“Controversy” by Prince (1981)

Speaking of mission statements, here’s Prince wrapping up his worldview at the tender age of 23 in an incredibly funky seven minutes. Dance, music, sex, romance, religion and mystery. “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude. I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” The Lord’s Prayer. “Some people want to die so they can be free.” Bombs bursting in ai…oh, wait. Wrong song.

“Controversy” is the precise midpoint of punk funk. If Rick James’ “Super Freak” kicked the door down for rock and soul fusion, “Controversy” perfected the synthesis. Want icy cool synths? Check. Chicken scratch guitar that could’ve been lifted from a JBs record? Check. Prince singing in his signature falsetto and debuting his lower register? Check.

Nowadays, celebrities are fairly relatable. They’re regular people in slightly nicer clothes with (maybe?) fatter bank accounts. Internet/social media/reality television culture has removed quite a bit of the “them” and “us” dynamic that used to be essential to image building on the part of the celebrity. It’s hard to imagine who could make a song like “Controversy” in 2018 and ask those same questions to the public. When people already know your dirty draws via social media and reality shows, no one’s going to question your racial dynamic or your belief in God. Sexual orientation-still-is another story entirely.

Prince fucked with people’s perceptions of race and sex by making himself more complicated than he actually was. Hell, if he was just another freaky straight black dude with a guitar, he’d have been perceived as a light-skinned Rick James. Inventing a more complicated racial history for himself (as problematic as that is) and investing in a queer (or at least queer-friendly) aesthetic contributed greatly to his legend. Because sometimes all the musical talent in the world ain’t enough, even for the most prodigious musician of his generation.

What I’m saying is that “Controversy” is as much a song about mystique as it is about Prince, or who we thought Prince is or was, or who he wanted us to think he was. That conscious image creation (supplemented by Prince’s subtle shape-shifting and his audience’s curiosity) has as much to do with why the song is dope as the song itself.

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