Sex and Society
BY STEPHEN HOLDEN
It should come as little surprise that on his fourth album, Prince has made his inflammatory and explicit sexuality the basis of an amusingly jive but attractive social agenda. Once you've exalted brother-sister incest (Dirty Mind's "Sister"), not to mention nearly every other sexual possibility, how else can you get people's attention?
Prince's first three records were so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine. On Controversy, that libertine proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society than the bellicose, overtechnologized America of Ronald Reagan. In taking on social issues, the artist assumes his place in the pantheon of Sly Stone-inspired Utopian funksters like Rick James and George Clinton. I think that Prince stands as Stone's most formidable heir, despite his frequent fuzzy-mindedness and eccentricity. A consummate master of pop-funk song forms and a virtuosic multiinstrumentalist, Prince is also an extraordinary singer whose falsetto, at its most tender, recalls Smokey Robinson's sweetness. At its most brittle, Prince's voice sounds like Sylvester at his ironic and challenging best.
Controversy's version of One Nation under the Sheets is hip, funny and, yes, subversive. In the LP's title track -- a bubbling, seven-minute tour de force of synthesized pop-funk hooks -- Prince teasingly pants, "Am I black or white/Am I straight or gay?" This opening salvo in a series of "issue"-oriented questions tacitly implies that since we're all flesh and blood, sexual preference and skin color are only superficial differences, no matter what society says. But Prince eventually brushes such things aside with hippie platitudes. Along the way, "Controversy" flirts with blasphemy by incorporating the Lord's Prayer. The number ends with the star's punk-libertine chant: "People call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white/I wish there were no rules." Though hardly inspiring, it's fitting that the Constitution of Prince's polymorphously perverse Utopia should be written in childish cant.
The strutting, popping anthem "Sexuality" elaborates many of the points that "Controversy" raises, as Prince shrewdly lists gadgets (cameras, TV, the Acu-Jac) that cut us off from each other. "Don't let your children watch television until they know how to read," he advises. Who would disagree? "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," a hastily blurted plea to Reagan to seek disarmament, is the album's weakest cut. "Let's Work," a bright and squeaky dance song, and "Private Joy," a bouncy pop-funk bubble-gum tune with baby talk in the verses, show off Prince's ingratiating lighter side. "Jack U Off," the cleverest of the shorter compositions, is a synthesized rockabilly number whose whole point is that sex is better with another human being than with a masturbatory device.
Prince's vision isn't as compelling as it might be, however, because of his childlike treatment of evil. "Annie Christian," the one track that tackles the subject, turns evil into a bogeywoman from whom the artist is forever trying to escape in a taxicab. Though the song lists historical events (the killing of black children in Atlanta, Abscam and John Lennon's murder), it has none of the resonance of, say, "Sympathy for the Devil," since Prince, unlike the Rolling Stones, still only dimly perceives the demons within himself.
After "Controversy," the LP's high point is an extended bump-and-grind ballad, "Do Me, Baby," in which the singer simulates an intense sexual encounter, taking it from heavy foreplay to wild, shrieking orgasm. In the postcoital coda, Prince's mood turns uncharacteristically dark. He shivers and pleads, "I'm so cold, just hold me." It's the one moment amid all of Controversy's exhortatory slavering in which Prince glimpses a despair that no orgasm can alleviate.
Despite all the contradictions and hyperbole in Prince's playboy philosophy, I still find his message refreshingly relevant. As Gore Vidal wrote in The Nation recently: "Most men, given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people, would do so gladly. But most men are not going to be given the opportunity by a society that wants them safely married, so that they will be docile workers and loyal consumers."
Prince, I'm sure, would agree.
ROLLING STONE, JANUARY 21, 1982
Some Day My Prince Will Come...
Prince has an urge in him which sometimes comes out as a nightingale, sometimes a vulgar pierrot and then occasionally just a babyish gurgle. Here is a minstrel who sings of his bedtime succour - a modern prince, mark you, and may have the captives seduced, only to dash the accomplishment away; straddled o'er an earthquake of rocky showtime guff and peacock proud of Mr Reagan to boot.
I'm still frightened of Prince allured by the promise, alarmed by the chintzy crud of his live routine, partially assuaged by this new "Controversy". Prince's value continues to lie in the merger he affects, implicit rather than explicit, of categories usually taken for granted as token dualities (love/sex, rock/soul) or as irreconcilable opposites (pleasure/politic, gaiety/acuity). We will get nowhere quickly searching Prince's practice for principles of judgement: he is not uniformly lovable or loyal.
A Christian God. A God-fearing Country. The Original "funk" - Sex. Triplets which Prince plays with during the course of Controversy-inconsistently, with an often absured nobility of purpose. Prince obviously does not regard Sex, Politics and Popular Music as perverse bed (wherever) mates: they are alignable aspects of Being. The screwiest thin about "Controversy" is the dispersed division between rosy-cheeked humanist and slutty confessional; the Moral Majority will nog know whether to fete or castrate this hammy spritualist.
Prince refuses the Outlaw part offered him, detects nothing unnatural in his private or public affairs: his sex, his singing, are accomplices of Law and Order (in a symbolic sense) rather than crimes against it. To regard himseld as indecent, a kink, devious - this would render the pleasure of his deeds a cerebral rather than sensual one, the vicarous intellectual pleasure of the away-day Outsider (a popular pose amongst rock'n'rollers both nimble and thick) thinking he is engaged in forbidden activities. Prince beleives - in some kind of God, in the onslaught of a universal love. Or is there a gag in his mouth?
To put it bluntly: Prince's prick is the source of his pride, the guarantee of his love. The fissures of the flesh intrude upon even his more visionary Political plateaux. There can be no knowledge, Prince avers, without bodies set free from the bondage of repressive persuasions. Or, as the irresistibly titled "Sexuality" puts it: "Sexuality is all I ever need? Sexuality I'm gonna let my body be free."
Of course it is not wise to take this sort of stuff too literally; does a "freed" body come that simply? Perhaps by necessity of the (word) processes of his chosen medium, any transference of his political views into reord will condense the heterogeneity of Prince into an easy entertainment, a potted provocation, little more than a glib fib. Thus transcribed he conspires or compares with Reagan and the Moral majority not insofar as anyone is "left" of "right" of the impossible centre, but because their politics are all somewhere over a rainbow..... "People call me rude/I wish we all were rude/ I wish there was no black and white/ I wish there were no rules". ("Controversy").
When Prince gets "explicit" about earthly as opposed to earthy powers, it's no less ambiguous: a kind of polymorphous perversion of policital life. In "Ronnie, Talk To Russia" he seems to be putting the blame squarely on those nasty Reds and urging Ronnie to play a conciliatory Audie Murphy type, pipe of peace 'n' all that, complete with the sort of advice the barrom whore with a heart of gold (sic) might give here avenging sheriff: "Ronnie, if you're dead before I get to meet you/Don't say I didn't warn you."
Prince' work ethic ("Let's Work") has got more to do with the subject viewed exclusively as sex machine than with the New Protestantism and in "Annie Christian" he seems to be (that phrase again) shifting the blame back to the harbingers of New Amerika; whatever, the track in question is eerie, incorrigibly subjectieve and very funny (the punchlines have a lot in common with Defunkt: "Everybody say 'electric chair' - ELECTRIC CHAIR!!!!!"
Maybe Prince is as utterly wet and naive as it all seems to unfortunately hint. He simply can't understand what all the fuss is about! Prince himself doetn't appear to be in any pain over his manifold contradictions. He doesn't even present them as such: they are present. His polemic comes in pouts rather than shouts, spouts or spurts.... and perhaps he secretly realises that, of course, contradiction is ultimately more intensely "thought provoking" than bald, blank policy statement can ever be. So, so. 'Controversy' is packaged as a collection of quibbles and queries unified under a vagueley 'conceptual' sign. And I like it. I obsessively like two of the eight inclusions ('Do Me, Baby' and 'Annie Christian') and all in all it's a more elaborately and easily realised music than last year's 'Dirty Mind'. Prince can get geally expansive with his voice (how the abstract gospel intro shifts into a sexy smoky falsetto stutter in 'Private Joy') and his contructieve appliance of synth techniques assures that the sheer aesthetic and structural power of the music, thud and skim, shudder and tightening, has as much in common with Kraftwerk as with the more abvious Hendrix and harmony funk lineage.
Sex is his shrine, and that's where Prince's confusing charm works best. "Do me, Baby' recalls the likes of imagination in its slippery slipstream, but is so much better. Prince comes complete with a dischord, jettisoning the eleborate arrangement and shivering in a silent afterglow. It's Smokey Robinson singing aobscene moonbeams, lust imploring love, and the strains on the pillow aren't the tracks of our tears.
Does he want to do much more than put his tongue in our cheek? I'm not sure that I'd vote for him if he did. Prince is ultimately conservative, but temporarily valorous; that's funk?