From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”
Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.
Beginning with his third album in 1980, Prince had been steadily building up a mythology–occasionally bordering on a philosophy–for himself. Dirty Mindhad “Uptown,” a clarion call for hedonism that eradicated all racial and sexual boundaries. 1981’s Controversy, of course, had its epic title track, a declaration of selfhood through the negation of fixed identities; as well as “Sexuality,” a return to the themes of “Uptown” with a new quasi-religious fervor. For his fifth album in 1982, he offered something even more blunt and to the point: a musical manifesto based around the four words, “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance.”
Though it was never released as a single–and, in fact, was left off the original CD release of 1999 due to space constraints–“D.M.S.R.” holds a privileged position in Prince’s discography. Dance Music Sex Romance was of course the title of the 1999 biography and session chronicle by Per Nilsen, long considered definitive by fans of the artist’s early career. It’s also, obviously, the title of this very blog, because I figured if Per’s not going to use it anymore, somebody’s gonna have to. Its attraction to writers on Prince is self-evident: as Dave Lifton writes in his post on the song for Diffuser’s 365 Prince Songs in a Year series, “Dance. Music. Sex. Romance. Add God into the mixture and you’ve more or less got the formula for every song Prince released in his life” (Lifton 2017). Way back when I first started d / m / s / r in 2016, I posited that it would make a great title for a career-spanning collection like Johnny Cash’s Love, God, Murder, with a disc devoted to each theme.
It was a stroke of good timing that just as Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to guest on another track-by-track podcast, Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind. Similar to my and Darren’s respective projects, Jason’s is to go through the full Prince catalogue song by song, but with a specific focus on lyrics that pleases my inner lit major. It also made for an ideal opportunity to talk about some songs that I didn’t get to talk about on Track by Track, starting with “Head” from Dirty Mind:
It was a pleasure talking to Jason about the second dirtiest song on Dirty Mind. And if you enjoyed it as much as I did, you’re in luck: we also recorded another episode talking about the first dirtiest song on the album, which should be coming out in the next couple of weeks.
While I have you here, I want to thank everyone who has already signed up for my Patreon! Pierre Igot, Caroline S., Oliver A., and Demetrius, your day-one support was extremely heartwarming. If you’re just joining us now and interested in supporting, check out my Patreon page here:
Things have gotten quiet again around here, both because I’ve been feeling under the weather and because I’ve been buried in other writing assignments. I’m working on the latter and crossing my fingers that the former is on its way out, but in the meantime, here’s an episode of Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast I recorded late last year: