On Prince’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
Prince died a week ago. I’m really bummed about it. I’ve had some really good friends rave about how life-changing his shows are, and I kept convincing myself that I’d actually go to one. That can’t happen anymore, and it reminds me to take advantage of what exists in the now as much as I can.
What I have now is his entire discography, pulled together from various sources since I started listening to Prince regularly in my adult life. This past week I’ve been listening almost exclusively to all the Prince music I’ve collected, while also occasionally reading the reflective writing that has been published about the Artist. Much of that writing has been focused around his early-era, groundbreaking synth pop work: Purple Rain, working with The Revolution, the song “1999”. An occasional word about his tenuous relationship Warner Bros. Records. This great piece about the underrated & sometimes bizarre 1981 release Controversy.
I want to talk about one Prince song in particular that fundamentally changed how I think about recorded music: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
I didn’t like Purple Rain the first time I heard it in full. That was back in 2009 or so. It was so 80s. So many synth sounds. It didn’t really hit me that “When Doves Cry” had no bassline, and what that meant for music at the time, until I read about it in some retrospective a year or two later.
The album that sucked me into the Artist’s oeuvre was instead Sign O’ The Times, which a close friend of mine recommended in 2010 or so. It’s also considered one of his classics, but it’s a weird one: it’s a double album, and while all of Prince’s albums meld all sorts of genres together, this one frequently put wildly contrasting material against itself, back-to-back, almost forcing the listener to fundamentally change listening habits every few minutes. Take “Slow Love” and “Hot Thing,” both on disc 1 - the former is a great albeit typical sexy Prince slow jam, the latter almost a new standard for extreme pop minimalism. The entire first two minutes of “Hot Thing” pretty much centers around F# and a drum machine and don’t change until a bizarre (for Prince) sax solo and frenetic scat-like vocals dominate the mix.
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” sits at the end of the first side of disc 1 of Sign O’ The Times, as sort of an ominous closer to a side full of likely hits. The title track was an actual hit; “Play In The Sunshine” is one of the most uplifting and energetic songs released in the 80s; “Housequake” is, despite its strange pitch-shifted lead vocal, an undeniably funky party jam. “Dorothy Parker” almost serves as the hangover after the housequake - it’s barely a ballad, with its frenetic beats and brisk tempo, but it paints a hazy, bleak picture of Prince’s after-party vulnerability.
Susan Rogers, Prince’s sound engineer during this period, recalled in a wonderfully detailed interview that a new recording console at Paisley Park (Prince’s recording studio complex) was not wired up properly when he impulsively decided to begin recording “Dorothy Parker”, and noticed that everything he recorded was coming out dull - no high end, no typical sheen. Prince noticed instantly, but decided he loved it given the fact that he conceived the whole song in a dream, and the dull sound complemented that dream-like quality of the lyrics he wrote.
How does the dream begin? Fuzzy and abruptly, as many do. “Dorothy Parker,” the recording, kicks off instantly with a sped-up drum fill, then silence, then an ambiguous 7th chord that takes a few seconds to resolve to E minor. In fact, every section of the song begins in suspension - when it’s not pivoting to a different tonal space entirely, Prince relies on A7s and F9s to leave you needing resolution, which comes eventually and is often paired with that abrupt drum fill again.
What I love about the “Dorothy Parker” recording is how dirty it sounds throughout. Not dirty in the typically-sexy way that Prince usually injects into all his work - but tarnished, ugly, weak, in repair. The 3 drum machine rhythms that drive the song forward constantly interrupt each other; the bass is hard to identify as synthesized or performed; the chords performed through a weak-sounding tremolo. Every element of the music sounds like it’s falling apart, pushing up against each other, beating itself up left and right, and Prince is trying to corral all the pieces together via his story to tell.
The story, by the way, is also brilliantly ugly in its detail: Dorothy was a waitress on the promenade, working the night shift for a lotta tips. She hooks up with Prince in the form of a shared bath after ordering a fruit cocktail (who does that?) because he ain’t too hungry. There are numerous references to clothes being wet (which is uncomfortable for anyone), keeping his pants on (almost a first for Prince), a violent room. In the climax Dorothy comforts the Artist with Joni Mitchell so he can return to said room. It’s a song about vulnerability in every respect: being uncomfortable, revealing yourself, letting someone in. That’s all a stumbling mess most of the time in reality - not unlike this song’s rhythm section - it takes a lot to say “cool” to a new face, and it’s weirdly specific to ask to keep your pants on in a presumably sexual encounter. Perhaps this was Prince telling us that he wasn’t this perfect sexual being he portrayed in the rest of his material. Who knows.
Prince apparently didn’t know at the time he wrote “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” that she was also a writer; to me, that discrepancy only adds to the confusing dream the song puts forth. Are these the same women? Is Dorothy a waitress who moonlights as a writer? Does she become a writer after being inspired by the Artist’s violent room experience? Who is this girl, really? In the way that Breaking Bad fans clamored to learn more about the ugly, tragic story of Walter White, I get wrapped up in the story of Prince and Dorothy every time I play this track. If this song taught me anything, it’s that a song does not need to sound polished in order to be great.
The production value (or lack thereof?) gives the song its identity, no doubt. Of course, it’s not as easy to replicate that sound in a live setting - while I hadn’t seen Prince perform live during his life, I’ve seen only one video of him performing “Dorothy Parker” with his band. I think it was on the Arsenio Hall show.
In the live setting, the song transforms into a Latin-infused mid-tempo R&B jam; a salsa-esque saxophone hook brings a sense of direction more than anything in the recording. As great as this live performance is, the emotional center of the song is fundamentally different than its recorded counterpart. Dorothy is still a waitress, but Prince talks to her with a more confident strut.
Perhaps my own social anxiety is why I identify with the recorded “Dorothy Parker” so much; I would never approach someone with that confidence in public. The bleakness of the recording resembles the murky reality of meeting new people: everyone has their baggage, and it’s really uncomfortable and sometimes requires a vulnerability you’re not used to bearing. That vulnerability is lost in most popular music. Some artists might explore it in their lyrics, but there are few examples where the music and its production take the listener to a place beyond the words themselves. Few examples in pop are this ugly.
Let’s hope for more songs like “Dorothy Parker.”Posted on May 3, 2016