On Episode 27 of the Press Rewind – Prince Lyrics Podcast, Karen Shedrick & I kick off the Controversy album by discussing the myriad of themes Prince addresses in this classic title track. Themes not only meant for this one particular song, but themes that permeated the entire album.
“I just can’t believe all the things people say.”
Prince’s continued growth as an artist is on full display with the title track to his fourth album. “Controversy” leads off with a dirty synth line combined with the thumping drum machine beat, not unlike how “Dirty Mind” kicked off his last album. It sets the tone for the entire Controversy album by acting as a mission statement and intro to the record’s content, just like “Dirty Mind” did for that album. Prince is taking everything around him a bit more seriously this time around. “Partyup” was an excellent segue into this album’s release by making a political statement as Dirty Mind’s final track.
“Controversy” is known for several things. One is the groove. Damn, that groove is impossible to ignore or deny. Two, it’s the song that asks all the questions listeners either thought themselves (“Am I straight or gay?”) or maybe never even considered until he asked the question here (Am I black or white?”) Three, it’s the song where he recites the entire Lord’s Prayer in the middle. If you don’t know “Controversy” as one of these things, then you’ve probably never heard this song before.
While he was initially positioned as a Black artist for R&B radio, the success of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” showed a crossover appeal was possible. However, at some point, Prince decided that he wanted to reach the largest audience possible, and courting the white audience through pop radio would be his greatest chance. Was the line “Am I black or white?” a nod to the poorly kept secret that radio was segregated at the time, and Prince wanted to bust through those racial barriers? Asking this question about his race in the song may have planted a thought in the minds of radio programmers that maybe, just maybe, Prince was somehow now “safe” for pop radio because of his self-perceived racial ambiguity?
“Do you get high? Does your daddy cry?”
After getting through the questions Prince asks about himself, he turns the questions back onto us and onto society while also discussing how we’re all dealing with our controversial topics in our lives. Even if sexuality and race aren’t precisely the topics we’re personally dealing with, there must be examples in our own lives we could interject into the song to help apply the themes. I think this section of lyrics is meant to introduce less Prince-specific questions and open up the dialogue.
“Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?”
Prince hadn’t discussed his religious beliefs through song much (ever?) before “Controversy.” The inclusion of this line with the addition of the Lord’s Prayer certainly gave listeners an idea that Prince had spirituality inside him. Either that, or he was using religion to subvert the expectations people had for him on the heels of such a sexually forward previous album. Even the Lord’s Prayer’s inclusion in the middle of a pop-funk song from an artist that dances around in his underwear and sings about incest was controversial. Blasphemous even, depending on your beliefs. This inclusion was our first clue that spirituality was essential to Prince and our first real introduction to the sacred and profane narrative. A narrative which he would follow and challenge throughout his career.
The goal of each episode of Press Rewind is to:
- Take a track by track look at the lyrical content of Prince’s discography
- Discuss my own interpretation of each song’s lyrics along with any guest I may have
- If submitted, discuss listener’s interpretations of each song’s lyrics
Thank you for joining me on this journey through Prince’s catalog!