(Featured Image: Prince in the music video for “Sexuality,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me three full-length posts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversy was about more than just self-analysis and myth-building. It was also, more than any other Prince album to date, engaged with the outside world: using the artist’s increasingly well-defined persona as the basis for a distinctive–if not always coherent–worldview.

The centerpiece of this new worldview was the album’s second track, “Sexuality.” Picking up immediately after “Controversy” leaves off–scarcely a beat goes by between the former song’s final synth glissando and the ecstatic yelp with which Prince opens the latter–“Sexuality” addresses the listener with a direct call to arms. “Stand up everybody / This is your life,” the singer announces. “Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight.” His language draws deliberately on the gospel tradition: like the allegorical train in the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” “you don’t need no money”–or, indeed, clothes; you just get on board. It becomes clear that this is no conventional hymn, however, once the chorus hits: “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need / Sexuality, let your body be free.”

Like Prince’s earlier stabs at social commentary in the Dirty Mind tracks “Uptown” and “Partyup,” “Sexuality” offers a kind of generalized, non-denominational liberation through hedonism and individual self-expression. “We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race,” Prince proclaims in the second verse: another example of the naïve post-racialism he was endorsing circa 1981. The main difference this time around is the words he’s using to describe it: “I’m talking about a revolution,” he says at one point, “We gotta organize.” It’s possible that Prince drew on this radical-left rhetoric from his memories of the Way youth center in North Minneapolis; it’s also possible that it was simply something he picked up. Either way, “Sexuality” is notably more strident in its political language than his earlier work, with repeated calls for a “new breed” of leaders to “stand up” and “organize.”

This new tendency toward sloganeering was in keeping with the emergent messianism guitarist Dez Dickerson detected in Prince around this time. “He wanted a movement instead of just a band,” Dickerson later told biographer Matt Thorne. “He wanted to create that kind of mindset among the fans” (Thorne 2016). During the Controversy tour, Prince would open performances of “Uptown” with the count-off, “One, two, revolution, go!” By the release of the 1999 album in October 1982, he was even toying with naming his backing band “the Revolution”; they would be formally christened as such the following summer.

Prince’s invented political language on the back cover of Controversy; © Warner Bros.

But with his revolution still on the horizon, on “Sexuality” Prince had to settle for a somewhat muddled manifesto. “We live in a world overrun by tourists,” he intones as the song’s arrangement pares back to highlight the insistent drum machine rhythm. “Inventors of the Accu-Jack,” he adds–a reference to an inflatable male masturbation device that, in Prince’s world of unassisted orgasms, constituted a sick burn against the squares. “They look at life through a pocket camera–what, no flash again?” His grievances seem at first to be directed against the Reagan-era Moral Majority–“a bunch of double drags who teach their kids that love is bad”–but then he turns around and makes a statement with which even Jerry Falwell would be hard-pressed to disagree: “Don’t let your children watch television until they know how to read / Or else all they’ll know how to do is cuss, fight, and breed.” The remarkable sermon ends with an appeal to nurture vs. nature: “No child is bad from the beginning,” Prince contends. “They only imitate their atmosphere.” When that atmosphere consists of “tourists, alcohol and U.S. history / What’s to be expected is three minus three… absolutely nothing.”

Critics, for the most part, didn’t know what to make of these political views, an odd grab bag of indiscriminate ideological precepts from both the right and the left. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, who had been one of Dirty Mind’s early supporters, wrote that Prince’s new “socially conscious songs… spring from the mind of a rather confused young fellow” (Christgau). R. Anderson of the Minneapolis alternative newspaper Sweet Potato–later renamed City Pages–dubbed the artist “a neo-hippy” with “[c]razy-quilt pop politics” (Jones 262). Certainly, “Sexuality” does not suggest the emergence of a great political mind; but it does, at least, establish Prince as an original one. The self-coined terminology he flings around–“tourists,” “new breed,” “Annie Christian”–has a savant-like simplicity that feels somehow less jarring in a pop context than more familiar revolutionary jargon might have. Just as he had on “Partyup,” with its kindergarten-friendly metaphor of “ice cream, no cake” for the establishment’s “all lies, no truth,” on “Sexuality” Prince employs childlike naïveté as a rhetorical device.

European single art for “Sexuality”; © Warner Bros.

Whatever its lyrical merits, however, “Sexuality” represents an unmistakable advance for Prince musically. With its pounding, industrial drum machine pattern, it’s the closest thing to pure electronic music in Prince’s catalogue to date: a musical lane he was beginning to explore in greater depth with Hookers tracks like “Tick, Tick Bang,” “Make-Up,” and “Drive Me Wild.” The song’s sleek, high-tech veneer would be even more impressive if it had been recorded at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio; drummer Bobby Z, however, seems to place the song’s origin in Los Angeles  when he recalls visiting Prince at Hollywood Sound Recorders in June of 1981. “He played me ‘Sexuality’ right away,” Bobby told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He was really proud of that” (Nilsen 1999 80).

“Sexuality” also went on to have one of the more unusual afterlives in Prince’s body of work. As Matt Thorne notes, the refrain “reproduction of the new breed leader–stand up, organize” would be resurrected for the title track of 2001’s The Rainbow Children. Later, during Prince’s post-3121 Las Vegas residency, he made a half-hearted attempt to bowdlerize the song by changing its title–and hence the only thing “we ever need”–to “Spirituality.” His fans remained largely unconvinced–probably because we know that when Prince sings about sex or the spirit, these two things are really one and the same.

“Sexuality” Amazon / Spotify

6 thoughts on “Sexuality

  1. You missed another tributary of the”Sexuality” chant.

    In July I went to L.A. for a friend’s memorial concerts. Said friend was all about record collecting, so naturally, a monumental crawl to wrecka stows were de riguer! Sure, sure. I bought a ton of stuff in Amoeba, but also grabbed a fat stack of needed Prince in Soundsations Records near LAX. On the trip home from my flight east, I had about 60 miles of backroads from the airport in Greenville, SC to my home in Asheville, NC to drive and after midnight the roads were delightfully free of vehicles. The night air was cool, and I had picked two of my 60 or so purchases to listen to on the trip home. “Controversy” and “Pick A Bigger Weapon,” by The Coup.

    I had waited 37 years to finally buy a copy of “Controversy” in spite of owning 12″ promos from it from the time of its release. I was particularly eager to hear “Sexuality” for the first time since about 1984, when MTV barely played the video for the song during the “Purple Rain” blitz. The song was amazing, decades later. For me, the acme of Prince’s synthesis of funk and New Wave. It’s now my all-time favorite Prince jam! While the song is ostensibly about Prince’s need for the title activity, his focus shifts dramatically in the song to single out “tourists” who’re “double drags.” And he ultimately calls on the need for a new generation of leaders to stand up and organize, after dropping the word “revolution” for the second time since the last album’s “Partyup” [which also cited “double drags,” come to think about it].

    “Sexuality” was a killer jam not quite like anything else I’ve heard that was head-scratchingly only released as a single in Japan and Europe. I would have paid damn good money for an extended 12” single of this! As it had been 34 years since hearing the song, I had forgotten the chant of “the reproduction of a new breed of leaders; stand up, organize” that the song ended with. “Controversy” was another brief album like “Dirty Mind.” So I had time to start my next album while still en route home.

    After seeing the film “Sorry to Bother You,” The Coup jumped to the front of the queue of my musical consciousness with Boots Riley having just the sort of pointed political take on hip hop that would appeal to me a lot. That his sounds were admirably diverse and eclectic was fuel to the fire. What other hip hop albums would feature Jello Biafra on them, right? But who would have expected the track “Sho Yo Ass” ending with Riley chanting “reproduction of a new breed of leaders; stand up, organize!” Paging Carl Jung to the white courtesy phone!

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    1. What a great connection–and yes, totally missed that! I’ve been meaning to dig into the Coup’s back catalogue after seeing Sorry to Bother You earlier this year–this might be the kick in the ass I need to get around to that!


      1. You too? It’s so sad that I had never heard of The Coup until Boots Riley made that amazing film. Then I looked them up and they have been around for long years to some acclaim…that never once made contact with my eyeballs! Wha…?!

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  2. I see this song as a very early expression of a manifesto. Tourists describe people that don’t really understand the world around them as well as they think that they do. They walk through life with the narrow viewfinder of a cheap “pocket camera” not giving them a very broad understanding but see the world stereotypically. and the “eighty-nine flowers on their backs” is the stereotypical garb of tourists which hints at being conspicuous, rude, and/or out of place. Tourists can be very judgemental of those whose country or culture they have invaded but have not gained an understanding or empathy by immersing themselves in it. But I think Prince wants his listeners to understand that we are all guilty of being “tourists”. Even Prince, himself, was guilty of it at times.

    I think that the ideas of this song are some of the most important that Prince ever laid out and they carry on into the message of “Under the Cherry Moon” where Christopher and Tricky were showing Mary their world. Christopher called her world small and sheltered and she said that where they came from, Miami, was filled with people who weren’t born there and drugs which pretty much proves Christopher’s point and he punctuates that point with “wreckastow.” The reproduction of the “new breed” was going to happen with the change of the way people saw those in the world around them. The idea of this “new breed” is what, I believe, was ultimately the seed to the era of The New Power Generation which Prince welcomed his fans to in the song “Lovesexy” in 1988 and then given an anthem in/on “Graffiti Bridge” in the song “New Power Generation” which, of course, would be the name of his backing band in 1991 cemented and the album “Diamonds and Pearls.” This really was the second revolution, IMO.

    I would truly love to know what you think of these observations of this song because I see this thread that is very consistent in the tapestry of his work. Despite what has been said about the album and the movie “Graffiti Bridge,” I feel it has so much to tell us about what Prince believed and about his cultural and spiritual background. It did not make a great “big screen” movie. But it wouldn’t it make a great live action musical? Sorry, I know you are still back in 1981 but food for thought as you journey to1990. I know it is a long trip. Thanks for all of your effort in research and a place to discuss these ideas.

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    1. Definitely agree! While Prince’s political beliefs weren’t easily mapped onto a conventional spectrum, there was a surprising amount of consistency–the “New Breed” in “Sexuality” definitely feels like a dry run for the “New Power Generation” in the ’90s (and I also see parallels with the lines “We need a power structure that breeds production / Instead of jacks who vandalize” from “Dance On”).


  3. Oooh . . . . . Thanks for pointing that one out because it is a more obscure song but the thread pops up there again. Prince’s mind was still on Detroit which was where it was in 1986 when he recorded “Sign O’ the
    Times” and it went there again in 1987 when he recorded “Dance On.” We know that Detroit had a special place in Prince’s heart; a place where he and The Revolution and The Time let their hair down and interacted with their fans before Prince became huge. But it was a place where crime was escalating and had reached a crescendo in 1987. Prince never forgot the people of Detroit and others like them who were in urban communities. He, himself, was from such a place. I am being very honest when I say that this song is mind bending for me. It is not a skin-deep song. It is soul-deep. I will also say that I have sometimes found it difficult to come to grips with the fact that Prince saw himself as a messianic figure or as a preacher but I had a thought in the last half hour as I have been sitting here writing and thinking that knocked me over and I will share here. It might seem a bit far out, but “I need another piece of your ear.”

    I read a book years ago. In order for you to really get what I am talking about you will need to read the book too, but it is a quick read and quite fascinating. The book is called, “The Man Who Moved a Mountain.” The man is Bob Childress. Bob grew up on Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County, VA in the late 1800s, very isolated from the outside world and in a world of violent crime and poverty. “Cuttin’ and shootin,” was the way that people dealt with their problems. They really didn’t know anything different. It was their norm. News of violence of mountain folk was coming to the attention of those on the outside of these isolated mountain communities and the word on the street was that these people were backward barbarians. Well, these were the people that were Bob’s relatives, neighbors, and friends. The short of it is, Bob Childress became a Rock Star Preacher. When this story came to my mind, and the parallels between Bob’s life and Prince’s, it made me realize that Prince did understand that he had that sort of a calling. And to those who come from a very traditional upbringing might just look at that and give me the “side eye,” but not quite as famously as the Purple One. This book about Bob Childress sheds a whole new light on the life and person of Prince. I believe it is still in print but I know there are also used copies available. (like you have time to read more.) It is my lightbulb, but the lesson is: Preachers can become Rock Stars and Rock Stars can become Preachers, And, BTW, Bob had to “cross over” too. I think you will enjoy seeing the parallels if you decide to read it. I don’t think you will be disappointed.


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