From day one, Prince exuded sexuality. There he was, shirtless, or possibly even nude (if you bought a dirty mind), for his album and record sleeve appearances on For You and Prince. Breathy, risque vocals and lyrics could be found on “Soft & Wet,” “When We’re Dancing Close & Slow,” and “Sexy Dancer.” These artistic choices all pointed towards a young man who wasn’t afraid to use sex to sell not just an image but hopefully a few records and concert tickets while he was at it. This was all just the beginning. The genesis of Prince’s sexual revolution would begin a short time after these recordings, which brings us to the 1980-1981 era of Prince, the Dirty Mind/Controversy era.
This two-year-long period was undeniably important for Prince’s career in terms of his songwriting maturity, the musical direction he’d embark on for the foreseeable future (hello Minneapolis sound), the side projects he’d mastermind (The Time, Vanity 6) as well as crafting and perfecting his live show along with the proto-Revolution (Dez, Andre, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Lisa, and Dr. Fink). The one-two punch of Dirty Mind/Controversy helped accomplish all of these things while still propelling Prince’s career forward, less as a teenage R&B phenomenon but more as a serious Artist that could do it all. While these two records were recorded a year apart, I always felt like they were equivalent to two sides of the same creativity coin. The similarities between these two seminal records in Prince’s lengthy discography are uncanny, at least to me. Let me explain how.
The Mission Statement Album Openers – “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy”
Both the Dirty Mind and Controversy albums lead off with the title track that serves a purpose that’s more than just reiterating the album title. In essence, they both serve as mission statements that establish the tone for the entire record moving forward. “Dirty Mind” paints a picture of Prince as debauched and dangerously sex-obsessed. This theme comes up again and again on songs like “Do It All Night,” “Head,” and “Sister.” There’s sad sex to be had on “When You Were Mine.” Then there’s joyous sex to be had on “Uptown.” Virtually every track on this album has some reference to or about sex, and the title track warned us of this from the get-go.
“Controversy,” on the other hand, paints a picture of Prince as a human question mark. A person whose sexuality, race, political and religious affiliations (if any) are all up for debate. A person who intends to skirt these questions for the entire record, possibly even adding more fuel to the fire instead of putting it out. Let’s look at the themes within the title track’s lyrics and find common threads for other songs on the album.
Sexual Orientation (“am I straight or gay”) – “Jack U Off”
Race (“am I black or white”) – “Sexuality”
Religion (“do I believe in God, do I believe in me”) – “Annie Christian”
Sex (“people call me rude, I wish we all were nude”) – “Do Me, Baby,” “Private Joy,” “Let’s Work”
Politics/State of the World (“some people want to die so they can be free”) – “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” “Annie Christian”
There’s no denying that Controversy was Prince’s most political record to date, and it was also the most eclectic and diverse from a musical and topical standpoint. Another controversial artistic decision? Most definitely, but I’m thankful he made that decision at such an early stage in his career when many other artists wouldn’t dare.
The Sexual Innuendo Party Song – “Do It All Night” and “Let’s Work”
These two tracks are on opposite sides of their respective records, “Do It All Night” buried smack dab in the middle of Dirty Mind’s side A and “Let’s Work” dividing up the odd-ball tracks on Controversy’s side B, but they both serve the same purpose in the same general way. They are both dance tracks that mention little else beyond having sex and a fun time in general. Both songs are upbeat, fun, and lyrically slight while also filled with innuendo about either “doing it all night” or “working all night.” No matter which song you choose to get down to, you’re going to first have fun, and then you’re going to be exhausted when “it’s” done.
The Ballad That Ends Side A – “Gotta Broken Heart Again” and “Do Me, Baby”
Prince chooses to end side A on both albums with a ballad. Honestly, that’s about the only thing these two songs have in common. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” is a mournful breakup ballad that’s over in a blink of an eye. “Do Me, Baby” is a sexy slow-jam extraordinaire that is epic in scope and never seems to end. Both songs have a musical denouement that comes in after you think the song is already over. The clang of what may be the piano cover (or a microphone, a door, or even a gunshot) marks the end of “Gotta Broken Heart.” At the same time, Prince extends the length of “Do Me, Baby” with a lumbering synth chord that belongs more in a Stanley Kubrick film score than at the end of a sexy-time ballad where Prince moans, groans, and audibly orgasms into the mic.
The Sex Song Using Questionable Terminology – “Head” and “Jack U Off”
If you like your Prince raunchy and irreverent, then these two side B songs are ones you can really get behind. Both tracks use the lyrics to tell stories of sexual gratification beyond the traditional puritanical means. They also utilize sexual terminology in a manner that isn’t typical. The title of “Head,” when used colloquially, refers to performing oral sex. This version of the word “head” is most often used to describe oral sex performed on a man, but it can and has been used to describe oral sex on a woman as well. For the song of the same name, Prince uses the term primarily to describe performing oral sex on a woman (the bride) for the majority of the song but flips it around during a plot twist at the song’s conclusion.
While giving head may be used somewhat infrequently to describe performing oral sex on a woman, the term “jack-off” is virtually never used to describe the manual stimulation of a woman to orgasm. This was and continues to be a very male-oriented term for masturbation. Leave it to Prince to completely flip this phrase on its end in an attempt to, either naively or shrewdly, re-purpose its use. During the entire song, “Jack U Off,” Prince describes how he intends to “jack off” the song’s subject, who is mentioned as a female a couple of times in the lyrics. Suppose you don’t happen to hear the female pronouns, which are only used sparingly. In that case, your takeaway from this song might be that Prince will manually stimulate another man to orgasm, feeding into his sexual ambiguity that was so prevalent early in his career. Prince does change back the use of the term at the very end of the song, similar to what he did on “Head,” just to make it clear that being “jacked off” isn’t just for women’s pleasure. In case you were confused.
The Pop Song With An Edge – “When You Were Mine” and “Private Joy”
From a musical and song structural standpoint, both albums contain two tracks that could have easily been pop hits. Despite the clear signals that “When You Were Mine” and “Private Joy” were songs destined to become pop radio staples in an alternate universe, neither were released as singles. Why? I can’t be sure, but my guess would be the “edge” contained within both songs. “When You Were Mine” is ultimately a song about unhealthy obsession and contains imagery (“you didn’t have the decency to change the sheets”) not suited for pop radio. “Private Joy,” on the other hand, contains less graphic imagery (“you’re my little lover, orgasmatron”) but instead has a tonal undercurrent of controlling behavior if you believe the song to be about a female-turned-sex toy. If you subscribe to the theory that it’s a song about a literal sex toy, then that is another whole set of reasons for it to be inappropriate for 1981 pop radio possibly.
The Anti-War Song – “Partyup” and “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”
Prince’s cold-war nuclear fears didn’t begin with “1999”. Their birth was right here on Dirty Mind’s “Partyup,” the final track on the album. The song is funky but contains a bit of a misnomer of a song title. One might forget or completely ignore the true meaning behind the lyrics if they just focus on the music and the chorus (“party up, got to party up”). Even if you didn’t catch the “fighting war, is such a fucking bore” or “they got the draft, uh, I just laugh” lyrics, there’s no missing the final, repeated chant of “you’re gonna have to fight your own damn war, cause we don’t want to fight no more,” which hammers home the anti-war, anti-draft sentiment.
Controversy’s “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” was much less coded in its intentions. The title alone gives listeners a firm idea about what Prince is trying to convey before they even hear a single line. Then we get to the lyrics where subtlety is nowhere to be found. “Ronnie, talk to Russia before it’s too late. Before they blow up the world.” I think we can all agree that dying in a nuclear war is bad, mmkay?
The Political Song Masquerading as Something Else – “Uptown” and “Sexuality”
Prince gets political on several tracks on both Dirty Mind and Controversy, but these two songs are political in a less overt way than “Partyup” and “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.” They lure you in with titles that imply sex and partying before unleashing their true intentions. “Sexuality” begins with Prince screaming orgasmically, which along with a misleading title, attempts to inform the listener what the song will be about before Prince even begins singing. Instead of a raunchy, risque song about fucking, we get commands for new breed leaders to “stand up, organize,” as well as calls for a revolution. Not the song you were expecting, right?
“Uptown” does something nearly as clever by introducing the track as a fable about a girl from out of town that wants to know more about this strangely dressed boy she sees on the street. “Uptown” eventually evolves into a tale of a Utopian society where everyone can be themselves without fear of rejection and where all are welcome. Sure, it may physically take place in Uptown, the eclectic little Minneapolis neighborhood, but the revolution Prince demands in “Sexuality” actually started on this Dirty Mind standout track.
The What the Fuck Left Field Song – “Sister” and “Annie Christian”
The last two tracks from these albums I have yet to cover appear to have little in common outside of the sheer ballsiness required to write, perform and record them in the first place. “Sister” and “Annie Christian” are two tracks that I call the “WTF” songs on their respective albums. “Sister” is, of course, the seemingly out of nowhere song about abuse and incest sung from the victim’s perspective. At the same time, “Annie Christian’s” lyrics indicate there are plenty of victims (black children, John Lennon, President Reagan, the American voters) in this country to go around. Rarely are these songs cited as two of the best from their respective LPs. However, both have their fans, and both indeed invoke deep discussion when the lyrics are being pored over, interpreted, or possibly misinterpreted. Despite their WTF status, I think both songs are great, and what that says about me, I’ll leave for you to decide.
So hopefully, I’ve effectively made a compelling case for these albums being mirror images of each other. If Prince was a typical artist today and waited two to four years to release albums, we may not have gotten two albums with very similar styles, as we got with Dirty Mind and Controversy. In the early 80s, due to limitations of the vinyl format, albums were shorter, and artists typically released records at a much quicker pace than today. So what we got was two separate forms of expression from an artist that was mining from the same creative valley in 1980 and 1981, all the while trying to gain a fan base and establish himself as a performing force of nature on stage. He had the looks; he had the attitude, now he had the tunes that were versatile enough to appeal to audiences across multiple genres. Now, all he needed was that one big crossover hit to make himself a household name. He wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
2 thoughts on “Prince’s Sexual Revolution – Dirty Mind/Controversy Era”
Love this! When we were recording our Controversy episodes I thought this was a really smart observation… everybody kind of knows that Dirty Mind and Controversy are similar albums, but what you’ve laid out here shows that there are much deeper structural and thematic parallels than I think have been widely acknowledged.
Thanks Zach. Recording the podcast enlightened me to these connections and I felt I needed to get them documented before moving on to 1999!