Jack U Off

Jack U Off

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)

In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.

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Sexuality

Sexuality

(Featured Image: Prince in the music video for “Sexuality,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me three full-length posts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversy was about more than just self-analysis and myth-building. It was also, more than any other Prince album to date, engaged with the outside world: using the artist’s increasingly well-defined persona as the basis for a distinctive–if not always coherent–worldview.

The centerpiece of this new worldview was the album’s second track, “Sexuality.” Picking up immediately after “Controversy” leaves off–scarcely a beat goes by between the former song’s final synth glissando and the ecstatic yelp with which Prince opens the latter–“Sexuality” addresses the listener with a direct call to arms. “Stand up everybody / This is your life,” the singer announces. “Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight.” His language draws deliberately on the gospel tradition: like the allegorical train in the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” “you don’t need no money”–or, indeed, clothes; you just get on board. It becomes clear that this is no conventional hymn, however, once the chorus hits: “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need / Sexuality, let your body be free.”

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Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

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 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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Review: Got to Be Something Here

Review: Got to Be Something Here

(Featured Image: Cover art for Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound by Andrea Swensson, from Amazon.)

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the last 18 months have seen an explosion in critical and scholarly discourse on Prince: his music, persona, cultural significance, and beyond. It was only a matter of time until the focus would widen to include the “Minneapolis Sound” Prince played a significant role in shaping and delivering to an international audience. Got to Be Something Here, written by former City Pages music editor and current Minnesota Public Radio host Andrea Swensson, is the first major book to discuss the Twin Cities’ unique contributions to African American music; it should go without saying that it comes highly recommended to anyone who reads dance / music / sex / romance.

To be clear, this is not a book about Prince–though he casts a long, purple shadow over the story, lending foreshadowed significance to places like The Way community center, Sound 80, and of course Sam’s Danceteria, later known as First Avenue. Swensson’s history begins in the year of Prince’s birth, 1958, when a Near North doo-wop group called the Big M’s recorded Minnesota’s first R&B single; the narrative path continues through the “chitlin circuit” of early African American R&B venues, the ill-fated integrated dance club King Solomon’s Mines, and finally the grassroots Northside funk community that spawned Flyte Tyme, the Family, and Grand Central. This expanded perspective offers a broader, but ultimately more useful definition for the Minneapolis Sound than the usual “post-disco R&B with synthesizers for horns.” In particular, Swensson convincingly argues that from the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond, music from the Twin Cities was marked by an “aggressive blend of genres” that crossed Minnesota’s de facto but sharply-drawn color lines.

By focusing on the material conditions that necessitated this line-crossing, Swensson offers a valuable, politicized context for Prince and the other Black musicians who put Minneapolis on the map. The most eye-opening part of the book, especially for a non-Minnesotan like myself, is Swensson’s research on the construction of Interstate 94, which displaced St. Paul’s predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood and cut off Minneapolis’ North Side from the rest of the city. The story of the Minneapolis Sound is thus a story of unequal access to resources, and the things Black musicians had to do to get their fair share: chiefly, working twice as hard as their white counterparts, and becoming versatile enough to appeal to audiences outside of the city’s tiny African American enclaves. Pair this socioeconomic backdrop with the emergence of one phenomenally gifted individual, and you have as good an explanation for Prince as any.

If there is a complaint to be had about Got to Be Something Here, it’s that there simply isn’t enough of it: at just over 200 pages, it’s a surprisingly swift read, and it left me, at least, wanting more. While I understand why the book focuses on the Minneapolis scene “Before Prince,” it would have been great to hear more about the Purple One’s immediate peers: not just Jam and Lewis and Morris Day, but also Sue Ann Carwell, to name one perpetually underrepresented figure. I’m also curious to learn more about cross-pollination between the city’s funk and punk scenes: did Minneapolis have its share of Black New Wavers, or were Prince and André Cymone the only outliers? Again, it’s understandable that Swensson would narrow her focus here, as the story of First Avenue, Twin/Tone Records, and so on has been more thoroughly covered elsewhere; it would be fascinating, however, to find the connections between these parallel communities, in the same way that other pop historians have found the connections between punk and disco in late-1970s New York.

But again, these are quibbles: Swensson has made an important contribution to the study of Minneapolis’ musical history, and her passion for both the city and the music is evident on every page. If there are stones left to unturn–and there are–it will be the happy task of future researchers (maybe even Swensson herself!) to continue the work. For now, Got to Be Something Here is a great start: a story that needed telling, carefully and incisively told.

Got to Be Something Here releases tomorrow, October 10, 2017. If you want to support dance / music / sex / romance, you can preorder the book–or buy anything else you want!–using our Amazon affiliate link.