“Controversy” – Controversy (1981)

This is track one, side one from Prince’s fourth album. The title track from Controversy. Released on 14 October 1981 by Warner Brothers, the album was certified platinum on 11 January 1985. Just over three years to sell a million records, not too shabby I think you’d agree. But just as a point of comparison Prince was certified platinum on 21 February 1980, four months after it was released.[1] That’s a pretty slow burn for Controversy. Plus it got to pick up some of the heat from 1999 and Purple Rain. In terms of sales and pop culture impact you’d have to say that Prince (the record) was the bigger of the two albums at the time of its release and that Prince (the person) probably alienated a lot of the fans who bought his sophomore release when he put out Dirty Mind and started singing about fucking his sister (I’m guessing). Continuing the comparison, “Controversy” was the lead single from the album and peaked at number 70 on the US chart. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on the other hand reached number 11. Being someone who came to Prince fandom in the 90s I’d always imagined that Controversy was the bigger record. I guess it’s because I listened to “Do Me, Baby” and “Controversy” a lot more than I listened to any other pre-1999 songs. It makes one wonder what would have become of Prince’s career if 1999 and Purple Rain had come straight after the success of Prince and we’d skipped over the provocation of Controversy and Dirty Mind. But then that wouldn’t be Prince would it. As the man himself said about Dirty Mind “I wasn’t being deliberately provocative. I was being deliberately me.”[2] And the same can be said of Controversy. It’s Prince being Prince and doing what he wants to do. Like fucking his sister.

 

“Controversy” was voted the 14th greatest Prince song of all time on the Peach & Black podcast’s fan vote. Obviously a huge fan favourite which may be the reason it skewed my perception of it and the album in pop history. This has become one of those anthems that Prince will play over and over again when he goes out on tour. And it will bring down the house every time. A minimalist funk jam that can be played for hours on end (and sometimes is), it was recorded during the summer of 1981 in Prince’s home studio and was finished two months before the record was released. The song features Prince on everything except for some backing vocals provided by Lisa. But why write this song and album at this point of his career. Taking the music a step away from the dance, sex and romance of the earlier albums and throwing in some politics and philosophy. This song epitomises that message and is clearly a statement. But a statement about what exactly? Let’s try and break it down. “Controversy – a prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; disputation concerning a matter of opinion.”[3] Who was Prince debating in 1981? What was the source of the controversy? A thin, muscular, androgynous looking singer bouncing around on stage in heels and speedos? Singing about giving head and fucking his sister? In 1981? I wonder what could have possibly triggered any sort of debate. Good thing Tipper Gore wasn’t around at the time or we’d all be fucked. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it was Prince himself that was the source of the controversy (hard to believe, I know). I realise that the media were the stokers of that flame but ‘twas the Prince what sparked the fire. Then, as now, the media tends to target their shit at the lowest common denominator. In western countries like America that’s usually middle age, middle class, boring people. And that middling persona is usually one that reporters will adopt when interviewing or talking about anyone deemed “controversial.” Pretending to be shocked at the things famous people do as though this was the first time they’d ever heard of anyone acting so strangely. Almost as if the qualifying factor for becoming a Hollywood reporter was never learning anything about the world or the people in it. This song is a reaction to that attitude and it was Prince’s response to all the hype that had been surrounding him up to that point. A hype that he (and his people) definitely had a hand in. What better response than to write a song and album called “Controversy.”

 

The song opens with that pounding drum and bass intro with the keyboard popping to let you know there’s more on its way. Very stripped down and basic. Then the song kicks in proper like and takes off with the funk. Not an overly complicated mix of sounds but orchestrated to make you want to move. There’s a percussive sound that runs throughout the song that sounds like someone grunting to my ears (“oof!”). I imagine it could be part of the drum recording but it sounds human to me (a sample perhaps). There’s also a sound in there that sounds like a door slamming shut (maybe another sample) that comes in and out of the track. Every time I listen to this song on headphones I think Mrs Thrawn is slamming doors around the house to get my attention.

 

I just can’t believe
All the things people say, controversy
Am I black or white?
Am I straight or gay? Controversy

 

I’m not too sure why Prince would have trouble believing the things that people were saying. Given that he actively set out to be “controversial” and give people things to talk about. When you release an album called Dirty Mind that has songs on it about giving head and fucking your sister it’s a little ridiculous to then pretend that you’re shocked at people’s reactions to you. Or that you’re not being provocative. No matter how much you claim “I was being me.” But in this verse he’s specifically talking about the comments on his ethnicity and sexuality in the media. Now when you think about the androgynous way he looked at the time and the type of behaviour he was exhibiting (especially on stage) then it’s kind of understandable that people would have different opinions. And the press being what it is will continue to make those arguments even if you’ve answered the questions, because they need to sell advertising. But the real point here is that being black or white, or straight or gay is actually not controversial and not a thing that requires any heated discussion. This is the whole point of this verse (and the song itself). Prince is saying “you people in the press claim that these things that you write about are important or controversial or lascivious, but I’m here to tell you that they’re not. I’m the new normal and y’all better recognise where it’s at.”

 

Do I believe in God?
Do I believe in me?
Controversy, controversy
Controversy

 

More things which aren’t controversial. He’s a believer. In himself and his ability, and in his god. Was it controversial to be a christian in America in 1981? Certainly not. Now christians may have claimed (and still do) that they are persecuted and mistreated in one of the most christian countries in the world but I don’t imagine that there was any sort of issue for a performer in that era to be proclaiming their belief in the christian god. However there probably weren’t many performers who were as “dirty” or “nasty” as Prince was perceived to be, who proclaimed such faith and so loudly. Faith and unwavering self-belief. The kind of ego you have to project to be a pop music star in any era requires a level of self-belief that the average Joe just isn’t able to muster. I suppose being a supremely talented musician is an advantage on that score. But undeniably self-belief has always been part of Prince’s artistic persona. “I just decided that I was gonna do my own thing.”[4]

 

I can’t understand
Human curiosity, controversy
Was it good for you?
Was I what you wanted me to be?
Controversy

 

Here he is claiming he doesn’t understand things again. But the curiosity he’s talking about is the barrage of questions and bullshit he’s getting from the press. When he says “was it good for you,” he’s basically saying “you fucked me – how was it?” Did I jump through all your hoops? Did I fit into the box that you wanted to put me in? Did I help you sell some more units? Did I tickle your balls just right? At least I assume that’s what he’s talking about. He may have issues with human curiosity in general. Which if true means that he lacks an understanding of one of the fundamental aspects of being human. Which means he’s probably talking about the other thing. Or he’s a psychopath.

 

Do you get high?
Does your daddy cry?
Controversy, controversy
Controversy

 

If you’ve ever seen the footage of that James Brown show with Michael Jackson you will know the answer to that first question – high as giraffe pussy.[5]

 

Do I believe in God?
Do I believe in me?
Some people wanna die
So they can be free

 

Depending on who you ask “some people wanna die so they can be free” can have a couple of meanings. Some people want to kill themselves so they can be released from the pain and suffering of life and embrace the quiet nothingness of oblivion. Other people want to die (but not of their own hand) so they can take their place in whatever heaven they imagine. Then there are those people who don’t really want to die at all but they’re not important right now. If you’re not sure which group Prince falls into, just meditate on the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is a significant part of this track and you will find your answer. I find it interesting that at the same time that Prince is singing about wanting to go to heaven the double meaning of his lyrics indicate an almost opposite philosophical viewpoint. People who want to die, who want to kill themselves, not to reach a perceived place of joy and happiness but rather as a means of ending whatever pain or sorrow they are feeling or suffering from. The ultimate escape from whose bourn no traveller returns. Whether this is deliberate wordplay on Prince’s part is hard to tell given his strong religious beliefs which necessitate a strict abhorrence of suicide by any means. But if we’re talking about “controversy” then euthanasia was and still is a controversial idea to many. Although less so these days. Who knows, maybe Prince is a closet Kevorkian fan.

 

I said life is just a game
We’re all just the same
Do you wanna play?
Yeah, yeah, yeah

 

Do you want to play a game? The game of life? To me that implies that life should be enjoyed (Prince the hedonist) but also that this life isn’t really real and not worth stressing about (Prince the christian). Play the game right and you get the big prize! And the rules are the same for everyone right? No. Clearly we aren’t all the same. Each of us has our own unique dimensions and circumstances. But in terms of our opportunities and the way we treat each other, we should be the same. We aren’t. But we should be. Prince is saying that he doesn’t want to be treated any differently from anyone else. “I’m the same as you.” Which in a philosophical sense is true but practically speaking he isn’t the same as the rest of us. I’m definitely not a sexy musical genius who looks great in heels. How ’bout you?

 

Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy

 

Some joy in repetition right here kids.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us

Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power
And the glory forever and ever

 

Most of the music drops out and the delivery is dead pan. Joyless. No emotion. No emphasis. No flair. The only little flourish is a musical one, just after “day” and just before “bread”. One loud musical stab. What’s he trying to tell us? Enjoy today for it is all that truly exists? Or keep earning that bread and make sure you get paid? Or both? And why insert this cover track here? A statement of his beliefs or a deliberate provocation? Probably both. Is this Prince’s first cover on a record? And not just any old cover but a magical incantation! Which is itself a cover (Book of the Dead y’all!) There are no new ideas kids, everything is a remix.[6] Inserting this prayer into a song called “Controversy” is obviously intended to make a statement. At the time it was viewed by some as blasphemous. Which just goes to show that some christians will get offended at anything. You’d think they would’ve been happy to hear the kids listening to this guy pray on record. Instead of acting like he took a dump on baby Jesus’ head.

 

Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy
Love Him, love Him baby

 Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy

Listen, people call me rude
I wish we all were nude
I wish there was no black and white
I wish there were no rules

People call me rude
I wish we were all nude
I wish there was no black and white
I wish there were no rules

People call me rude
(People call me rude)
I wish we were all nude
(I wish we were all nude)

I wish there was no black and white
(I wish there was no black and white)
I wish there were no rules
(I wish there were no rules)

People call me rude
(People call me rude)
I wish we were all nude
(I wish we were all nude)

I wish there was no black and white
(I wish there was no black and white)
I wish there were no rules
(I wish there were no rules)

 

The chanting after the pray. To emphasise the message that whatever people say about him is wrong. He’s all about the love. People may call him names (rude boy!) but he just wants to get naked and make sweet, sweet love. Although I’m not sure you would really want billions of people walking around nude. The spike in incidents of skin cancer alone would be enough to negate the idea, let alone the gross factor. Imagine sitting naked on a bus with some dude standing next to you with his balls in your face after he’s been working for eight hours at the chicken manure factory. Hmmm, sexy. So let’s not take him too literally okay folks. I mean you don’t really want a world with no black and white do you? What would zebras do? What about newspapers? What would goths wear? I think it’s fair to say that Prince is talking specifically about race here (just don’t mention yellow, brown or red). But even then, if we eliminate black and white wouldn’t we all be one boring monochrome. How uninteresting would that be? The point here is that regardless of the shade of your skin or your ethnicity we wish to all be treated as one “colour.” But that might be against the rules. Rules or laws or both? Because now I’m confused. You see it’s the rules that ensure that we do treat each other as one “colour.” Whether they are formal laws and statutes or cultural behaviours and taboos. These “rules” that we impose on ourselves and on others are the things that make a colourless society possible (or will once we actually achieve it). Without rules of behaviour, society would quickly devolve and no one wants that. Now I know some of you are thinking “yeah man but if we all were just cool with each other then we wouldn’t need any rules man.” But then the rules would just be in your head and self-imposed. And who’s to say that your definition of what’s cool matches mine? Even if we were all one colour we’d still find ways to hurt one another if we didn’t have some rules to help us.

 

Controversy, controversy
Do I believe in God?
Do I believe in me?
Let me tell ya
Some people wanna die
So they can be free

I said life is just a game
We’re all just the same
Don’t ya wanna play?

Controversy, controversy
Controversy, controversy

 

Wrapping up the song, he goes back to god, playing the game of life (i.e. fucking), wanting to die and be free (and go to heaven). This is what Prince is proclaiming as his philosophy. He’s making the point that these are not controversial stands to make. He’s not the son and daughter corrupting demon that the middle class thinks he is. He’s just a man, standing on a stage, singing about love. Sure he’s standing there in bikini briefs and heels. And the love he’s singing about is incestuous. But then that’s part of the game. The ideas and questions that are articulated during this song are not controversial. Each verse emphasises a point. The colour of his skin. His religious beliefs. His philosophies on life and sex. All uncontroversial ideas but all counterpointed by the ironic repetition of “controversy.” It’s a satire exposing the stupidity and narrow mindedness of the press. And it’s also a plea for understanding to his fans. This is who I really am, not all that crazy shit that you read about in the magazines. I love god, I love music, I love sex and I love life. And I just wanna have a good time with you all before the party runs out.

 

 

Running time: 7:15

 

References:
Controversy (released 1981)
Prince (released 1979)
The Peach & Black Podcast
Wikipedia
Prince Vault
AZ Lyrics
Prince Lyrics (http://www.princelyrics.co.uk/search/)
Prince In Print
 
[1] http://www.riaa.com/gold-platinum/?tab_active=default-award&ar=PRINCE&ti=PRINCE

[2] http://princetext.tripod.com/i_stone81.html

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/controversy

[4] http://princetext.tripod.com/i_stone81.html

[5] Thanks to Joe Rogan for the imagery.

[6] If you haven’t already seen it go check out “Everything is a Remix” by Kirby Ferguson and you’ll know what I’m talking about it – http://everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/+

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