In his review for The Very Best of Prince (2001), Rickey Wright recalls that R.E.M.’s lead guitarist, Peter Buck once referred to Prince as “one of the weirdest musicians in the Top 10.” Regardless of his success in the charts, it’s hard to argue with Buck’s assessment that Prince’s musical catalogue is more than a bit leftfield in every regard.
Yet despite this evidently apparent “weirdness”, the fact that Prince did indeed enjoy such a large degree of commercial success within the arena of popular music is remarkable to say the least. One need only look to the likes of the top ten singles, ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Raspberry Beret’ to see this evident “weirdness” lyrically realised within Prince’s work. The former implicitly articulates oedipal urges, while the latter is a psychedelic tale of lust that principally focuses on the colour of his lover’s hat. Hardly standard fare for two top ten singles in the pop music charts.
This propensity for unusual lyrical subject matter on the part of Prince, was a constant throughout his musical output. Indeed, you need only look to the likes of ‘Sister’, from his third album, Dirty Mind (1980) to see that he had always been writing songs that didn’t adhere to the boundaries imposed by popular music. While ‘Sister’ did not enjoy the commercial success of Prince’s later transgressive work, the song’s subject matter is symptomatic of the artist’s perceived and quite evident “weirdness”. The track principally details the incestuous lust the sixteen-year-old speaker feels towards his older sister and contains sexual descriptions that even now, almost forty years later, would most likely shock a large number of listeners. The explicitly sexual content of ‘Sister’ and most of Dirty Mind for that matter, ran contrary to the social conservatism of Reagan’s America in the eighties, and was a culturally transgressive topic that Prince would continue to utilise, in many cases to greater commercial success. Certainly, the top ten single ‘Little Red Corvette’, released two years after Dirty Mind, while not quite as blue as ‘Sister’, still challenged the conservative sexual orthodoxy of the day.
“Colour Me Taken’ Aback…”
However, it was not merely in the lyrical department that Prince tested the boundaries of what a commercially successful pop song could be. The sonic landscapes of Prince’s chart topping work was often as equally off-beat and “weird” as anything the Minnesotan could sing. Nowhere is Prince’s musical “weirdness” more evident than the top ten single, ‘U Got the Look’, the duet with Sheena Easton that reached number two on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song is certainly not without its share of lyrical “weirdness” either, that’s for sure, with Prince proclaiming “colour you peach and black” and the repeated declaration of that this is the “world series of love.” Neither are statements or sentiments that frequently appear within the cannon of popular music, so the track certainly reinforces Prince’s trademark, off-beat lyrical sensibilities.
It is however the musical backdrop to the “world series of love” where his musical “weirdness” truly excels. Aside from the song’s musically dissonant bridge, ‘U Got the Look’ likewise features a lead guitar performance that has more in common with the art rock leanings of Robert Fripp than anything Michael Jackson ever produced, to whom which Prince was often compared. The musical arrangement of ‘U Got the Look’ is so at odds with mainstream pop music sensibilities that the mere fact this often cacophonous track even charted, let alone reached number two upon release, is remarkable to say the least. Likewise, it most certainly lends credence to Peter Buck’s assertion that Prince was indeed “one of the weirdest musicians in the Top 10.”
Yet while, as previously noted, Prince’s lyrical abnormality can be traced back to the subject matter of Dirty Mind, and in some cases even earlier, his propensity for musical experimentation had not always been a constant feature of his work. While, the lyrical content of Dirty Mind is certainly left of field to say the least, musically it is a far more conservative affair. Much like his preceding two albums, For You (1978) and Prince (1979), Dirty Mind musically played within the confines of R&B, funk, soul, new wave and rock. Certainly fusing these disparate genres is no mean feat. On the contrary, Prince’s cross-pollination of genres is also a radical feature that characterises much of his catalogue and his successful and groundbreaking integration of synthesisers into R&B cannot be overlooked. However, it likewise cannot be denied that much of the musical content of these three albums is inherently straight-laced and radio-friendly and lacks the sonic dissonance that characterises the likes of ‘U Got the Look’ and much of his later work.
So when did Prince’s music become as “weird” as his lyrics?
“She’s His Only Son…”
To answer this question, one must look to the follow-up album to Dirty Mind, released the following year entitled Controversy (1981). While by and large Controversy was critically well received by contemporary music critics, it was generally regarded as a lesser continuation of the content of Dirty Mind. It certainly followed in the same musical vein as Dirty Mind, with its unique brand of synthesiser oriented R&B that had become known as the Minneapolis Sound, which Prince had pioneered himself. Tracks such as ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Controversy’ sit comfortably side by side with the likes of ‘Head’ and ‘Party Up’, both of which featured on Dirty Mind. So much so, that these four tracks could conceivably have been included on the same album.
However, out of the album’s eight tracks, there is one that exits the conservative stylistic wheel house that defines much of Prince’s first four studio albums. The penultimate track of Controversy entitled ‘Annie Christian’ sounded like nothing Prince had ever recorded before, yet was a portent of the musical “weirdness” that was yet to come. You need only look to the two tracks either side of ‘Annie Christian’ in the album’s running order to see it’s abnormality both within the musical context of the album and the content of those four initial studio releases. ‘Annie Christian’ is preceded by the traditional electro-funk work out of ‘Let’s Work’ and it is followed by the sexually infused rockabilly number entitled ‘Jack U Off’ both of which only serve to further highlight just how radically different ‘Annie Christian’ is when compared to much of the musical content of Controversy.
One of the initially striking and unique features of ‘Annie Christian’ is it’s quite evident use of a drum machine to create the track’s rhythm pattern. Prince would be no stranger to drum machines in the years that followed the release of Controversy and would utilise synthesised rhythm patterns to great and chart-topping effect, as in the case of ‘When Doves Cry.’ It is certainly conceivable that he likewise used drum machines elsewhere on Controversy and Dirty Mind as opposed to real percussive accompaniment. But if this is indeed the case, their synthetic nature is nowhere near as blatantly apparent as it is in ‘Annie Christian.’
Likewise the track’s distinct use of synthesisers is in stark contrast to the rest of the album. Throughout much of Dirty Mind and Controversy the Minneapolis Sound that characterised those albums had generally utilised synthesisers to accompany the musical structures they found themselves in, often finding themselves taking the place of a bass guitar or a string orchestra. In ‘Annie Christian’ however, these synthetic instruments are used to a strikingly different effect.
The track opens with a repeated harsh, pulsating synth sound that ebbs and flows in volume as it fades away, resting on top of the track’s synthetic drum beat. It does not serve to reinforce any rhythm or establish the track’s musical key. In all respects it is arbitrary and aimless and is merely interested in exploring the texture of such a sound as opposed to its melodic capability. The same can be said of the repeated bright and descending synth flourish that follow this introduction, and similarly only serves as a signal to the listener that if they’re expecting this track to be anything like ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ or ‘Uptown’, they are gravely mistaken.
Following this seemingly aimless opening section, the musical sequence of the verse begins and it is equally as off-beat as the synthetic textures that open the song. Prince proclaims “Annie Christian wanted to be number one”, above a musical chord that upon the utterance of the next line “But her kingdom never comes” shifts to another chord. Yet this second chord does not melodically compliment the first. It is jarring and dissonant and merely serves to reinforce the peculiar musical territory the listener has found themselves in. ‘Annie Christian’ continues in this somewhat dissonant vein until its conclusion, which sees the return of the razor-sharp synth sound that characterises the track’s opening, and brings the song to an equally dissonant conclusion.
It is also interesting the note Prince’s vocal performance throughout this abnormal composition. His lyrics are not so much sung, as they are chanted in a spoken word fashion, which is another peculiar characteristic of the penultimate track of Controversy, and separates it from the predominantly falsetto melodic vocal performances on his first four albums. However, ‘Annie Christian’ does adhere to the aforementioned established quirkiness of Prince’s lyrical sensibilities, with the chorus containing the line “I’ll live my life in taxi cabs”, which is on the surface somewhat confounding to say the least but also typically Prince.
“Art Official Age In the Future…”
By and large ‘Annie Christian’ is a song that only the most devout of Prince fans would know, but it is hard not to see its artistic influence exerted upon his following work. Certainly, ‘Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)’, featured on the critically acclaimed double album 1999 (1982), follows in the same musically experimental vein as ‘Annie Christian’. The track likewise utilises dissonant synthesiser sounds, but to greater symbolic effect, the dissonance reflecting the lack of understanding the track’s subtitle articulates, “Does Not Compute.” Much like a computer, the male speaker cannot understand the illogical actions of his lover, and this cognitive confusion is reflected in the dissonant synthesiser flourish that repeats throughout the song.
The musically experimental aesthetic of ‘Annie Christian’ can be continued to be traced through Purple Rain (1984), particularly in the reversed vocals and cacophony of ‘Darling Nikki’ and the dissonant closing orchestra that draws the album’s title track to a close. Its DNA can similarly be found in the arbitrary orchestral stabs of ‘It’ which features on Sign ‘O’ the Times (1987) and can even be said to exert an influence on the art pop aesthetic of Art Official Age (2014), one of Prince’s final studio releases.
Whether ‘Annie Christian’ is a successful attempt on the part of Prince at musical experimentation, is certainly up for debate. But it certainly prefigures his forays into that arena further down the line in his musical career, to greater critical and commercial success. Likewise it is hard to find an earlier example within his discography that exemplifies all the off-beat stylistics features that would define much of his later work than ‘Annie Christian.’ Prince had produced nothing like ‘Annie Christian’ before, yet it served as a template for much of what he produced since. One of the weirdest musicians in the Top 10 indeed.