Part 3 of 4
Utopias’ positive qualities [include] their illumination of the non-utopian societies from which all utopias spring. The potentiality rather than reality of America as a utopia must be emphasized.”
Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities
Continued from last month . . .
She started dancing in the streets
Girl, she's just gone mad
You know, she even made love to me?
Best night I ever had
I was not sure, but . . . was this a thing? Was it the case that, when you grew up, if you met someone who you really connected with, and who was really great, that you would cap the night by . . . having sex? Because that was not how I understood sex to work at nine. I was fairly certain that before you could even get close to sex, there would be a large amount of flowers, candy, and dates—with dinner. I already knew then that you did not have to be married to have sex, but I definitely knew that women would not let you have sex with them—if that indeed was your intention, for some reason—unless you had done extensive amounts of . . . um . . . courting, or whatever. So I was not sure what this lady was doing. But Prince injected a little gender switch here that thrilled me then and still does to this day. This was the first time I had ever heard of a woman making love to a man. Oh sure, I knew how everything worked and where everything went, but for the first time I understood that the woman could be the total sexual aggressor. And Prince did not treat this as an affront to his masculinity; he sang about it like it was a special cherry on top of a freaky dance-party sundae. That is what was so cool about him. Even at nineteen, he was thrilled with the idea of a woman rejecting the traditional masculine role and seizing the initiative in their lovemaking. Prince queered “sexual deviancy” into something free and sexual expressive and not at all harmful to anybody—before most of society even knew that that was a thing that needed to be done.
Because, make no mistake about it, the vast majority of the rules in Western society regarding sexual identity are designed to control women. They have been since the days of the transatlantic slave trade and long before. Indeed, in many places in colonial America, the predominant white male perspective of that time was that, while frowned upon, sex with slaves was accepted, even expected. White women did not have that same sort of societal laxity, however. White women who were found to have had relations with blacks could get arrested, or even banished. A black man found to have relations with a white woman could be hanged, castrated, or castrated and then hanged. Even if he was just accused. The “purity of conduct” and “purity of manners” expected of women was proof that the white male power structure was designed as much to control them as it was to control blackness.
Prince must have been influenced by the rejection of sexual mores that accompanied the Countercultural Movement of the late 1960s. Prince was twelve
years old during 1967's Summer of Love. Let me repeat that:
Prince was hitting puberty at a time when what must have
been the most beautiful demographic in the world to him,
young college females, were collectively pushing the bounds of their sexual identities. The Countercultural Movement used the nonviolent protest model of the Civil Rights Movement to reject a number of America’s state-sponsored narratives, including those addressing the Vietnam War, women, homosexuality, Native Americans, Latinos, and many more. But the Countercultural Movement worked out a protest model that could work within the confines of the state— nonviolence. Once that was done, every group that felt that their needs had been institutionally frustrated by the state utilized that model and that time to express their grievances—eventually sparking the diversity movement of the 1970s. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard used this landmark era in the history of
Western civilization to mark what he called “the postmodern
condition.” According to Lyotard, all states had a narrative about
themselves that they promoted to their citizens by canonizing some type of knowledge tradition—science, art, oral history, war, what have you. But at any time in the life of that polity, its population could decide to reject that narrative and the knowledge traditions by which they were transmitted and from which they derived value. According to Lyotard, that is what American students were doing in the 1960s. They realized that their culture’s obsession with the knowledge traditions of science and technology were not as benign as they had been led to believe, and so campus protests, although situated to protest things like war and discrimination, were actually
protesting the institutions that normalized war and racism—
state-sponsored schools and the social and moral narratives
they endorsed. I am surprised more artists born in the late 1950s were not preoccupied with sex.
I don’t usually talk to strangers but this time it's all right
She got me hot, I couldn't stop,
Good times were rolling all night
All night, yeah!
But where I come from, we don't give a damn
We do whatever we please
Ain't ‘bout no downtown, nowhere-bound, narrow-minded drag
It's all about being free
This time, Prince is more urgent about how it is Uptown. Before, he had made it clear that the people there “didn’t let” society control their actions—but we really have to chalk that up to the braggadocio allowed with poetic license, do we not? No one was going to stop society from telling young people how to act—that was why they went Uptown in the first place! In fact, in the world of the song, society has no role but to try and tell people what clothes to wear and how to wear their hair. But now, in the second chorus, the declaration is more abrasive. They don’t give a damn. You can talk and talk, but they just do not care. They are going to do what they want. Downtown, members of society shuffle along, thinking that they are getting ahead, but they are really getting nowhere. Why? Because they are slaves. Slaves to their own narrow-minded ideas of what happiness could look like; to what freedom really is.
Here, Prince conveys the sum aesthetic and ideological engine of the Countercultural Movement. Social critique was what they were doing. Although music is Prince’s protest model, he might as well be carrying a sign at Berkeley for all the difference between him and the hippie ethos. And while the vast majority of Dirty Mind has to do with sex—hence the title—this indictment of society’s hypocrisy is only a sign of things to come. On his next album, Controversy, songs like “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” offered full-throated critiques of social discrimination, religion, and global politics. He continued to tackle social issues on later albums, but seldom as explicitly. He spent the rest of his career addressing the greater societal issues that would lead to things like discrimination, or religious extremism, or thermonuclear war.