Do Me, Baby
Ronnie, Talk to Russia
Jack U Off
Prince once said that the lesson he learned from 1980’s Dirty Mind was that he could get away with whatever he wanted as long as he was true to himself. For an artist who’d had a couple of false starts, the insight was freeing: Not only did he not have to resolve the discrepancies between his innocence and sexuality or his interest in music both Black and white, he had to embrace them. His manager at the time, Owen Husney, had said that controversy was press, a dynamic that Prince was, by 1981, well aware of: Years before the Parents Music Resource Center designed their infamous “parental advisory” warning, singles from Dirty Mind came with stickers saying the music was unsuitable for minors, and the album came with one that advised radio programmers to listen before playing.
And when it came time for 1981’s Controversy, Prince opted to lean into it. Politically, he’s never been more explicit: There are songs about religious fundamentalism (“Annie Christian”) and nuclear disarmament (“Ronnie, Talk to Russia”), as well as open questions about sexuality and race (“Controversy”). But part of his brilliance was how he kept things light—and let his most radical politics work through osmosis. “Jack U Off,” for example, is a rockabilly song about anonymous sex, but it’s also a pitch from a Good Samaritan about the prospects of a utopia where you, too, could get what you need when you need it, whether virginal, menopausal, or otherwise. And while it’s hard to misconstrue the message of “Do Me, Baby,” it’s rare to hear a man turn over his sexual agency so completely, and coo as though he likes it.
So when Prince sings about “Sexuality,” he isn’t just talking about sex as an act, but sex as a fulcrum of liberation for everyone, regardless of race, income, New Wave, R&B, or otherwise. He keeps you dancing because a moving body is a receptive body. And then, on that very song, he makes his intentions clear: “Stand up, everybody, this is your life/Let me take you to another world.” With Controversy, he extended his wings. By the time of 1999’s release a year later, he was in flight.