All Is Vanity: Part 1


In Memoriam


Denise Matthews—aka Vanity—died this week, at the age of fifty-seven. In memoriam, we’re sharing this ’06 exchange from the late, lamented Moistworks, the music blog founded by James Morris and more or less edited by Alex Abramovich. 

From: Alex Abramovich
To: Emily Barton
Date: 6/1/2006
Subject:  Hello, Nasty

Dear Emily,

A few days ago, I was afraid “Nasty Girl” would buckle under the weight of our critical faculties. Today, I’m wondering if I’m up to the existential challenge. I’m glad you’re along for the ride. 

Let’s start with the bare facts: The first of Prince’s many side projects, Vanity 6 was made up of Prince’s high school girlfriend, his wardrobe supervisor, and a chiseled nude model named Denise Matthews (no relation to Moistworks’s own, chiseled Megan Matthews). It was a concept band, in that Prince envisioned a group dressed in lingerie, performing the lewdest songs imaginable. (Bonus Facts: Prince wanted to name the group the Hookers, and suggested that Matthews—the “Vanity” in Vanity 6—go by the stage name Vagina. According to Wikipedia, “the 6 represented the group’s breast count.” Nice one, Prince!)

According to the credits, “Nasty Girl” was written by Vanity herself (the music was performed by the Time). But it’s likely that Prince played no small role in its composition, and this makes “Nasty Girl” especially odd, because the song’s real subject seems to have something to do with imaginative projection: a girl, who calls herself a “mystery girl,” who refuses to give her name, who’s “living in a fantasy,” who’s repeatedly asking her prospective lover if he imagines her to be “a nasty girl.” This is the kind of question that once it’s posed, there’s only one way to answer it, and you’d better wear a condom.

As if to prove the point, Vanity gets into some rather bizarre specifics (i.e., she’s “looking for a man who’ll do it anywhere / Even on my limousine floor”—if I’m remembering No Way Out correctly, isn’t “doing it” pretty much what limousine floors are for?) Also, did I mention that Vanity has a thing for sailors? For her, it’s as if “water on the brain” is a turn-on. She must have missed fleet week, though, because it’s “been a while” since she “had a man who did it real good.” And so: “Whip it out / Whip it out,” and the strange (non)specificity of “seven inches or more,” and the weird (non)entendre of “Give me something I can croon to / Catch my drift?” 

Emily, this is a weird song.

Weird, too, is Vanity’s idea of what a nasty girl might be: I don’t think she means “nasty” as in “yellow teeth, and a cha-cha that smells like a hot day in Chinatown.” But neither does she mean “nasty” in a totally funky get-down-on-the-get-down (preferably on my limousine floor) sort of way—and not just because (a.) whorish Madonnas are sexier than pure-hearted prostitutes, and (b.) the nastiest girls often turn out to be librarians on vacation. In fact, the more I think about the nasty girl under discussion, the safer she comes to seem. There’s so much distancing involved—the mask, the mystery girl, Vanity channeling a Prince who’s imagining what it’s like to be a woman imagining a man imagining her as a nasty girl—that, dirty-minded or not, Vanity might as well be wearing a chastity belt.

I’m looking forward to getting into all of this (not to mention the video) with you. But before signing off, a few more things about Vanity, nee Matthews, who (cue the puritanism) ended up addicted to crack, suffered a stroke, a heart attack, kidney damage, and the (temporary) loss of her sight and hearing, before (I’m reading from her Web site here) finding Jesus:

Prior to finding my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I lived in a bottomless pit playground of cocaine addiction…. I’d inhaled enough rock that you could light me up, smoke me, and stick me in the nearest cold grave. Sinking down into deep, deep depression, I camouflaged my pain with even more makeup and a fake smile.

These days, Vanity appears in public as The Evangelist Denise Matthews (“Please don’t call her Vanity any more,” a fan site advises. “Vanity means nothingness, and we wouldn’t want to call her that”). But listening again, I’m beginning to wonder if Matthews didn’t write the song herself, in anticipation of the song Prince might have written for her. And so, if the camouflaged pain and fake smiles were there from day one.

Vanity, vanity …



From: Emily Barton
To: Alex Abramovich
Date: 6/1/2006
Subject: Water on the Brain

Dear Alex,

I agree with you. There’s a lot to puzzle over in this song—beginning, for me, with why, as a sixteen-year-old good-girl college freshman raised on a steady diet of “Free to Be You and Me” [MP3] by my liberal, feminist parents, I should have been obsessed with it. (Maybe I just answered my own question.) When I originally asked you about the song, I assumed I was interested purely for nostalgic reasons; but having listened to it steadily over the past few weeks, I realize it’s also a really good song, in spite or perhaps because of its many textual instabilities.

Just for starters, we are in agreement that limousine floors were made for doin’ it, but the verse as a whole may be even weirder than you’ve mentioned:

I’m lookin’ for a man to love me
Like I never been loved before
I’m lookin’ for a man that’ll do it anywhere 
Even on a limousine floor

If we leave aside the irksome “that,” Vanity is, to paraphrase, looking for someone who’ll be willing to have sex anywhere—not, as far as I know, a super-rare characteristic in a man—including the most promising locations. So, um, this is hard to come by?

Or take the next verse:

Guess I’m just used to sailors
I think they got water on the brain
I think they got more water upstairs
Than they got sugar on a candy cane 

I’m guessing that it’s not so much that she has a thing for sailors, as that most of the fellas she’s been with have been pretty dumb; so dumb, in fact, that they—well. That’s probably the same “sugar” as in Nina Simone’s magnificent “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” i.e., some lovin’; and I don’t think we have to stretch our imaginations too far to find an analog for the candy cane. These guys are dumber than they are sexy. “That’s right,” Vanity goes on,

…. Been a long time
Since I had a man that did it real good
So if you ain’t scared take it out
I’ll do it like a real live nasty girl should

(Still that blasted “that.”) So, okay: she hasn’t been satisfied with these meatheads, and if the guy she’s propositioning isn’t afraid, she’ll be happy to show him a thing or two. But why would he be afraid? And is she differentiating a real, live nasty girl from a make-believe one? And why, after all, does she pose her nastiness as a question in the chorus? Why, when she’s Vanity, for God’s sake, does she need some guy to tell her she’s a nasty girl?

I like your reading —that she’s Vanity channeling Prince imagining what it’d be like to be a woman imagining a guy imagining her as a nasty girl—but I also want to ask, Do you really think she wrote this song? Because if she didn’t, then it’s more like Prince channeling Vanity imagining Prince imagining what it’d be like to be a woman imagining a guy imagining her as a nasty girl. If we were in college, this is the point at which I’d write, “And so, as you see, the text literally deconstructs itself,” and the point at which our TF would make a little red exclamation point in the margin.

I guess the real question is, why so many layers of remove from the central problem of whether others perceive Vanity as nasty? (Both your readings of nasty have some truth in them; there may also be a smidgen of the kind of nastiness high school girls shoot in their little poison-blow-dart comments to each other. The get-down-on-the-get-down kind of nastiness is, as you say, not in actual fact quite as sexy as the “I may look like a respectable citizen but in fact I like to get down on the get down” type; and perhaps this is what Vanity recognizes when she asks her man to tell her he thinks she’s nasty. E.g., “Although I am built like a warrior goddess and am standing here in a black teddy and gloves, do you think I’m sexy?” It’s a paradox, parallel to the conundrum of finding a guy who’ll be willing to do the nasty any-old-where.) I agree with you about the camouflaged pain and fake smiles; and I also think that if Vanity really is “nothingness” as Denise the Evangelist suggests, this is not the Zen nothingness of your face before your parents were born but the vanitas vanitatum, a deeply Christian reading of the emptiness of the manifest world.

Also, have we talked about the weird little “Please, please” interlude that seems to have come straight out of an Aretha Franklin number? And have we talked about the Inaya Day dance remix? I kind of like it.

On another note, I’m eager to hear what you have to say about the video. I have a few preliminary notes on it:

1) Is it just because I’m a straight girl that I’m totally unmoved by the gyrating bum sequence?

2) What do you make of the costume change? First they’re in slutty dresses and then they’re in the aforementioned lingerie (with a tailcoat? I guess that was sexy in 1982?), but is anything changed by the change?

3) Alex, look at their hair.

Look forward to hearing back from you tomorrow.


From: Alex Abramovich
To: Emily Barton
Date: 6/1/2006 
Subject: Sugar, Sugar 

Dear Emily,

Have you heard the Bessie Smith’s gloriously vulgar recording of “Need Some Sugar In My Bowl”?  Does the fact that Nina cleaned up the lyrics, four decades down the line, say something about the wax and wane of America’s puritanical impulse? 

Speaking of same: I think you’re right to connect the two songs, but it seems to me that, despite the obvious parallels, they’re really quite different: “Sugar” is a sweet and bittersweet song; what Nina “wants” is “some sugar in my ” and “some sweetness down in my soul,” “and “some steam on my clothes.” What Vanity wants is a man who’s not too scared to “whip it out” and “do it” on “my limousine floor.” Doing without makes Nina feel “so lonely,” and “so sad,” like someone who hasn’t been held or stroked in a long time. Doing without makes Vanity aggressively—well—nasty. (It’s worth noting that, working with the same text Nina used, Bessie Smith managed to be far more explicit; is it going too far to say that, for her, “sugar in my bowl” amounts to “ejaculate in my vaginal canal”?) In any case, in lieu of Vanity’s nastiness, we have Nina’s vulnerability. And in lieu of Vanity’s “please,” we’ve got the tension between Nina’s carefully-worded “I could stand some loving” and almost-desperate “oh so bad!” The songs have sultriness in common, but Nina’s seems to contain more erotic possibilities. Why is that?

My guess is it’s because Vanity’s relations might just be of power. And here’s where things get really interesting: I hedged my bets a bit, in regards to whether or not Prince ghostwrote “Nasty Girl,” because I didn’t want to assume the obvious: that Prince ghostwrote “Nasty Girl.” That he might have done so is interesting—as you say, “Nasty Girl” would then amount to “Prince channeling Vanity imagining Prince imagining what it’d be like to be a woman imagining a guy imagining her as a nasty girl.” But given the time Vanity spent in Prince’s company (and Prince’s bed), it seems possible that she could have anticipated the song he might have written—channeled him channeling her—internalized the hyper-sexual fantasies he was projecting onto her (remember the Hookers, or Prince’s original idea for Vanity’s stage name?)—then turned around and asked/begged us to project those same fantasies back onto her. This isn’t sex; it’s role-playing, and while it might all be benign (it isn’t, but let’s say that it is), it’s still pretty manipulative. In fact, you might say that control, no less than sex, is what “Nasty Girl” is really all about.

You wrote: “I guess the real question is, why so many layers of remove from the central problem of whether others perceive Vanity as nasty?” Perhaps it’s that, for Vanity—a beautiful woman, a nude actress, a singer who performs in lingerie and tailcoat, and no stranger to the male (and let’s not forget, female) gaze—so much depends upon “the problem of whether others perceive Vanity as nasty” as to obscure whatever extra-sexual virtues Denise Matthews might possess. So much so, perhaps, that the correct answer to “Do you think I’m a nasty girl?” might just be “No, Denise, and I’m not sure your relationship with Prince is doing you much good, either.” Cue: “Free To Be You And Me.” (Is it a coincidence that the other Vanity record that comes up on Amazon is a death-metal album called Enslaved, or that a few years later, Prince magic-markered the word slave across the side of his own face? Like Malcolm said, in a slightly different context, the chickens—they will roost.) Also, did we forget to mention how funky and fuckish this song is?

Another thing that comes to mind is that great Ike & Tina Turner performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” in which Ike, who renamed and married Tina, then beat, burned, and tortured her, uses the call-and-response form to evoke the relationship a pimp might have with a prostitute. The song derives its charge, in part, from the same sado-and-just-plain-masochistic impulse that drives the Crystal’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”—which would take us another two days to work through. But cue the camouflaged pain and fake smiles, right? 

Regarding “please, please”—in his excellent book-length deconstruction of James Brown’s Live At the Apollo album, Douglas Wolk points out that Brown’s position, vis-à-vis his audience, is essentially prostrate:

“I’ll Go Crazy” is the first statement here of [Brown’s] great theme: you must not leave him. If he stops commanding your attention, the craziness that makes him yowl and moan will consume everything.

Here’s Wolk again, on the subject of Brown’s knees:

James Brown does not, as a matter of routine, perform without begging, repeatedly. Not being one for half measures, he does not beg without falling to his knees. He falls to his knees half a dozen or so times in every show: on soft wooden floors like the Apollo’s, on hard concrete stages, on carpet, on stone, on metal, on earth. Four or five shows a day, three hundred days a year, in the early years. A hundred or more shows a year, even now that he’s in his seventies. Fifty years in show business. Imagine James Brown falling to his knees for his audience tens of thousands of times, probably hundreds of thousands of times. Imagine the scar tissue, inches thick, on the knees of James Brown.

As you note, Vanity 6 is something of a warrior goddess—could her begging, then, be another clue to what’s going on in the song? Aretha’s an interesting analogy, but she seems to me to be more of a proud asserter of her own authority. Still, what does it tell us that Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, and (I’d guess) Vanity seemed to go for guys who badly misused them?

As for the video:

1) I’m afraid the ass shaking’s not doing it for me. But isn’t Vanity a striking woman?

2) The tailcoat + neglige is a classic, classy look. Is anything changed? Perhaps it’s no more complicated: the song progresses, the girl undresses. But what’s cool about this abbreviated, radio-friendly edit, is the way Vanity and/or Prince save the real filth for the end—a far better form of self-censorship than the constant bleeping you hear in today’s “clean version” slow jams.

3) I know, I know. There’s not much to this video. But, really, all that’s missing from it is Vincent Price. 

Okay, we’ve got a lot of cans open in front of us. What should we do with the worms? And, I absolutely agree—it’s vanity in the biblical sense. But then, what isn’t?

More tomorrow?

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.


Alex Abramovich is the author of Bullies: A Friendship, which will be published in March.
Emily Barton’s new novel, The Book of Esther, comes out this summer.