Prince Creates His Utopia With ‘Uptown': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
“Uptown” described Prince’s idea of utopia. Reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart and bubbling under the Hot 100, the funk/rock hybrid was the first single released from Prince’s third album, Dirty Mind, and launched a volley of lead singles (including 1981’s “Controversy” and 1982’s “1999”) that laid down Prince’s general ethos.
It was recorded in the spring of 1980 at the artist’s home studio in Minneapolis. True to form, “Uptown” was written, produced and performed completely by Prince, even though former guitarist Dez Dickerson suggested in his autobiography that “Uptown” originated as a bass line devised by then-band member and Prince’s best friend Andre Cymone (who has never commented on the record about his involvement with the song).
Lyrically, Prince recalls a woman who chances upon him while walking down the streets and then asks Prince if he’s gay. He answers “no” (Prince circa 1980 certainly didn’t emit an immediately heterosexual vibe to most folks) and suggests that her close-mindedness is because she’s “a victim of society.” He proceeds to take her Uptown, where she sees that there’s fun to be had by “Black, white, Puerto Rican / Everybody just a-freakin’.” Then, naturally, they have sex.
It’s believed that the song was written about the Uptown section of Minneapolis, a popular nightlife and cultural district which, despite its name, is located in the southwestern part of the city. But Prince remained typically coy on its meaning. In a 1985 interview with Detroit DJ The Electrifying Mojo, he suggested that it was a metaphor for his vision of the city.
“[Growing up in Minneapolis was] pretty different,” he said. “Uh, kinda sad, to be exact. (laughs) I mean, the radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out….I was gonna have to get somethin’ together. Which is what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown. That consisted of a lot of bike riding nude, but ya know…it worked.”
The video for “Uptown” video is also quite memorable. In the energetic clip, Prince and his band perform in front of a deliberately diverse concert crowd. Prince’s outfit of trench coat and leg warmers should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen the cover of the Dirty Mind album, although the video’s best performance might be given by keyboardist Matt Fink, who debuts his “Dr. Fink” getup of hospital scrubs and sunglasses, and gesticulates in robotic fashion while playing his instrument.
Prince certainly held the song’s ethos to heart, using it occasionally as a show opener and featuring it in his set lists well into the 21st century. Perhaps the best indication of the love Prince’s fans had for “Uptown” as a song and a worldview is the fact that it provided a name for a long-running and much beloved Prince fanzine.
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