Retroactive Review: Controversy (1981)

When you talk about sex, you get attention, when you talk about fucking your sister, you get controversy. Released on October 14th, 1981, Controversy went to #21 on Billboard’s Top 200 and managed to stay in the charts for 32 weeks, earning Prince a gold certification in just three months; ultimately going platinum in early ’85. It wasn’t a breakout, but it helped further develop a passionate fan base that lives on after him.

Before departing for The Dirty Mind Tour, where the band traveled across the U.S. from December 1980 until April of ’81, Prince purchased himself a new home in Chanhassen, MN. Upon returning from the tour, he had the house painted purple and began work on a new album; naturally. I cannot praise the man’s work ethic enough, as around this time it’s worth noting he was also producing for The Time under his first pseudonym, Jamie Starr, which originally debuted on Dirty Mind as the sole engineer.

Speaking of the production, it’s a slightly refined approach to the last album’s sound, which has often led to this record being labeled as “another Dirty Mind,” unfairly so. When you have a winning formula or a delicious recipe, you recognize what works and maintain consistency, because stylistically, not much has changed. Sure, the production is a little fuller, the synths are more textured due to the more spacious recording location, but perhaps The Purple One felt compelled to take the next step, as they more so border new wave than reside in the genre. “Uptown” and “When You Were Mine” best utilized the stereo space at the old Orono home studio, but nearly every song on this album ameliorates that professional sheen. If anything, it’s here where you can say “The Minneapolis Sound” is in full session. It’s not perfected, but its presence is noted upon the very first bass thump of the title track that opens this record.

“Controversy” makes it immediately obvious that Prince has plenty of time for critics, sarcastically asking, “Was it good for you, was I what you wanted me to be,” in the very first verse. Elsewhere on the title track, Prince neutralizes his critic’s concerns by monotonously repeating their oft-asked questions, forcing the listener to question if we really want the answers to something as irrelevant as “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay,” which wasn’t as easy to accomplish during a time when society was much more conservative. Aligning yourself with the “counterculture,” if you will, was a risk for pop stars back then since words like “faggot” weren’t demonized like they are today, so when a short, feminine-looking man stands in front of an overturned spring mattress with nothing but a jacket and a thong on for an album cover, I can only imagine how quickly gay panic spread in. This was best manifested when fans of The Rolling Stones pelted Prince and his band with boos and booze bottles for 25 minutes at a gig they opened for the Stones in L.A. one month before they began The Controversy Tour.

If he’s upset by the notoriety, he doesn’t reflect on it too much. Other than picking up his pitch when he asks, “When you get high, does your daddy cry,” he responds to any accusation with the safe word, “controversy”; a fair retort, considering all he’s done so far is make music. In need of a talking point, he recites the Lord’s Prayer halfway through the song, dropping his voice back down to that same monotonous drone from earlier. Later in his career, he managed to better blur the line between spirituality and sexuality, effectively merging the two for an entire generation that was raised amongst households of an increasing divorce rate, much like his own parents. Here, it’s merely an allusion, something to make people question his greater artistic vision.

“Sexuality” is a red herring of a title, as it’s actually a fairly standard pop song that doesn’t get nearly as deep into the human condition as the title would suggest. Still, with insults being flung at “tourists,” parents who “let their children watch television before they learn how to read,” and the ultimate sin, teaching those kids that “love is bad,” it’s refreshing to hear him dish criticism back out; legitimizing his world view, and giving those without a voice the chance to finally be heard amongst the conservative climate of the time. “Do Me, Baby,”1 the next track, is definitely the best slow burner of the man’s discography thus far, and I’m confident in saying it’s still one of his top two vocal performances in his entire career. After nearly five minutes of sexy falsetto come-ons over silky, spacey synths, “Do Me, Baby” diverges into dirty talk for the remaining two-and-a-half minutes, but it’s appropriate to the situation and doesn’t feel forced, even if it kind of is. Orgasmic outro or not, this is still a certified classic; give it a listen, although I’m disappointed if you haven’t already attempted to mimic one of the handful of legendary screams on the track.

It’s not until we flip the record over that fans begin to worry about Controversy‘s standing in Prince’s discography. “Private Joy” starts off side two, which as a song about a secret lover that could potentially be a person, sex toy, and never rule out the simple possibility of masturbation, directly segues into “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” a short, direct plea to Ronald Reagan, who was the then current U.S. President, effectively dating the song, but not the concern. Heavy guitar feedback deconstructs “Private Joy,” before eventually reassembling as the next track, but other than that, there’s obviously no correlation between the two songs. Certain fans and critics alike have derided Controversy‘s cohesion, contrasting it to the tight, well-paced Dirty Mind. That’s where I argue it’s not hard to create a theme when your subject matter is limited to fucking.

The tone shifts in so many directions, as after criticizing Reagan’s hyper-masculine, “tough on the Soviets” approach, comes “Let’s Work,” a dance hit and another Prince classic, but then after that is the hilariously under produced, very left field, and covertly political “Annie Christian”; cohesion was never promised to us. Subtlety was only in the technicalities of Prince’s craft, the result of relentless musical training by his jazz pianist father. If there ever was supposed to be an arching theme to this album, other than, “You liked that last one? No? Yes? Here’s more,” then someone please enlighten me. It is still acceptable to enjoy an album as a collection of songs, especially when the highlights on this album are just so damn enjoyable you can’t help but laugh and live a little. We can, and should, appreciate musicians who put out content for the sake of content, provided they still employ that little thing called quality control.

I cannot abstain from criticism however, because I do need to single “Annie Christian” out. Erupting through the messy mix of twirling synths, offbeat sound effects, and heavily compressed quiet snares is that monotonous tone once more, but this time Prince sticks to a spoken word style where he advocates for gun control, all under the guise of the metaphorical actions of a promiscuous drifter of a woman, who’s also been interpreted as the symbolization of the Devil to other listeners. However you feel about the man’s politics, which have been somewhat established by this album, the song simply sounds too amateurish for my liking, and I will also succumb to popular opinion and agree that the disconnect from the end of the wonderfully produced banger “Let’s Work,” to the beginning of this pseudo lo-fi allegory is jarring; although I do appreciate his attempt. Readers may point out my hypocrisy in both defending the inconsistencies and agreeing with the criticism, and what’s fair is fair, but if the song had been done better, I wouldn’t have to meet them halfway.

Bobby Z., Dr. Fink, and Lisa all assist on the rockabilly synth album closer, “Jack U Off,” the first time Prince switched to his signature spelling style, or “texting speech,” for lack of a better word; if you want to give credit where it’s due. The lyrics are flat-out hilarious, and the music is a perfect blend of multiple genres, really giving you a taste of what was to come for the Minneapolis sound, but for now, it’s with the utmost importance that people enjoy a little mutual masturbation, because foreplay is important, but also because he might get more people talking if he titled the song that. It’s still a business people, which is why I’d like to point out this album was frantically redubbed, mixed, and mastered in a 10-day span from 8/14/1981-8/23/1981 at Sunset Sound’s Studio 3, where on August 16th, 1981, after two days of mixing and other production work, he found time to create “Private Joy,” tacking it onto the album last-minute, but it’s noteworthy as the first time a drum machine appears on a Prince track; specifically the Linn LM-1, which became the predominant drum rhythm of the 1980s. You tell me how it turned out2.

For as often as Controversy is remembered as simply an extension of Dirty Mind, it surprisingly holds its own, and even has more than its fair share of moments that outshine that highly touted cohesion of the previous record. Many a fan can point at that black-and-white, pantie-clad Prince cover and declare it a classic, but the most I’ve ever seen about this album was that it was “solid,” but how can an album with “Do Me, Baby,” “Private Joy,” “Let’s Work,” and “Controversy” just be solid? Musicians aren’t afforded the luxury of extended careers, and the beauty of Controversy is how the man capped off a miniature era of himself with some of the best songs he had done up to that point, in a way that propped himself up for the mainstream to grab hold of him. It was the last time he was just another musician, because we found out the talking points are endless.

Editor’s Notes

  1. I am unsure how Prince was able to take the credit for writing the lyrics, since the original version of the song was tracked in early ’79, with André Cymone singing lead, with lyrics he had written. Whatever the case is, this version is slightly reworked, so maybe they came to an agreement.
  2. If the answer is anything other than a genuinely excited “amazing,” we can’t be friends.

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