Mess With Your Mind: Prince Spends The ’80s Confounding Rock Critics, Tipper Gore

dangibs | August 21, 2007 10:00 am

Ed. note: Every two weeks, it seems, some magazine, TV network or blog releases its “Top 100 So-and-so music things of all time” list. Often, these rankings simply recycle the same set-in-stone music-geek beliefs that were established years ago — Pet Sounds rules, as does London Calling, etc. — but because there are often shifts in the critical canon, we’ve asked alarmingly frequent Idolator commenter (and occasional guest editor) Chris Molanphy to start keeping track of them for a column we’re calling “Canon Fodder.” In this installment, he gives us a three-fer by the greatest, sexiest artist of the ’80s: Occasionally a critic will come up with a single sentence so pithy and brash, it obliterates the rest of the review. Tim Zagat, founder of the series of restaurant guides bearing his name, still says he’ll never forget the 1994 review of hyper-romantic New York City eatery One if by Land, Two if by Sea that an anonymous restaurant-goer closed with, “If this place doesn’t get you laid, no place will.” Robert Christgau, the Dean of Rock Criticism, has made a career out of pithiness — in an era when Rolling Stone still published 1,000-word record reviews, “Xgau” would summarize an album in about 100 koan-like words. But the last sentence of his 1980 review of Prince’s third album, Dirty Mind, is so famous, so oft-quoted, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole piece was only 10 words long. Quoth the Dean: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.” What’s great about this one-liner isn’t just its prescience. (Jagger may not have gone home, but we can agree that after about 1981 or so his penis was quite tucked back.) It also expresses, to those of us who came of age long after Prince’s artistic breakthrough, the admiring gasp that greeted his arrival. And it helps us understand how this record — which for all its merits now sounds a bit dated, compressed and slight — could have seemed so shocking at the time. The mighty Prince is responsible for at least three, sometimes four canonically anointed albums. Which one you prefer says a lot about your tastes, and just a little about what you think the whole point of album canonization is: to recognize art that shifted the culture? to reflect the opinions of elites? Twenty years after Prince’s last great album, the answer for him is: both. In our first two “Canon Fodders,” we talked about acts whose legendary records predated the rock canon, which essentially came of age at the close of the ’70s, as Rolling Stone and others started taking album-enshrining seriously. One act codified the very idea of fetishizing a rock album; the others were kept alive by canonization long after they’d both had their mid-’70s moments of glory. Prince Rogers Nelson is a different animal, both massively popular and admirably weird. After two contempo-R&B albums in 1978 and 1979, he came of age right at the start of the ’80s — the decade when the rock canon began to harden and calcify, letting in only the occasional critic-approved current act. As such, the canonization of Prince’s oeuvre was a work in progress, and he could reasonably be called the first canonical rock act of the post-canon period. Some of his contemporaries (Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello) have great albums that straddle the early/pre-canon period of the ’70s as well as the ’80s; others (U2, R.E.M., Madonna, Smiths) were mid-’80s debutantes who only began to be inducted as the ’90s approached. But Prince achieved his cultural watershed at the very moment 100-album lists started to become commonplace. So even while the rock-crit establishment was rolling out the purple carpet for him, the idea of “Prince’s greatest album” became something of a moving target. That’s because Prince kept topping himself — or at least, living up to himself. From 1980 to 1988, with only a couple of hiccups (we can debate Controversy and Around the World in a Day later), Prince churned out one not-less-than-stellar album after another, with world-beating singles that saved even the weaker albums. In addition to Dirty Mind, Prince’s decade of dominance produced three records that factor into greatest-album debates — 1999 (1982), Music from the Motion Picture “Purple Rain” (1984), and Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987). Of these, 1999 is the red-headed stepchild, important to the development of Prince’s sound and beloved in some corners but weighed down by a stretch of just-okay tracks that filled up four sides of vinyl back in the day. It never tops the others in any album poll, so for our purposes we can ignore it, with honorable mention for perhaps the greatest trifecta of pop hits (“1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious”) ever to lead off a rock album. This leaves three albums vying for the title. Each has had a turn near the top of various album polls, and generally, the formula is simple: whichever album came out within five to seven years of that particular poll was considered old enough to be canon-worthy, and hence performed best. For example, in 1987’s “Top 100 Albums of the Last Twenty Years” poll, Rolling Stone‘s critics placed the six-and-change-year-old Dirty Mind all the way up in the Top 20, bookended by The Band and The Velvet Underground and Nico; Purple Rain squeaked into the top 40. Just over two years later, the RS panel flopped the two albums, ranking Purple Rain No. 2 among its “100 Greatest Albums of the ’80s,”* and knocking Dirty Mind back to No. 18. In 1994, SPIN’s Alternative Album Guide picked up the seven-year-old Sign ‘O’ the Times and ran with it, placing it in the top 25; stalwart Dirty Mind fell just outside the top 50, and Purple Rain didn’t place at all. Eventually, when Prince stopped releasing great albums, the last and longest one in the series of greats — Sign ‘O’ the Times — remained in pole position permanently. On its face, this seems improbable and maybe even lazy. Imagine if film critics collectively decided Apocalypse Now was Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece simply because it came last in his streak of great ’70s movies and is his longest film. Would that be fair to The Conversation (Coppola’s Dirty Mind) or to the first two Godfather films (his Purple Rain)? By the same logic, you’d think lovers of Prince’s greatest double album** should be seen as contrarian and marginal, like those who prefer Col. Kurtz to Don Corleone. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong: Prince’s longest great album is, still, his piece for posterity. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, because joined together Prince’s two main audiences: pop fans and geeks. Give the geeks credit: They had Prince figured out before the rest of the world caught on. Bespectacled appreciators like Christgau and his Voice peers championed Prince in 1980 not just for his rawness but for his genre promiscuity. Dirty Mind remains history’s greatest new-wave rock album disguised as an R&B album (admittedly, a small category, but think how George Clinton feels). It was also a near-total flop, charting outside the Top 40, barely going gold (it has since crossed platinum), producing no pop hits — think of it: “When You Were Mine” never charted! — and sending only the good-timey “Uptown” to R&B radio’s top five. Dirty Mind is to 1980 what, say, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor was to 2006: a “black” album with white appeal crushed by the marketplace but born to be admired by record nerds. We all know what happened to Prince next: 1999 broke down race barriers at MTV, and Purple Rain took the world by storm. With 24 weeks at No. 1, Purple Rain owned 1984 and remains behind only Thriller, Rumours and Harry Belafonte’s Calypso among single-artist albums to dominate the Billboard charts. It’s also, as massive pop albums go, virtually perfect–four smash hits (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U”), the first of which is an all-time classic; one medium hit (“Take Me with U”) that would have been the standout on any Prince album a decade later; one virtual hit (“Baby I’m a Star”) with a remarkable live sound; and one song infamous enough (“Darling Nikki”) to give a future Vice President’s wife a hobby. Even the least-known tracks, “The Beautiful Ones” and “Computer Blue” (the only two to receive no appreciable radio or MTV play), are elevated in context. On Purple Rain Prince also did Dirty Mind one better by more closely achieving a rock sound, largely by treating the Revolution as an actual band. It’s as if Prince, in 1984, anticipated that Bruce Springsteen would release his biggest album ever that same summer and decided to let his own E Street Band have an arena-sized sonic stamp. From 1984 to 1986, Prince belonged to everyone, and his sound overtook American radio, whether he was writing the hits or not. All this made him rich, powerful and influential — which meant it also left him alone. Who were his peers? His friends? By ’86, Prince had released a terrible second movie, broken up the Revolution, and holed up in Paisley Park. In short, Prince became something of a geek himself, a peerless studio rat with a lifetime’s worth of material — his 1987 opus would be a pared-down version of an intended three-record set — and a lingering sense of what America wanted to hear. Sign ‘O’ the Times was the last moment Prince would have both the ear-candy gift and the bedroom-confessional gift at the same time. It spun off three Top 10 hits, the first of his albums to do so since Purple Rain and, to date, the last. But Sign also took everything that was great about its predecessors and coalesced it all onto two monumental platters. Stark, improbable pop hits? Check: “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” Personal boudoir narratives? Check: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Great new-wave rock? Check: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Singalongs for the ladies? Check: “U Got the Look.” Unadulterated funk? Check: “Housequake.” Godly paeans? Check: “The Cross.” It even has not one but two first-rate, disc-closing slow jams in “Forever in My Life” and “Adore” (touchingly immortalized in Rob Sheffield’s book Love Is a Mix Tape). Anything you can point to on Dirty Mind, 1999 or Purple Rain, with a couple of exceptions (he’ll never do anything quite like “When Doves Cry” again; “Little Red Corvette” is too perfect), Sign ‘O’ the Times does better, as good or nearly so. But comparing songs isn’t even the point; on that score, Sign ‘O’ the Times would probably lose to the all-killer-no-filler Purple Rain. (In Rolling Stone‘s 2003 album poll, Purple actually edged out Sign, probably the result of the industry folk and pop stars participating.) What Sign has that virtually all of Prince’s other albums lack is a coherent sense of mood. Twenty years later, at a time when albums are mixed for the pitiful dynamic range of iPod earbuds, the quiet, slow-burn openings of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” or “The Cross” still sound like what they were: whispered diary entries from Prince’s loneliest room. Sure, Prince writes hits; but when you put on Sign ‘O’ the Times in the privacy of your own little room, it’s a dialogue with just you. No wonder we geeks (including our own Matos) all love it. Final note: Your guest Idolator has been a Sign ‘O’ the Times man since the summer of ’87–but Purple Rain got him through junior high and even lit up some lonely college nights. The Beautiful Ones always smash the picture. Always, every time. * Far as I’m concerned, this means Purple Rain topped the Rolling Stone ’80s poll, because they totally cheated in slotting the Clash’s late-’79 London Calling at No. 1. There’s no excuse for this–London Calling totally reads as an end-of-the-’70s record, not an augury of the sound of the ’80s. Go back.

** Resolved: not only is Sign Prince’s only great double-album, it’s one of only two great double albums of the rock era, the other being the Beatles’ White Album. Caveat: all double-vinyl albums that now fit on a single CD are no longer “double albums,” which removes from the debate Blonde on Blonde, Exile on Main Street, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Double Nickels on the Dime and Daydream Nation, as well as 1999. The only remaining double albums are those needing two CDs, and most of those are bloated–like Stevie Wonder’s overrated Songs in the Key of Life, which doesn’t hold a candle to Innervisions and which I defy anyone to enjoy in one sitting. (Don’t even talk to me about The Wall.) Go back.