Songs in Conversation: Prince & Peter Gabriel Making It Big

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the “Songs in Conversation” series, where I take two songs that have some thematic resonance and explore the conversation we can imagine them to have.Back in 1996, I was visiting a friend at his then girlfriend’s in Brooklyn when he put a CD in the player and asked, “When was the last time you listened closely to this record?” The album he put on was Peter Gabriel’s So from 1986, and the track he started with was “Big Time.”

I was familiar with the record from when it first hit the charts but had not really listened to it all that closely, certainly not in the intervening decade.

The memory of listening closely to that track and then immediately going back and re-listening to the whole album has become an indelible one, part of a period in my life where listening to and making music was as big a focus as The Middle Spaces would become two decades later. The friend I was visiting was frequently my partner in making and discussing music, so this scenario of one or the other of us saying, “Hey, have you ever really listened to this?” was not an uncommon one. We had aspirations to make music for a living, and critically listening to it was a big part of that. My experience of a lot of popular music has generally been listening again a decade or more after the height of its popularity and looking like Weebay from The Wire in that one GIF meme.

Me listening to a popular song 10 to 25 years after the fact.

Lyrically, it is not hard to understand why “Big Time” appeals to me so much. I love its ironic edge, intentionally describing the life of a big success in terms that can only be called facile and shallow. The meter and delivery of the fairly simplistic lyrics are nonetheless captivating, even if in places they seem purposefully awkward in their unearned confidence.

Sonically, the song is even more captivating. The bass line is probably the most notable part of the song, punching fluidly among the crystalized electronic filters on Gabriel’s voice, guitar flares, and chords played on a Hammond organ that crest the waves of the song like white caps. Speaking of that bass, its quality was developed by hitting the strings on a fretless bass with drumsticks while someone else did the fingerings. Of course, the drum work by Stewart Copeland (formerly of the Police) is unsurprisingly fantastic. What is astounding about the layering of sounds on this track is both how they seem to blend as they establish a driving momentum that can’t help but make you bop, while also being perfect when isolated by the listening ear. Seriously, slap on a good pair of headphones and take a listen. It is fantastic. The song is simultaneously mellifluous and percussive, sharp and lush.  The gorgeous and sharp backing vocals by P. P. Arnold, Coral “Chyna Whyne” Gordon, and Dee Lewis provide just the right emphasis on the hook.

Most obviously the aspirational theme in “Big Time” is pointedly ironic. The song’s speaker is singing about what they will do as they achieve success and leave their backward small town roots behind. Of course, part of the irony is that the singer himself (if we allow ourselves to conflate him with the song’s persona) is already about as successful as a musician/performer can hope to be. Sure, Peter Gabriel is not Madonna or Prince or Michael Jackson, but to go from the cult celebrity of Genesis during its early prog rock days, to a solo artist who had a few hit songs like “Solsbury Hill” (1977), “Biko” (1980), and “Shock the Monkey” (1982), and then to a certified triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the U.S. chart-topping album is an arc almost anyone who is not Madonna, Prince, or Michael Jackson, can envy. At the same time, So is Gabriel’s crossover album, making a splash in a pop world in a way that some critics (and probably fans) took issue with, despite a more diverse musical landscape back then. For example the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau made a point of doing that gross thing white critics do when talking about the focus on rhythm versus the focus on melody and calling Gabriel “smart” in a way that seems to be mocking the album’s pop sensibilities. Part of what rubs some critics the wrong way, I guess, is that such success must be at least a partially intentional goal as the songs are composed, arranged, and performed. Yes, I am sure that somewhere some “real” Peter Gabriel fan is smirking at my “inauthentic” love for this record. Nevertheless, Gabriel’s idiosyncrasies and sonic complexity are still present all over the album and “Big Time” specifically, even as they are put towards a simpler lyrical style that prospers in the pop context.

In that same context, “Big Time” becomes an even more winking song. Here is Peter Gabriel singing about making it big, even as he is making it big in a new way and finding a new audience (the biggest hit on So, “Sledgehammer,” for example, would go on to win nine MTV Video Music Awards and those videos helped win him that audience). The song’s speaker is saying aloud all the shallow desires and sense of importance that harkens to a 1980s consumerist yuppie aspiration that was all over the place in the Reagan-Thatcher era, even as those same “greedy” policies left countless folks languishing in poverty. The lyric “I’m on my way / I’m making it / I’ve got to make it show” trumpets a sense of conspicuous consumption. As the speaker leaves his small town where they “think small thoughts” and “use small words” for the “big big city” where he’ll “be a big noise with all the big boys,” the song manages both to evoke contempt for those desires, even as they are understandable to the listening audience. But of course, the throwaway line “So much stuff, I will own” reinforces the superficiality of it all. Heck, in a line that I can’t help but associate with the perniciousness of prosperity gospel, the song even suggests that rich and successful people have their own “big god” in a “big church” erasing the charity and humility that supposedly undergirds Christ’s teachings.

And while MTV Cribs would not debut for 14 years after the song’s release, I can’t help but think of its luxury porn, when Gabriel’s persona sings about showing the “big names” around his house and brings them to the bedroom—which in the parlance of the aforementioned show is “where the magic happens”—and brags how he had his bed “made like a mountain range / With snow white pillows for my big fat head.” Perhaps, given the decade the song is from, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous is a better comparison than Cribs. Nevertheless, the immensity of the bed and the earnestness of the lyric is undercut by that “big fat head” description, which lets us know how swollen his ego would be in this dream of success. In fact, a lyric I misheard for decades (only corrected by reading them on the internet and then confirming with careful headphone listening) had me thinking that the song is more explicit in identifying its irony because I thought he was singing, “And my heaven will be a big hell.” However, it turns out that the lyric is “And my heaven will be a big heaven,” which is just more reinforcement of the speaker’s limited vision. And when he sings “And I will walk through the front door” (of that “big heaven”), I can’t help but think of the parable regarding the ease with which a camel can go through the eye of a needle as compared to a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24).

As the song ends, the coda has Gabriel’s speaker listing all the things in his life that are “getting bigger”—his car, his house, his eyes, his mouth, his belly, his bank account. And finally, after telling us about the size of his “circumstance,” the final thing he mentions getting “big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big” is the “bulge” in his… well, the song ends before the rhyme with “circumstance” is sung, but you know, it has to be “pants”—making explicit through its absence how ostentatious wealth and artificially inflated reputation can be conflated with a near-Trumpian sexual aggrandizement.

Clearly, at least to me, Peter Gabriel is taking the piss out of his success and poking fun of those who imagine the consequences of his ballooning crossover success and making bare the facile greed and spiritual emptiness of the decade.

During my most recent re-listening to this song before deciding to write this essay, a different song with a similar aspirational vibe (if not the same sense of irony) by a very successful musical artist came to mind: “White Mansion” by Prince, though at the time he was still going by the “Love-Symbol” (Logo. Hollow circle above downward arrow crossed with a curlicued horn-shaped symbol and then a short bar) that many folks articulated as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

“White Mansion” is a deep cut from Prince’s first post-Warner Bros. triple album, Emancipation in 1996. The song was not released as a single, nor (according to the detailed archive of Prince’s career known as “PrinceVault”) ever even performed publicly.

Like Gabriel’s “Big Time,” the song is by a very successful artist ruminating on aspirations for success, though in this song this reflection is based on more specific details of the songwriter’s past, with a tinge of melancholy wherein the efforts of the young speaker echo the continued industry woes Prince was experiencing deep into his career. As we will do well to remember, Prince’s name change was a symbolic act (no pun intended) meant to highlight the sense of ownership his record company held over him and his output, reinforced by his performances at the time with the word “slave” written on his face. “White Mansion” travels back to the days before that contract and the dreams that fueled his hard work to both be noticed and to retain control over his artistic works.

Prince’s name from 1993 to 2000.

The odd thing to me, is that despite the anecdote at the beginning of this essay taking place the same year that Emancipation was released, I did not make the connection between the songs until 26 years later.

“White Mansion” is smooth bass-driven R&B with a languid electronic beat, bass-slaps, and glossy synths playing with funk sounds that make me think of the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm” on ketamine. There are also contextual samples throughout, representing scenes and objects mentioned in the song, concert crowd noise, slot machine jackpots, and a jetliner taking off. The song also includes a sample from the TV show Martin (bookending it). Otherwise, all the voices, harmonies, and instruments are Prince himself. And unlike the general sense of success and upward mobility expressed in “Big Time,” Prince’s song is peppered with specificity that ironically makes the song more difficult to interpret with the same granularity as “Big Time.” Who is the “John K.” he mentions? Is “Chazz’s Bar” a real place? What’s the deal with the reference to a “bold and fair” girl’s backpack? Is he wondering if she has drugs in there when he asks, “Will it take my blues away?” I’m honestly not sure and my research has not cleared it up. Nevertheless, there is a clear enough narrative in the song.

The song is focused on a young version of pre-record deal Prince visiting New York City in hopes of making career moves. Or at least, that seems to be the story of the song using context clues—with the caveat, of course, that even an autobiographical song is a form of fiction, and thus we should not assume there is a one-to-one correlation between the speaker and the singer. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of “All the Critics Love U in New York,” a long new wavey dance track—that comes off as improvised and even sardonic—that appears on 1982’s 1999. Both songs suggest that this New York experience is crucial to the development of the speaker’s music career, but aspiration present in “White Mansion” is expressed with wistful longing about “one day hav[ing] a big white mansion” and being “happy,” delivered with the weight of knowledge that Prince sings from that achieved future. In 1996, he already has that mansion, his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, MN—where he both worked and lived until his death in 2016. Presumably he should be happy—but the song seeds doubt.

While “Big Time” focuses on the superficial presentation of ostentatious wealth and thus social capital, “White Mansion” inhabits the persona of a young Prince imagining his future (now his present) and the happiness it will bring him, while navigating the difficulties of getting there and avoiding the pitfalls of the vulnerable young artist signing a contract with a corporate master (something Prince had finally freed himself from and of which Emancipation was the result). While Gabriel’s speaker imagines instant success when hitting “the big big city,” Prince’s “feels so low [he’s] reaching up for ground” and hopes to “make it in this lonely town.” Furthermore, when the lyric has the speaker asking, “How to play the game” (presumptively, the game of being a recording artist in an exploitative industry), he contemplates the things he is being told he must do like “cut [his] hair” and “sell [his] publishing [rights]” in order to succeed.

(The Artist Formerly Known as) Prince performing in the 90s.

For those unfamiliar with the music industry, publishing rights refers to owning the rights to a song composition. Publishers are responsible for representing the authors of the musical works— composers, songwriters, and lyricists—making sure that they get compensated for the commercial use of the music. Back in the days before recording technology and broadcasting, this usually meant sheet music and song books (thus why it is still referred to as “publishing”), but these days it includes that plus collecting royalties for various uses of the song. There is a distinction between a song’s composition and an original recording of it. For example, like “White Mansion” suggests, Prince held on to his publishing rights (along with the right to produce his own music, quite a feat for a 19-year-old with no record of success yet). However, Warner Bros. owned his master recordings until they reached an agreement in 2014, returning them to the artist. There is a long tradition in the recording industry of Black musicians (especially, but not exclusively) being exploited in terms of being deprived of rights to music they wrote.

Of course, most acts aren’t Prince and are unable to both negotiate such a deal with a record company or have the skills and acumen (and luck) to be such a success as to eventually be their own master. As he sings in the song making the most 90s reference ever, “I don’t know Bo but I do know math.” (Though this also makes me think of Bo Diddley whose ubiquitous “Bo Diddley beat” has been used in songs by artists ranging from Buddy Holly to U2 to the Tune-Yards without Diddley seeing a penny.) “White Mansion” contemplates what the industry expected of Prince and what he had to struggle against both personally (his look) and business-wise (getting his fair cut of his own labor and artistic ability) is juxtaposed against the future he aspires to with the mansion “at the top of the road” and wearing “the latest fashions” and the happiness that presumably comes with them.

In the end, while Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” depicts a fantasy disconnected from any actual stated effort on the part of the speaker, relishing in the promises of wealth and clout, while undercutting those promises with a shallow understanding of what a good life is, “White Mansion” adopts the position of the aspirant imagining the contentment of the position Prince already occupies and casts doubt on it by wondering “Am I really happy?” and then following with his own spoken reply, “Maybe one day” as the song ends. But I would not go so far as to say that either song is making the facile claim that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Neither song stakes its claims on nostalgia, and it is clear that the speaker in Prince’s song would not want to go back to the life where he was dismissed and underestimated—as the lyrics have him turned away for not “rock[ing]” presumably by a promoter or A&R man, though as I mentioned above, I could find no real-life answer to who the “John K.” referenced in the song might be, if anyone. Furthermore, unlike the speaker in Gabriel’s song, who leaves behind his small-minded small town to be a big shot, the version of young Prince in “White Mansion” turns to his hometown of Minneapolis for solace. Sure MPLS is not exactly a “small town,” but compared to New York or Los Angeles, where the major labels are typically headquartered, it can seem provincial to big wigs. Prince explains this dismissal when he sings, “Coming from the land of snow / guess I’m kinda used to cold.” Despite global success and sometimes recording albums in other cities, he maintained his connection to the Minneapolis area and its community, developing the “Minneapolis Sound” and making sure his name would always be connected to its music scene.

If there is one element of “White Mansion” that undercuts its sense of melancholy reflection, it is the sample from the TV show Martin, where Martin Lawrence (at least I think it’s him—tracking down the specific episode proved impossible) screeches “Yo, check out that ass!” While not directly connected to the theme of the song, the dumb fun of the reference provides the song with an element of visceral pleasure expressed through Lawrence’s boisterous “I don’t give a fuck” personality. Despite what I said above about the “maybe one day” lyric suggesting a sense of melancholy in the present, tied together with that sample, there is also a winking aspect to its delivery, simultaneously suggesting that he has achieved the dreams the song self aspired to. In 1996, Prince didn’t need to give a fuck anymore about what the industry had to say about what he should do.

It is easy (perhaps too easy) to dismiss ultra-successful recording artists complaining about their lives as humble-bragging as they detail their success in order to simultaneously explain that it kinda sucks, but both songs also succeed in evoking a relatable emotional element. “Big Time” does this through the unexamined desire for success that nearly any of us can find ourselves dreaming about achieving, while “White Mansion” compares those past hardships and aspirations to a present moment that may or may not live up to them.

Like these two tracks, much of pop music— even if not explicitly and/or ironically—is aspirational. This is certainly true of the much more common subject of pop songs, love lost, or love found, if only in the sense of having a song through which to express deep emotions that might otherwise be unavailable to the listener. Certainly, there are also songs whether tongue-in-cheek or outright parodic (like 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong or 1984’s “Gimme Some Money” from This is Spinal Tap) that raise potentially complex questions about the aspirations present in popular music, while also making it okay to feel and express those aspirations and caveats. But perhaps, this doubt is not all that rare. Even a classic like 1956’s  “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers aspires both to the joy of being in love while calling those who fall for its promises fools. Perhaps a better cliché found at the heart of all pop songs, whether about achieving success or struggling with failure, is really “Be careful what you wish for.”

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