Cool Song: Prince “Controversy”

I fell into a Prince rabbit hole recently, with one song (among dozens of others) continuing to get spins — “Controversy.”

The song came out in 1981, one year before I was born, so I completely missed the era in which it might have been culturally impactful; in fact, my first real awareness of Prince — as I’m sure it was for other kids my age — was in 1989, when he did the soundtrack for Batman.

Because I’m far from a Prince scholar, I’m not sure where his work on Batman ranks, whether it’s seen as a positive or a negative. His output in those years, the 80s, is truly hard to imagine, with roughly an album a year appearing like clockwork, each one distinctly different from the next.

But “Controversy” is from one of his earlier albums, when he still seemed to be more of a fan favorite than a mainstream act. With its pulsating drum beat and syrupy synthesizer line, you can tell, listening to it, that it was made more for the clubs than pop radio. It could be — as far as I’m concerned — one of the most accessible songs in his catalog. By today’s standards, it sounds contemporary as fuck.

The lyrics, too, are so ahead of their time, that to read them now, you wonder if they’re about Prince or like, Lil Nas X. “I just can’t believe all the things people say/Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” the song asks. Kind of hard to believe we’re still having the same conversations about pop stars these days. Guess it’s true that nothing ever really changes.

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Paul Cantor

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.