This post is an elaboration on and revision of a post I wrote for my now defunct music-themed blog, What Was Yours is Everyone’s From Now On (It’s a Wilco reference). I am a huge Prince fan and have written a lot about him in the past (most notably in the 2013 issue of Stone Canoe, which published, “Prince’s ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’ and Queering of Popular Love Song,” but not so much on The Middles Spaces because for the most part his music is unavailable on YouTube, and I don’t like posting about songs without an easy and immediate way for the reader to listen to them. I guess this is the exception. I did find a couple of videos online and linked to them, but can’t make any promises about how long it’ll be available.
I originally wrote/posted this in January of 2009, which makes sense because (as I write below) I tend to think of this record as a “wintertime” record (just like I think of XTC’s Skylarking as a spring or summertime record), but I’ve been a big Prince kick since the weather started getting warm and when looking for things I could re-post this fit the bill.
“Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I only want you…to have some fun. . .”
1999 opens with a warped voice pitched down into something almost diabolic, underscoring the sense of menace that repeatedly bubbles to the surface throughout 1982’s 1999. The sense of menace feels like a dark possibility emerging from the tone of the forbidden, of the taboo in those early Prince records—the suggestion that by contemplating what he is offering you are doing something that might get you hurt. The record’s appeal emerges from that sense of danger, from the scandalous possibilities of a morality unbound by the coming apocalypse, disguised as synth-heavy dance pop. I’ve written about what I call “the Apocalyptic Open” before (in regards to comics), as a story setting that resonates with the ongoing “state of exception” in modern global politics and the justification of violence. In Prince’s vision of this “unending ending,” an undercurrent of violent possibility remains, but it is repeatedly pushed down by the ostensibly more pleasurable nihilism of desire.
1999 is arguably one of Prince’s most important albums. It represents the apex of his pre-Purple Rain period. There’s nothing wrong with Prince’s hits, but his music is best when it is strange, challenging accessibility, explicitly sexual, vocally acrobatic, risking being cheesy (and sometimes being so), but most of all, sonically experimental. I have a soft-spot for the b-sides, but 1999 with is long dance cuts, jerky rhythms, weird noises, and just an overall sense of imminent doom is a whole album of Prince letting loose in a way that becomes increasingly less common in his work, even in what I consider his best work, Sign o’ the Times. This is a record that sounds like it was recorded on sleepless nights kept awake by fear of warheads, fueled by a desperation that drives a man to play just about every instrument on every one of these tracks, do all his own programming and producing.
1999 is a different kind of record from the rest of Prince’s impressive catalog; a culmination of some of the new-wavey keyboard and drum machine stuff Prince had been experimenting with on Dirty Mind and Controversy, a kind of dark electro. Purple Rain (which followed 1999) still has some of that keyboard-y stuff, but the live drums and guitar rock gives it a totally different feel. This is an album built on contradictions, a collection of songs that certainly demonstrate a pop sensibility to his use of these electronic elements (in some cases riffing off Kraftwerk and in others pre-figuring Timbaland) and there some classic pop hooks (“Delirious,” “Little Red Corvette”), but the same time the songs are long and sparse—while “Delirious” clocks in at exactly four minutes, most of the songs are six or more minutes long, and “Automatic” passes the nine-minute mark. Sure, most of these are dance songs, so that explains the length—but Prince has always been an artist that is unafraid to be self-indulgent (with varying levels of success), so he is willing to spend two minutes of a song softly cooing over the drumbeat, or just groaning and moaning and making those Prince sounds, dance song or not. Prince plays with songcraft on this record not only by daring to have long songs, but even his shortest, “Delirious,” has a full 19 seconds of nothing but drum machine as an intro before we even hear the famous squeaky keyboard theme, and 33 seconds before he even starts singing—that’s a full 8th of the song’s running time. That song just sounds weird, even if ultimately it has a pretty straightforward structure and kind of swings.
I first heard “1999” (the song, not the album) over the Christmas break when I was about 11 years old, and I think it is for that reason I always associate it with winter and the new year, even though the single came out in late September. Also the title track’s playing on millennial fear probably makes increased rotation around New Year’s likely—even if it was 18 years before the threat of Y2K came around to reveal how close the end of the world seems to a lot people who are mostly content to trust someone else would figure it out what to do about it. Well…someone apparently did.
The title track evokes a common Prince theme, the idea that the world is in bad shape and his only reaction to it is to experience as much pleasure as possible before he goes on to the next life. It is like a development of an idea first posed on Dirty Mind’s “Party Up!”—”War is all around us, my mind says prepare to fight / So if I gotta die I’m gonna listen to my body tonight.” He rejects the warlike expectations of the apocalyptic moment, in favor of a record of long strange dance grooves that can never quite evade the sense of coming peril.
I mean, when the song closes with “Mommy? Why does everybody have a bomb?” with a vocal effect that makes Prince voice seem childlike, the ghost of war and reality of imminent self-destruction rises up out of a danceable party hit. The Reagan zeitgeist was the threat of annihilation—AIDS, Crack and nuclear missiles. Just the year before Controversy’s “Ronnie Talk 2 Russia,” had Prince begging President Reagan to negotiate with the Soviets, “before it’s too late / Before they blow up the world.” It’s a corny-ass relic, its only value the nostalgia for its earnest energy, but you can’t claim it doesn’t tell you where Prince’s mind was at in the early 80s. In light of the apocalypse we all thought was imminent, it made sense to sing of 1999 in 1982. Many of us probably seriously wondered if the world would even still be around that long. Prince’s apocalyptic anxieties didn’t only resonate with that historical moment, but it also sheds light on his bizarre mix of hedonism and religious devotion.
Lyrically, like a lot of Prince records, 1999 is uneven. Prince has never been what I consider a master lyricist, but he does have his moments of playful language, using reversals and purposeful mispronunciation of words using affect to convey nuanced meaning. Some of his incredibly explicit lyrics are delivered with more success than others. But I have to admire someone who can sing “Girl’s got an ass like I’ve never seen / And the ride. . . I said, the ride is so smooth, you must be a limousine!” and pull it off.
I probably don’t have to say much about “Little Red Corvette” (5:03). It is one of Prince’s hits, but for those who know it from the radio, I recommend listening to the full song. I don’t think you’re gonna hear that ass line on classic 80s radio. It is the only song on the album that has any real guitar solo to speak of (though “Lady Cab Driver” does have a synth and guitar trading off a lead at one point). Rather, in most of these tunes the guitar is light and rhythmic with little funk flares and tinkling progressions.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” (7:22) crams lyrics into a sparse sing-song melody. It is a meandering song filled with contradictory allusions to rebound sex, common-law marriage, being nasty and loving God. Prince disrupts his own rhyme scheme in one chorus to pronouncing “fuck” by impossibly squeezing three syllables out of those four letters. The opening lyric, “Excuse me, but I need a mouth like yours / To help forget the girl just walked out my door” is illuminated by the Prince’s assertion spoken over the long bridge, “I’m not saying this just to be nasty / But I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth”—because he’s not going to risk us not getting what he needs that mouth for. It is no “Head” (which was on 1980’s Dirty Mind, which is in the top 3 best Prince albums, if you ask me, and even if you don’t), but it isn’t trying to be. It’d be possible to curate “Prince’s Studies in Oral Sex” as a retrospective of his work. Regardless of the content, I don’t think I know of another song that sounds like it. Its layered keyboards cascade rhythmically along with the melody, as if sonically spilling over it. So good.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” ends with a short kind of proto-rap—these long songs allow for total drifting away from the song’s theme. Here, the song that is ostensibly is about sex that may or may not have expectations of more attached to it, collapses back into the millennial panic through its religious assertion “I’m in love with God, it’s the only way / ‘Cause U & I know we gotta die someday,” but also his claim that he’s “gonna have fun every motherfucking night.” Asking the listener if they intend to “go to another life” like he is, the song abruptly ends and the keyboards of “D.M.S.R” come in.
“D.M.S.R” (which was omitted from the original CD release of 1999) has a great groove that is reminiscent of the aforementioned “Head.” It is a total party funk song built around a call and response, with bass, drums and shakers pumping along to the hook-driven refrain that you can imagine a packed dance floor singing along—“Oooh…Alright!” The backing vocals are liberally brushed with chorus in the mix to give them that crowd feel. And like most funk songs, the lyrics don’t have to be great, they just have to be fun. But don’t get too comfortable: when Prince commands “All the white people clap your hands on the four now,” he counts it out for them, mockingly. It gets weird in the middle when a deep voice arrives to accuse Jaime Starr (one of Prince’s song-writing alter-egos) of a being “a thief” and telling everyone they can “go take a bite of [his] purple rock.” And finally, the song ends with a woman’s distressed screaming voice coming up out of the crowd, begging. “Somebody call the police! Somebody help me please! Somebody help me!” There is that menace, that discomfort I was talking about. Nothing comes without a price on this record.
The electronic feel of 1999 finds its apogee in the mechanistic groove of “Automatic,” a cold response to the panic that ends “D.M.S.R.” It is another dark dance tune that goes on and on, allowing Prince to play with computer sounds (including what sounds like the staccato sampling of an airplane engine at take-off that punctuates the song’s development towards the end) and for some murmured call and response between him and the girls (Wendy and Lisa) “I pray that when U dream / U dream of how we kiss / Not with our lips, but with our souls.” It plays Prince as the victim through his robotic devotion to a woman that may be doubting his feelings.
“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” takes up the mechanistic feel of “Automatic,” but at a much more frenetic computerized pace in a way (like I said) that seems to channel Kraftwerk by pre-figuring Timbaland. This is a tune I didn’t feel as much back in the day. While some of the sounds and words of the other songs are strange, the jerking rhythm of this song challenges accessibility. Nowadays, I love its energy. It is one of those bad lover songs; “Some people tell me I got great legs / Can’t figure out why you make me beg.” It has a forlorn dark undertone, like much of this album has. The song conveys a sense of frustration and desperation that really works, and the computer-y synthesized sounds help the human frailty of the lyric stand out in stark contrast. Again, this is an example of lyrics that aren’t that strong on their own “I’ll buy you clothes / I’ll buy you fancy cars / But you gotta tell me who the hell you think you are”—but Prince makes them work with the raw delivery and willingness to scream. It is the kind of thing he would perfect on Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones” and “Darling Nicki.” The anarchy of romantic affect becomes a howl against the mechanized and alienating rhythms, pushing against the lockstep march towards Armageddon.
Prince is the Lennon to his own McCartney, or maybe the other way around.
The weakest song on the album is the ballad “Free.” I must admit to skipping past it most of the times I listen to the album these days (though I listened to it a couple of times as I wrote this). The lyrics are definitely the weakest “Don’t cry unless you’re happy / Don’t smile unless you’re blue / Never let that lonely monster take control of you.” Lonely monster? Ugh. Makes me a little nauseous with embarrassment just thinking about it. “Free” is an example of Prince’s strangely conservative political side—or at least what comes off as superficial patriotism—something that shows up rarely and that changed later in his career—but songs like the “Ronnie Talk to Russia” and “America” (off of Around the World in a Day, 1985) are also examples. By the time he gets to “Family Name” off of 2001’s The Rainbow Children, however, he is veering more towards a dissenting view on race in America that basically pits all the racial minorities against white America in a powerful way. But “Free”? Again, ugh! The refrain “Be glad that you are free / Free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that you are free / There’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what you have, for what you’ve got.” The plodding ballad’s monotonous melody and the “rousing” anthemic repetition of the chorus at the end of the song doesn’t help either. It is “Proud to Be an American” for Minneapolis freakdom. Is this supposed to be prayer at the center of 1999? A retreat to the easy platitudes of nationalism in the face of a Cold War turned hot? Whatever it is, the album is better off without it. The b-side to “1999,” “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” would have been a fine palate-cleanser for the record, just piano and mournful voice alternately singing lines that fade into murmurs or screeching about love lost, it could have been a breath in the dark churning drum machines and pumping bass of the rest of the record.
Shit, even “Irresistible Bitch” (the b-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”) would have been better than “Free.”
“Lady Cab Driver” is a funky mid-tempo number that could’ve been the rebound sex from the “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” heartbreak. It has an amazingly tight and loose bassline—you know, steady, but with countless little seemingly extemporaneous frills and slaps. It is marked by a bridge that features the orgasmic moaning of woman in response to Prince saying “This one’s [for this], this one’s [for that]” and those “this” and “thats” range wildly and some make no sense as far as I can tell. “This one’s for Yosemite Sam and the tourists that didn’t land”? What the heck does that mean? Only one of these orgasms he is “giving” the lady cab driver in question is for her. Again, there is that weird sense of menace—as if orgasms were being inflicted upon her, rather than some loving shared experience. The song’s speaker is venting some aggression sexually “This is for politicians who were born to believe in war,” or “This one’s for discrimination and egotistic things supreme / This one is for whoever taught you how to kiss in designer jeans.” Once upon a time I loved this song, and sonically I still bop to it, but I now I try to think of it as conveying the entwined, yet contradictory threads of entitled aggression and vulnerability that make up masculinity
After the long and bizarre “All the Critics Love U in New York” (which segues from “Lady Cab Driver” nicely with traffic noise that alludes to New York City), we get that classic Prince lover-man ballad “International Lover,” which is ridiculous and amazing. If “All the Critics…” is all over the place, full of the chaotic and contradictory energy of New York City, “International Lover” is smooth run—a crescendo of corny passion that comes down into a perfect soft landing. For some people, Controversy’s “Do Me, Baby” is the classic Prince song of this type, but for my money “International Lover” is better because it seems to have a little more awareness of its own absurdity. Prince practices the great tradition in soul music of taking gospel influences and making them into love songs, but goes one step beyond, by making it into nasty playful rave-up, hammy performance, that winks all the way through with a complex airplane metaphor that echoes the engine sounds of “Automatic,” and the smooth “limousine” ride of “Little Red Corvette”—he’s the pilot, he’s the plane, the flight is the sexual experience. He might also be the flight attendant. Don’t overthink it, baby, his plane’s parked right outside.
Sure this song suffers from some poor lyrics, like Prince’s penchant to rhyme “girl” with “diamonds and pearls” (something he would do as the title track of the 1991 album of the same name), but as I’ve said before, sometimes Prince can more than make up for a weak lyric with the pliability of his voice. Just listen to the way he sings “Baby” halfway through the second verse, or the way he pauses knowingly after the word “come” when asking “Don’t you want to come. . . inside.” The elasticity of his voice allows for snapping back and forth between painful earnestness and goofy fun. Listen with headphones and pay attention to his every careful breath and squeak, every subtle backing vocal overdub. Prince is the Lennon to his own McCartney, or maybe the other way around.
But really where this closing track shines most is in the spoken part that is in the guise of an airline pilot, but delivered like a pastor half-singing his sermon while the choir bolsters him with their voices (all of which sound like Prince overdubs). “Good evening. This is your pilot Prince speaking / You are flying aboard the Seduction 747 / and this plane is fully equipped with anything your body desires.” And then it goes into these amazing faux-instructions like those a flight attendant gives before take-off.
For any reason there is a loss in cabin pressure
I will automatically drop down to apply more
To activate the flow of excitement
Extinguish all clothing materials
And pull my body close to yours,
put your lips upon my mouth and kiss, kiss.
In the event there is over-excitement
your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device.
And later, as the song reaches its climax, he announces, “We are now making our final approach to satisfaction / Please bring your lips, your arms, your hips to the up and locked position / for landing.” Prince’s voice abandons any manner of sense and transforms into echoed vocalizations like he’s caught the spirit, until finally regaining control, the plane has landed and he whispers “Welcome to Satisfaction. Please remain awake until the aircraft has come to a complete stop.” Raised up and guided in by vamping piano chords, it fragments into doodles of sounds and the drone of coming sleep. Doom has been kept at bay for now, so the beloved can emulate death, and its promised respite.
1999 is definitely a record of its time, a mélange of anxiety and desire that emerges from the fear of an imminent world-changing, world-ending event. These days Armageddon seems fragmented, glacial—already happening all the time—so familiar as to be invisible. But I can still imagine this record as an antidote to a synesthesia that confuses fear for pleasure, instead of seeing music or hearing colors—a telegram from one dark period to another, we are always already—OOPS!—out of time.
The dark churning rhythms, cascading synthesizers, squealing, cooing and explicit descriptions of sex acts, alternated with prayer-like calls to a higher power, all punctuated by mechanistic sounds in long-form dance cuts make the collection of songs on Prince’s 1999 a paean to an imminent and menacing future. The songs all point to a belief in an inevitable Armageddon, whose resultant anxieties can only be alleviated by a simultaneous obsession with physical desire and spiritual awareness. In other words, for Prince, the best life is one where we indulge in pleasure now, not out of pure hedonism, but in preparation for the divine bliss to come after death.
Postscript: The apocalyptic is a thread in Prince’s music that was present before “1999” (like I mentioned above, check out “Party Up!” and “Annie Christian” (off Controversy), and long after. Listen to “America” (1985), “Crystal Ball” (1986, released 1997) or “Sign o’ the Times” (1987), “The Future” (1989), or “7” (1992). Even his most recent release—Art Official Age—is built around the conceit of a post-apocalyptic awakening from a cryogenic sleep. Prince’s preoccupation with the end of the world explains both his religious and carnal choices and excesses, but only 1999 revels in the possibilities of that anticipation.