speculation. And if you’re also (justifiably) concerned that it’s going to be a depressing slog, I promise it’s not all as grim as it might sound.
And with that, the first wave of the d / m / s / r podcast is over! Jane will be back, probably sometime next month, to talk about the Purple Reign interdisciplinary conference at the University of Salford; I also still have a short, lighthearted chunk of our original conversation that didn’t quite fit this episode that I’d like to post at some point. But other than that, the future is a blank slate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on where to go with the podcast–topics to discuss, suggested guests, etc.–because it seems a shame to go to the trouble of making a feed, etc. just for one month of episodes. In the meantime, as always, you can find me on any of the major podcast services–iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play–where you’re invited to leave a rating or review; you can also listen to the podcast on Mixcloud. I hope you’ve enjoyed these as much as I have. Thanks!
One thing Prince established very early on was a near-constant rate of musical productivity: as we observed way back at the beginning of this blog, he spent the vast majority of his day-to-day adult life–not to mention a good amount of his childhood–participating in some form of songwriting, recording, rehearsal, or performance. So it should come as no surprise that when Prince moved into his first house in the summer of 1978, the otherwise-unassuming 5215 France Avenue in Edina, Minnesota brought with it another first: his first home studio. Indeed, according to his cousin and former Grand Central drummer Charles Smith, the rest of the house was mostly an afterthought for Prince: “The basement was full of equipment but he didn’t have any furniture in the house,” Smith told biographer Per Nilsen. “He didn’t have any carpets. He just had a rocking chair and a little TV for his games.” Eventually Prince’s girlfriend at the time, Kim Upsher, would help decorate and make the place “look like a home” (Nilsen 1999 43). But it’s clear that creature comforts placed a distant second for Prince, below his ability to create whenever the muse struck him. The lifelong blurring of the lines between studio and living space that he’d set into motion while still living in the Andersons’ basement was, by mid-1978, in full swing.
(Featured Image: Prince at the piano, circa 1976; photo stolen from prince.org.)
“Guess how many times I’ve changed addresses,” Prince asked at one point in a 1979 interview with Cynthia Horner of the African American teen magazine Right On! “Twenty-two times!” (Horner 1979) His typically charming, almost childlike delivery made it seem like an amusing anecdote; for what it’s worth, it was also probably an exaggeration. But beneath the wide-eyed ingénue act, he was revealing something profoundly sad about himself. For about six years during his childhood, Prince’s living situation was unstable at best; at worst, he was functionally homeless.
The period of instability ended around the same time that Prince formed his first band, thanks to the same catalyst: André Anderson, whose mother Bernadette took him in around 1974, and with whom he lived until after he signed with his first manager in late 1976. It was at the Anderson household where Prince made his earliest home recordings, at the ages of 17 and 18. But it was in his proverbial “wilderness period” when he established the fierce independence and drive–as well as the distrust of and distance from others–that would define his art, for better and worse, in the decades to come.