‘Controversy’ is one of Prince‘s most beloved songs. Released in 1981, it is the lead single, title track and opener from his acclaimed fourth album. Showing Prince to have been ahead of his time, lyrically, the song is as dense as they come. It addresses the various aspects of speculation that overwhelmed the star at the time. It comments on his sexuality, gender, religion and racial background and explicitly discusses how St. Louis’ favourite son struggled to understand why there was so much curiosity and marvel surrounding him. Like with a lot of Prince tracks, it is a politically charged piece, masked by swirling electronica.
The album, Controversy, is widely hailed as the bridge between his forward-thinking album, Dirty Mind, and his futuristic game-changer, 1999. Released during a tumultuous time for American society in the 1980s, miraculous change in the political, social and cultural spheres was starting to flourish. Even though we think of the time as being modern, the truth remains that people of colour, women, the LGBT community, and the poor were all marginalised groups, owing to societies deeply unfair configuration.
The album was a loud, unapologetic battle cry from Prince, calling for change across all of society. This makes the album one of his most treasured and iconic. It also set a precedent for the galactic journey he would subsequently go on for the rest of his career.
The song is a brilliant reflection of the album’s sentiment. An off-kilter pop number with a foreboding undercurrent, one would wager that it is an underrated moment in Prince’s career. It has a gritty element, representing the mire that the press and audiences placed Prince in due to his androgynous appearance that shocked the white, straight, God-fearing elements of middle America. The opening lines reflect this perfectly: “Just can’t believe all the things people say (controversy)/ Am I black or white, am I straight or gay? (controversy)”.
Typically Prince, ‘Controversy’ is a kaleidoscopic piece comprised of many parts, which gives it that slightly unhinged edge. The vocals are constantly rotating between spoken word and the sung, and an oscillator is used between “I”, “you”, and “we”, printing the song’s message on your brain, like a computer chip in a robot. The song’s most memorable part is the use of The Lord’s Prayer. The way that Prince ties the holy with the sexualised line “I wish we all were nude” is a cutting rebellion against the bigoted established order, a move that was, of course, controversial. Prince expertly shines the light of modernism on the era’s oppressive social mores.
He longs for no boundaries or binaries: “I wish there were no black and white/ I wish there were no rules”. For the time, that was a massive statement. 1981 was the year Ronald Reagan came to power as the President of the US. He was notoriously a staunch conservative, and his attitude was reflected in the attitudes of the people who voted for him, much like Trump was some thirty-five years later.
Towards the end of the track, the repetition of the line really drives Prince’s intent home: “People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules.” It lingers in your brain, making you ponder where society was at during this period. It makes you think that the ’80s needs to be readdressed in the mainstream as an essentially regressive time, rather than the colourful, consumerist age of happy families that it is so often presented as.
The earworm of the bridge, “Some people want to die/ So they can be free”, alludes to the fact the societal barriers society put up was literally killing people, as life was suffocating. The genius of this line is that the sentiment is massively pertinent today, giving the song a timeless feel, and showing us that we’ve still got a long way to go.
The song features a 4/4 beat, uses a synthesised bass, that plinky guitar line and ample keyboards. Interestingly, the song also features ‘When You Were Mine’, from Dirty Mind. This really makes ‘Controversy’ a Gordian knot of a tune. A dense, important piece of work, ‘Controversy’ is as everlasting as the man who penned it. A colourfully dense yet highly juxtaposed song, it has many thematic and musical elements to the track that make it one of Prince‘s most important pieces. Always worth a revisit, 40 years on, its message is still as important as it was back then. Although society has changed markedly since 1981, some of the barriers still linger, and ‘Controversy’ is a brilliant call reminder of the constant need for progress.
Listen to ‘Controversy’, below.