In the 1980s, there were three pop stars who were inescapable: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince. While Madonna’s musical significance is debated to this day and Jackson’s primary talent is integrating and refining established musical styles, Prince is the one who is the true visionary, a reluctant celebrity whose challenging, sometimes insular work has made him a superstar in spite of himself. Even today, Prince’s 1980s albums sound fresh, inventive, and not at all dated. This is because Prince wasn’t following the trends of the decade—he was inventing them.
While Prince has made several groundbreaking albums, 1980’s Dirty Mind, which was only a minor commercial success, still provides the most satisfying listen. By the time of its release, Prince had already put out two albums (For You and Prince), but their eccentric R&B sound barely hinted at the bold artistic statement that Dirty Mind would make. Comprised of recordings that were originally intended to be demos, the album features sparse production straight out of post-punk, and marks one of the few instances when a funk/soul record wasn’t overproduced. In both its production and its musical content, Dirty Mind bridges the gap between funk and alternative music. Instead of fearing the changes that were taking place, Prince embraced them, not only adopting the new genre’s production values, but incorporating synthesizers into his melodies while reclaiming the power of the organic guitar-bass-drums rock sound, one which had been abandoned by many soulsters in favor of disco. In doing so, he set the stage for funk to come out of the shadows and become an important element in mainstream pop music.
The level of Prince’s accomplishment is exemplified by the track “When You Were Mine”. Most of what is great about the Dirty Mind album gels in this one song. The guitar and drums are prominent due to the bare-bones production, and Prince’s simple, frantic strumming sounds like something that would have fit in with the B-52’s. Prince also inserts a weird, wavering keyboard solo that, along with his uncomfortably high vocals, lends even more of a sexually ambiguous edge to gender-confused lines like “I used to let you wear all my clothes” and “I never was the kind to make a fuss / When he was there / Sleeping in between the two of us”. Ironically, the song remains enough of a catchy pop tune that it was covered by both Mitch Ryder and Cyndi Lauper, and even popped up during a break-up scene in “The Drew Carey Show”.
Dirty Mind marked the only time that Prince expressed his sexuality without the religious repentance that bogged down (but also complicated) later albums, but the lyrical frankness earned him considerable criticism. Some of the lyrics went beyond the implied gender-bending of “When You Were Mine” into much more taboo territory, and it was this, rather than the album’s sonic adventurousness, that got people’s attention. Four years later, when Purple Rain was ruling the charts, songs from Dirty Mind were still making tongues wag, including those of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which often mentioned “Sister” during its campaign to protect kids from “filthy” music. With lines like “My sister never made love to anyone else but me” and “Incest is everything it’s said to be”, the song was meant to be provocative, but only a prude would fail to see its humor.
To point out the most sexually explicit passages is a fruitless exercise, not only because Prince handles the topic with wit and originality, but also because they make up the minority of his lyrical concerns. So what is the main preoccupation of Dirty Mind, if not the carnal? In this critic’s opinion, it’s a celebration of the possibilities of music itself: its effectiveness as a means of exploring one’s values, and its ability to bring different kinds of people together. It may be overly simple, but Prince says it best on “Uptown”: “White, Black, Puerto Rican / Everybody just a-freakin’” and “It’s all about being free”.