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 or 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 bubblegum 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.