As originally printed in the November 5, 1981 issue of City Pages. Read "Remembering Prince" here.
Prince is a neo-hippie. Similar to Lennon a decade ago, he imagines a personal Shangri-la where there are no rules, no racial distinctions, no clothes, no money...but lotsa sex.
But while the original hippies’ Eden was a rural one, Prince’s is urban. On Dirty Mind, he called it “Uptown”: “Where I come from/We don’t let society, tell us what to be.” (He sure wasn’t talking about Minneapolis, folks.) On his latest and fourth record, Controversy, he calls its inhabitants, “the new breed” — individuals who believe more in eros than agape, more in anarchy than communalism. His noble savage — unbent by what Dylan once called “society’s pliers” — is an urchin of the asphalt.
Crazy-quilt pop politics from the likes of Jefferson Airplane many years ago had the advantage of context and novelty. At first, Prince’s social and political outrageousness seemed forced, borrowed and overly narcissistic (not surprising, considering he’s a child of the ‘70s). Prince concluded Dirty Mind — a record that up to that point was obsessed only with incest, fellatio, priapism and the like — with the chant, “You're gonna have to fight your own damn war/ ‘Cuz we don't wanna fight no more.” One had to wonder, What war? What fighting?
Turns out that brazen little mantra was a hint of things to come. Prince’s Controversy is a much more mature work than Dirty Mind, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better — it isn’t. But it does give fascination expression to the young man’s expanding political consciousness, which still remains a bit naive. (At one point in “Sexuality,” he calls for his minions to organize — this, after his long track record of wild-in-the-streetism.)
Controversy also displays Prince’s spiraling egoism — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. He is preoccupied with how the world perceives him (“Controversy”) and how the world will treat his celebrity status (“Annie Christian”). Therefore, his egoism is a very healthy and positive kind, as he ponders how he and his image are fitting into the world.
Since Prince’s Bambi prettiness makes him appear extremely androgynous, and his lineage makes him appear as mixed blood, it’s inevitable that we speak of him as the perfect, composite American pop star for the ‘80s. And his ambitions are that lofty, thank God. With Controversy, one gets the feeling that Prince knows he stands on the verge of superstardom. He explores its hazards in “Annie Christian” (a sort of emblematic, all-purpose character seen by Prince in a Manichaean light a the embodiment of all that is evil or sick in America and the ubiquitous perpetrator of our recent heinous crimes — the Lennon assassination, the Reagan attempt, the Atlanta homicides, etc.): “Until you’re crucified/I’ll live my life in taxi cabs.”
So while the New Conservatives build up a head of steam, and the arms race escalates to dizzyingly ridiculous heights, Prince will become more and more relevant: a context of antinomies is catching up to him, giving his outrageousness resonance, as millions of Americans become alienated when they find themselves outside the tight circle circumscribed by the smug, white-bread haves. And his millenarianism is more appropriate now, as brinksmanship increasingly become a global tactic again.
I once said that if rock ‘n’ roll were a newspaper, The Clash would be the front page and The Ramones would be the funny paper. Well, a couple of years have passed, and I might be tempted to amend that to say that The Clash would be the op/ed page. But anyway, to extend the conceit, Prince, up until this album, would have been the personals. But not anymore, totally. He’s beginning to compete with Strummer & Company for hard news.
The big problem Prince faces as an artist is how to square the punky-funky cheesecake with serious statements on the state of the world and the American culture. It is precisely this schizophrenia that threatens to pull Controversy apart at the seams. “Annie Christian” is an eerie brood-piece on the dark side of the American dream: the dues of success. It’s set in a modified chant context, with Prince singspeaking in his normal voice over menacing guitar snarls that are tucked midway into the mix and a metronomic rhythm punched up by distant handclaps. “Annie Christian” is a new musical form for Prince, one that he would do well to pursue. Too bad it’s followed by one of the worst examples of his crude, stock-in-trade sex dissertations, “Jack U Off.” The music is uninteresting — it sounds like break music — and the song’s placement almost sabotages the effect of “Annie Christian.” “Let’s Work” is not as lame, but its music is a Prince cliche.
The sequencing of Controversy is often atrocious. There almost should have been a “serious side” and a “sex side.” Which would have made everything nice and easy if the penis weren’t a political tool in Prince’s world view: “Sexuality is all we’ll ever need”; “I’m not gonna stop (fucking) ‘til the war is over.” Prince perceives himself as on a mission (from God? — his religious inclinations are even murkier; I don’t think his recitative of the “Lord’s Prayer” is blasphemous at all, especially considering God got another nod in the liner notes) to torpedo our collective Puritan superego. (Seems Uncle Hef didn’t do such a good job. Remember how many of us rock crits have been saying the ‘80s might be like the ‘50s? So Ike had Presley and Ronnie’s got Prince.) He doesn’t believe in original sin; kids are poisoned by culture (“atmosphere,” in Prince’s nomenclature). The moral pendulum is swinging back to the right, so what better way to scare the bejesus out of Falwell’s legions than to celebrate the runaway id?
But hell, even Rolling Stones fans find him threatening — and certainly they’ve seen enough strangeness from Mick and the boys. Maybe it’s Prince’s cockiness, or that he dares to be prissy and still call himself a man. For me, it’s precisely that quality of brashness that makes Prince — and his local cohorts in The Time — so appealing. They’re so sure they’re gonna make it that they’re gonna seize the time. There’s nothing tentative about them — their dress, or their address to rock ‘n’ roll.
Nor is there anything tentative about their music. It’s aggressive and daring: they’re willing to integrate anything. Controversy has more music than Dirty Mind (both contain eight songs, but the former logs in at 36:24, the latter, 28:37) and perhaps a wider range of it. For instance, the double-synthesizer assault is toned down some, and Prince's delicate falsetto is only one of a number of vocal guises used here.
Prince’s slow-burn orgasm on vinyl, “Do Me, Baby,” is a command bedroom performance and should become a classic in the genre. “Ronnie Talk to Russia” has a smidgeon of heavy-metal guitar, but the goofy song comes off sounding more like Dave Edmunds (“Crawling from the Wreckage” comes to mind) with something to say. “Private Joy,” like “Uptown” on Dirty Mind, is the surefire dance jam; it contains the fine line, “If anybody asks, you belong to Prince.” And while “Controversy” is a great single in a wonderfully simple kind of way (musically), “Sexuality” is really Prince’s manifesto and the key to solving the record’s apparent double-mindedness. Certainly it’s symptomatic of his future direction. The next LP should be a fully formed delineation of Prince’s vision. Controversy is one step along the way.