(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.
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.
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.