Jordan v. Bird. Tupac v. Biggie. Roe v. Wade. Boston Market v. KFC. To this classic compendium of clashes we now add ... Prince v. Michael Jackson. Deified '80s icons, pop-star titans we no longer have a clue how to manufacture or approximate. All but disregarded and disgraced at one time, though Prince effected a highly suspicious but still thoroughly enjoyable '04 comeback. (What Jackson considers thoroughly enjoyable remains highly suspicious.)
But this is not Entertainment Tonight.
This is, instead, San Francisco on a rainy, stupefying Thursday evening. Someone has thrown a cooler full of ice onto Market Street, and it appears as though a handful of people have gathered to watch this ice melt. This mentality is infectious. Inside Cafe du Nord, we watch inhibitions melt as one solitary gentleman dances feverishly to Prince's "When You Were Mine."
He is utterly alone, and he utterly disregards this fact. He is wearing leather pants and an equally shiny shirt. Shaved head. Goatee. Reading glasses. An AFLAC salesman air. And jittery, ebullient, full-body moves that by turns suggest a) competence, b) euphoria, c) intoxication (possibly self-), d) line dancing, e) Napoleon Dynamite. We sit on a multitude of stools surrounding him and watch with a sort of glum awe. Perhaps we feel sorry for him. Perhaps he feels sorry for us.
DJ nights have to start somewhere, and most start like this. The good ones end with b). As will the fifth installment of Prince v. Michael, the '80s God Battle Royale orchestrated by Dave Paul, turntablist guru and Bomb Hip Hop -- record label, resurging zine, turntablist lifestyle -- impresario.
"I had originally wanted to do just a Prince party, because I used to be a Prince collector," Dave says. "But there's already people out here who do just-Prince parties. so I was like, 'Well, I can't just do another Prince party.' And I was all like, 'Well, a lot of Michael stuff is really cool to do.' And I was like, 'Well, just do a Prince v. Michael.' And then we're like, "Well, it'd be cool to add all the Prince-associated groups, and the Jackson Five, the whole Jackson family in there, too."
Clearly these ideas involve a lot of inner dialogue. But this one paid off handsomely. The first showdown took place three years ago, masterminded by Paul and fellow DJ Jeff Harris. They've thrown another hoedown roughly every six months since. Via a rough scoring system based entirely on (primarily female) crowd response, Prince scored two quick victories, but narrowly lost the next battle, and suffered a righteous ass-whuppin' in Round 4.
"Michael just tore Prince up," Dave recalls. "We had it on a Saturday night at Milk, a pretty good night to throw a party. Pretty packed. And all the girls were singin' all the lyrics to the Michael songs. Every time we dropped down the fader, everyone would be singing. And when we played 'Billie Jean,' even the guys were singing."
But it's too early tonight to replicate such a scene; first we have to lure a pack of Tontos onto the dancefloor to join the Lone Ranger. He gyrates through a few Prince extended family cuts -- the Time's "Ice Cream Castles," Wendy and Lisa's "Strung Out" -- solo. Happily, MJ's "Working Day and Night" snares a few stragglers. It's deeply moving, watching bumbly white dudes (I myself am a paragon of such) take their first reluctant steps on the dancefloor. It is not unlike watching a young fawn, nuzzled by its doting mother, stumble adorably around on all four shaky legs for the very first time. Ah, the miracle of life.
The difference, of course, is that you won't find Bambi groping some lass in a Subaru in the parking lot an hour later.
Speaking of which, "Little Red Corvette" triggers a joyful stampede; verily, this is the sexiest song ever to express concerns of sexual inadequacy. But as the crowd suddenly doubles in size with every song, every triumphant blast from His Purpleness -- "Erotic City," the underrated "My Name Is Prince" -- has its assless chaps blown off by MJ. Anything from Thriller is essentially aural napalm. Even Prince's gilded trump card, "When Doves Cry," is mercilessly sandwiched and belittled by "Beat It" and "Billie Jean."
What makes this idea doubly appealing is the impossibly weird juxtaposition of Prince and Jacko: the most ludicrously sexed-up performer in pop music history paired against, all Jesus Juice jokes aside, an absolutely asexual MJ. His songs radiate not an iota of either lust or love: merely dancefloor genius. They rely on no identifiable emotions, instead creating their own. "That's the great thing about Michael," Dave says. "His songs are so danceable. Prince's stuff is danceable, but it just doesn't have that groove."
And this is coming from a Prince man, people. This is a blowout of USC-Oklahoma proportions, only exacerbated by the supporting casts. Kitsch value aside, what does Apollonia have to say once the Jackson Five's "ABC" and Janet's "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" storm the room? Weep?
The following morning, Dave renders the verdict: "I think Prince kinda won."
ARRRRGH. He credits this highly dubious, razor-thin victory to, ironically, the very weapon that has him concerned as head of the Bomb record label: an eighteen-minute Prince megamix he snagged for free off LimeWire. "It just had all the hits, mixed really, really well," he raves.
Though he has a few comps slated for release in 2005 (in addition to relaunching the Bomb zine, dormant since the mid-'90s), Dave admits downloading has made selling physical copies of music an uphill-both-ways brawl. "I had never been on LimeWire before, and someone showed it to me, and they're like, 'Look, you just type in Prince and Megamix, and this is what comes up.' I was like, 'Wow, no wonder people don't buy music anymore.' You know?"
Yeah, whatever. MJ got jobbed. But the ongoing Prince v. Michael confrontation -- look for Round 6 in March or April -- is a battle in the loosest possible sense, and its highlights achieve a weird, elated harmony. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" brought us closest to the mothership, the a cappella chant of Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa thrillingly mashed into the Time's "Jerk Out," one of the great underrated gems from the Prince Universe. Euphoria achieved. If you can't jerk out, beat it.
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