#princeday 2017 Part 2: “Controversy” (1981)

Prince’s image and attitude always went right along with his music. Talking to friends like Henrique today, its a bit easier to notice how obviously Prince carried on the tradition of “freaky” black American artists such as Little Richard. Especially in the early 80’s,Prince wore the clothes of a European dandy,very frilly hairstyles and lots of makeup. While this fit right into the new wave androgyny of the era, some adherents to Reagan era conservatism felt that Prince’s image and blatant lyrical sexuality would send his listeners down an alienating direction in life.

This type of attitude is nothing new against the rock world that,by 1981,Prince was positioning himself to be a part of. But Prince was at his core a funk artist too. And therefore had the same understanding James Brown and George Clinton had of what I’ll refer to as “calculated prettiness”-using wardrobe and image to showcase self control. For his part,Prince decided to record an album that addressed his observations and the perceptions of him for his fourth album. And it was introduced in a tremendous way by its opening title song called “Controversy”

A blast of high synth brass starts out the groove. Followed by a round,brittle synth bass pulse and a marching drum. That soon becomes a steady funk beat with a driving rhythm guitar/bass interaction and bass synthesizer playing the melody. That’s the basic groove of the entire song. On the choruses,the chords go up a key or so and the synths become more orchestral in nature. On two of the bridges,one of which is vocal,the drum/bass and rhythm guitar is the store of the show. On another later in the song, it reduces down more to the synth as the song fades out.

Lyrically the song progresses right along with each part of the naked,stripped down groove. Prince begins by asking the same questions of himself others ask of him: “am I straight or gay”,”was it good for you,was I all you wanted me to be”. On the first bridge,he’s suddenly reciting the Lords Prayer rather reverently. By the end,he’s chanting “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules”. Prince also sings the majority of this song in his lowest vocal registers-in particular his bass vocal end.

“Controversy”, both musically with its stripped down Minneapolis funk and lyrical self manifesto, could easily be Prince’s “theme song”. As jazz critic Gary Giddins said of Louis Armstrong once,only the great artists are given or write that song that epitomizes them so strongly. This was the very first Prince song my boyfriend Scott ever heard. Controversy would end up becoming a qualifier that would be used to describe Prince and his musical art on many occasions throughout his career. And he really set that whole thing up right here in the funkiest way possible.

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