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Loudspeaker: Reading Prince’s “Dirty Mind”

After early success in 1979, Prince had a real opportunity to further shoot into the musical mainstream. Though the violet-tinged musical thunderstorm of “Purple Rain” was still a few years off, Prince vaulted into the sexual stratosphere with the 1980 release of “Dirty Mind,” easily his most libidinous record. Even compared to the frank eroticism of “Controversy,” the psychedelic sexuality of “Parade” or the legendarily sexy “Purple Rain,” “Dirty Mind” is a half-hour long leer, a symphony of lewdness that celebrates sexuality in its many vestiges. It challenges borders of race, gender, sexuality and recontextualizes sex as a new lingua franca, a commonality of the human experience that transcends whatever categories society and our peers place us in. Wrapped in a leather jacket and a speedo on the cover, Prince exudes raw sexuality through the entire record. The listener is party to the filthiest parts of his dirty mind, a voyeur into an X-rated world of sex fiends, sex freaks, funkateers of all stripes and their leader — Prince Rogers Nelson himself.

“Dirty Mind” opens with its title track, a piece of magnetic and machine-like funk peppered with an organ-like synth riff. In the lyrics, Prince sets a hardcore tone for the album: “There’s something about you, baby/It happens all the time/Whenever I’m around you, baby/I get a dirty mind.” Prince’s raw sexuality is the motivating force for “Dirty Mind” and his sexual thoughts are the linchpin of his lyrics. Prince uses titillating metaphors: even in his daddy’s car, “it’s her he really wants to drive.” Being around the object of his affection drives his brain to erotic places, motifs which remain relevant even in the album’s less overtly sexual tracks.

The mechanically sexy “Dirty Mind” is followed with a sublime piece of pop music art: “When You Were Mine.” The love triangle described in the song is purely hellish, with the object of Prince’s desire not having the “decency to change the sheets” after she cheats on him. In his virtual liner notes, Prince reports he wrote the album in a hotel room in North Carolina, licking his emotional wounds after being jilted by a dear lover. On tour with Rick James that year, he was on the cusp of fame but was deeply unhappy with playing second fiddle. Though he was on the rise and had enjoyed a string of successes in both the R&B and mainstream pop worlds, he had not yet reached the apex of his fame nor had come into his own as a fully fledged pop auteur. Nevertheless, “When You Were Mine” suggests Prince’s deep emotional and musical intimacy even as a younger musician, and an ability to articulate emotional loss in a profound way.

By the time the album reaches “Uptown,” Prince is back on the scene after his breakup a few tracks earlier. The location is the commercial district of his beloved Minneapolis, a Platonic ideal of the party scene where everyone is welcome. Anyone of any gender, be they “white, Black, Puerto Rican” can dance as long as they are one of Prince’s loyal “freaks or funkateers.” But the line Prince blurs in order to dance is not simply racialized or gendered. Prince signals a welcome to the LGBT community in “Uptown.” Long dogged by rumors that he was gay due to his flamboyant dress and perceived effeminacy, Prince plays this for laughs when the woman he is pursuing asks if he’s gay. He replies, “No, are you?” and characterizes her as a “victim of society and all its games” — the same ones that demonize and divide people based on their identity, and the same ones absent in the idealized “Uptown.” Raw sexuality becomes the common language of all of humanity in “Uptown,” and at the end of the day, “It’s all about being free.”

The most controversial song on the album is undoubtedly “Head,” a five-minute falsetto ode to oral sex. A dialogue between Prince and a bride-to-be, Prince seduces her away from her groom with the title of the song, “until she’s burning up, until she gets enough and until her love is red.” The distinctive use of synths in this song, apparent at the chorus, paints a shimmeringly erotic picture with sound. The song marks the first appearance of Lisa Coleman, a frequent Prince collaborator and future member of the Revolution. She plays the bride-to-be in the song with mewling perfection, intrigued but reticent at Prince’s proposition. The overt sexuality of “Head” doubles with the fast-paced “Sister,” another controversial track that flirts with the possibility of incest. The song only lasts a minute-and-a-half, but describes a sexual encounter with an older sister figure that is the “reason for Prince’s sexuality.” The song ends abruptly as it reaches a musical end emotional peak, perhaps suggestive of being caught in a forbidden act, and the listener is left unclear if what was described occurred with a flesh-and-blood relative or a member of Prince’s chosen family of sex freaks.

The album closes with “Partyup,” similar to the opening track in its methodically sexy instrumentation. It too features a driving guitar and bass interspersed with organ-like synths. Its differences lie largely in their lyrics. Where “Dirty Mind” is suggestive of sex, “Partyup” is suggestive of defiance. In an act of “revolutionary rock and roll,” Prince declares he doesn’t want to fight “any damn war” since fighting is such a “fucking bore” in the aftermath of the reinstatement of military draft registration. It ends  with a particularly radical chant — “You’re going to have to fight your own damn war because we don’t want to fight no more.” He is a lover, not a fighter, and the unrelenting sexuality of the past 25 minutes should be enough to convince anyone of that fact. After all, neither Prince nor his dirty minded funkateers wanted to die –  they just wanted to have a “bloody good time.”

— Maxwell Fenton ’19

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