Jean Cocteau once proclaimed: "The art of audacity consists of knowing how far one may go too far." By that standard, Prince should get an Oscar for audacity.
The record industry's most adventuresome, prolific and downright nutty pop provocateur has done it again, stirring up a tempest of debate over his new "Lovesexy" album. Actually it's not the album that has sent record distributors into a dither, but the album cover , which displays Prince in the nude, hand across his heart, languidly stretched out on a bed of purple irises and white orchids.
That's right-- in the nude.
Don't worry, there's nothing X-rated about the photo, shot by top video director Jean Baptiste-Mondino. In fact, the photo most closely resembles the kind of 1940s-era Hollywood glamor poses made famous by photographer George Hurrell.
But today's increasingly conservative retail chains are split over how to handle the album.
According to Warner Bros. Records (Prince's distributor), at least two key chain stores, Wal-Mart and K mart, have refused to stock the album. Warners sources said that at least one major wholesale distributor, the Handleman Co., which supplies stores like Wal-Mart and K mart, isn't handling the album either.
David Lieberman, chairman of Lieberman Enterprises, one of the country's largest wholesalers, had more bad news for Warners. He told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Wednesday: "I'd say 75% to 90% of our customers are going to take a pass on (the album) because they find it objectionable."
"There's definitely been some resistance, but it's not been massive--it's not as if there's an organized boycott," acknowledged Warners vice president Bob Merlis, who said the label shipped 800,000 copies of the album last week. "We may lose some sales here and there--if K mart is the only place where you buy records, then maybe you won't buy the Prince album. But we've decided this will be the only cover. We aren't going to do another version."
(Capitol Records, faced with similar retailer complaints over the cover of the new Poison album, recently chose to manufacture a second--less suggestive--cover).
A Warners source said the decision to stick with the original Prince cover came from the top. "(Warners chief Mo Ostin) feels this is Prince's artistic vision and we'll go with it and take our lumps if we have to," the label source said. "Mo has always believed we should stick up for our artists and not tamper with their work."
Most record store chains say they have no problems with the album. Local chains like Wherehouse and Music-Plus report that the album is in stock--and selling well, no doubt aided by the hubbub over the cover.
Russ Solomon, owner of the Tower Records chain, said he couldn't remember ever yanking an album out of his stores. "Who cares if he's nude?" Solomon said. "We don't really give a damn. We'll display anything. I can't imagine any record store in California having a problem with something so silly."
Solomon obviously hadn't been in touch with Musicland Corp., the Minneapolis-based company that runs the Sam Goody's chain here.
Staffers here said that stores were carrying "Lovesexy," but refusing to display the album. "We've got the cassette and CD versions in the normal racks, but we've been told to put the albums behind the counter," said one local clerk. "If you want one, you have to ask for it--they can't be displayed in the store. I don't know what the company's trip is--I've seen a lot more risque album covers than this one."
Musicland's executives refused to return calls or comment on its policy.
Warners agrees that the stores' reaction seems overblown. "If that were Cher posing on the cover, people would say, 'Wow! Isn't she a riot!' and that would be the end of it," said Merlis. "But because it's a guy on the cover--and the guy is Prince--people are getting excited."
Merlis added that one other key institution has refused to stock Prince's album--the U.S. Navy. "But get this--the Army is taking it. So guess who Warners will be rooting for in the Army-Navy game this year!"