The first Prince song I remember hearing was “1999.” It was playing on my sister’s stereo as we got ready for church one morning. Its slowed-down-speech intro–“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, I only want you to have some fun”–sounded like both a promise and a threat.
It was the early 1980s. I bought the album 1999 in 1983. That year, a miniseries called The Day After aired on ABC. Set in nearby Lawrence, Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri, and environs, it followed the survivors of a nuclear blast.
Nuclear war was the constant, nagging fear of my troubled teen-aged mind, and of many people’s in those days–not least of all, Prince.
As I would learn later when I started working backwards and bought his 1981 album Controversy, the end of the world brought about by nuclear weapons was a theme for him. The song “Ronnie Talk to Russia” opens, in a childlike, sing-along chorus, with: “Ronnie talk to Russia / Before it’s too late / Before it’s too late / Before it’s too late / Ronnie talk to Russia / Before it’s too late / Before they blow up the world.”
In the end, the song turns personal. “The world” turns to “my world.” That’s how I felt, being 16 or 17 years old. They wanted to blow up “my world.”
“1999” was not a song. It was a manifesto. It was personal. It was a recipe for living a rational life in an irrational world.
From that ominous spoken intro to the references to death, war “all around us,” a mind saying “prepare to fight,” and the rhetorical child’s question at the end–“Mommy / Why does everybody have a bomb?”–“1999” set the agenda for what would follow: songs about a world where we should “pretend we’re married,” “play music, sex, romance,” and, most poignantly, be “free.”
“Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day / Before I let the happen / I’ll dance my life away,” Prince sang. And why not? In a world gone mad, what else can you do?
Party on, Prince. Party on.