Track By Track: Prince: 1999
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Prince's hit album 1999. The world has always been a chaotic and uncertain place, and that was certainly true in the 1980s. Prince's 1999 is a brilliant portrait of that chaos on multiple levels. From the political to the sexual, from the heights of dancing and romancing to the lows of sadness and yearning for escape, 1999 has it all, and I wanted to devote my latest Track By Track article to this stone classic album.
Heads up. Many of he songs linked to in this article have explicit lyrics, and although I've done my best to keep my writing at a PG-13 level, this article may still be somewhat NSFW, depending on where you work. Reader discretion is advised.
The album's title track starts us off.
1999, the song, is a very interesting piece. In it, Prince and The Revolution talk about facing the possible end of times by dancing in spite of their fears. The song is about the power of entertainment in the face of encroaching darkness. As I've said before, we're all on this site because we love the 1980s, but let's not forget that there were several times that the world came close to ending in that decade. Prince jumped onto that idea with style, and created a classic song that resonates over two decades after 1999 passed.
Speaking for myself, I purchased the album 1999 in the late 90s, and I absolutely loved what I heard. As I was ahead of the curve on 80s fandom, things didn't always work out well for being a fan of that decade. I can recall attending a youth dance when I was 17 years old in 2000. I asked the young DJ to play the song 1999, even though it was 2000, because it's still a great dance track. He played a bit of it, but when he saw that I was the only one dancing to it, he announced over the microphone that nobody was dancing to it, so he had to put on a different song. As an 00s dance track filled the air, the dance floor filled again and I made my exit.
That was the last youth dance I attended. I was both behind and ahead of the times at once. I was behind the times because I was the only person in my age bracket who preferred 80s music to what was popular on the charts. I was ahead of the times because 80s nostalgia would start blossoming a few years later, and then the people who once derided me for my 80s fandom came around to find value in the decade as well. I'm glad they eventually came around, but I really could've used that support in my high school years.
Returning to the album 1999, we now come to the song Little Red Corvette.
Prince's music, at least up until the mid-90s, was VERY sexual, and Little Red Corvette was certainly no exception to that rule. In this song, Prince sings about feeling nervous when it comes to an encounter with a sexy redhead...At least that's how I interpret the lyrics. I always thought that "Little Red Corvette" was slang for a certain part of the female anatomy with a certain color characteristic. I listen to a lyric like, "Move over, baby. Gimme the keys. I'm gonna try and tame your little red love machine", and intercourse with a redhead is what springs to mind.
Prince's music was one of the ways I was able to express certain longings I had, or thought I had, without interference from my mom. My mother was something of a hypocrite. She refused to let me make phone sex calls or watch porn when she was alive and I was under her roof, but she owned a sex toy and was on hookup websites after my dad died. This was one of quite a few double standards I had to deal with in my late teens and most of my 20s, up until her passing in 2010.
My mom would eventually latch on to Prince and other 80s funk and R&B artists, music I listened to as an escape from her emotional and mental abuse, and that made it difficult for me to listen to the music. There's plenty of people you want to imagine having sex. Your parents aren't among them. You want to imagine that they reproduce like jellyfish. It took me a long time to be able to listen to a lot of Prince's, and others', sexual music without having my mom's abuse and hypocrisy on my mind. I can safely do that now. If only I could stop the nightmares.
Anyway, we now come to 1999's third track, Delirious.
I first heard this song when I watched the 1983 movie Cheech And Chong: Still Smokin' on either Comedy Central or a VHS tape in the late 90s. The song had a very bouncy beat, suitable for the fun that Cheech and Chong had in the movie. I then revisited the song years later, and found it to still be bouncy, but the bounciness had taken on a new tone in light of what I now knew about Prince's music.
The song is about Prince getting not nervous around his lover, but excited. He talks about the thrilling feelings he gives her, and how they drive him wild. That was a recurring theme in Prince's music. It was often joked that Prince could not only steal your girlfriend, but do so while wearing her clothing. Prince would eventually change this outlook after some dark times in the 90s, but nothing can top Prince's 80s material, and this song is an excellent example of the sexuality that informed Prince's lyrics for such a long time.
Speaking of which, the fourth track on 1999 is Let's Pretend We're Married.
Why does Prince want to pretend that? Based on the songs so far, why do you think? He's desperate to get some, and he's trying to convince his love interest to give it to him by pretending that they're married. This is another raunchy song, complete with several F-bombs in the lyrics. I can only imagine what some people who brought the album based on the MTV videos thought when they heard the lyrics on this track. I myself have considered utilizing some of the raunchier lyrics as personalization ideas for future autograph requests to send to adult film stars and Playboy Playmates.
The coda is interesting as well. What makes it unusual is that it discusses the conflict Prince has between his loins and his spirit. I don't know if he was a Jehovah's Witness at this point or not, but that conflict happened a lot in Prince's lyrics. In many ways, it was reflective of the duality of the 80s itself. On some levels, the atmosphere may have been conservative for most of the decade, but on other levels, the entertainment was anything except that. After all, more than 60 percent of the movies released in the 80s were rated R, and Prince's Purple Rain would be one of the albums whose music led to the creation of Parental Advisory labels. It's that split, that duality, that fascinates me.
Moving along, we come to 1999's fifth track, D.M.S.R.
D.M.S.R. stands for Dance Music Sex Romance. That was Prince's M.O for much of his career. His output explored all those elements and pushed them to their limits, creating some real floor-fillers. I first heard this song when I rented Risky Business from the local video store in 1997. This song was heard in a party scene late in the movie, and it was appropriate. This song could easily have been an early example of the trope In Da Club, which wouldn't really be popularized until the 00s.
Although D.M.S.R. is quite the bop, as they say nowadays, it does take a dark twist at the end. As Prince and The Revolution are doing a call-and-response, you can hear a female voice screaming for help and begging someone to call the police. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Are we talking about someone being assaulted and begging for help? Is it a Rosemary's Baby situation of an innocent surrounded by the depraved and demonic? Is it a comment on how the party lifestyle can be a hard one to live? Feel free to leave your interpretation in the comments below.
The sixth track on 1999 is called Automatic.
In this song, Prince describes how everything about his relationship, good, bad and otherwise, is automatic. It's difficult to tell if he's taking responsibility for his actions or not, but it's implied in the outro that he'll be punished for those actions, yet he's okay with it. After all, it's all part of the courtship, he feels. From pleasure to pain, it's all part of the same cycle that spins around without end.
For some reason, I imagine that Automatic is one of those songs that could have endless verses and variations. After all, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which is an 80s song, albeit of a very different kind, supposedly has 84 verses that were written for it. More germaine to Prince's lyrical output, Dr. Dirty, John Valby, is well-known for coming up with hundreds of variants for songs like Hey Lade and G*ngb*ng. With Prince's endless creativity, I know there had to have been at least a solid 40 verses that could've gone into this song.
1999's seventh track is Something In The Water (Does Not Compute).
To my ears, this song is basically about a "Nice Guy" wanting to get with a girl. I've written about this concept quite a few times. There was even a period of time when I was a "Nice Guy" myself. The truth is that if you call yourself a "Nice Guy", you're not really nice. You may think you're Prince Charming (pardon the pun), but you're really a frog. A truly nice guy doesn't call himself that. He simply is nice by nature and doesn't expect anything for it.
It's interesting to see what characters Prince could play in his lyrics. On many songs, he was a love god. On just as many other songs, he was playing single, and desperately horny. We all contain multitudes (pardon the innuendo), and Prince played many individuals in his music. He would even utilize voice processing to play these different characters. He was truly a recording genius
The eighth track on 1999 is my favorite track on the album, entitled Free.
Prince wrote quite a few songs that were anti-war and advocating for peace. Some of them were upbeat, like Partyup. Others were more dramatic, and that was the case with Free. Listening to this song in 2022, knowing that things are just as chaotic on the world stage now as they were 40 years ago, Free still retains its' power. I'm on the side of the doves this time. I wish for peace in our world, and I wish for the barest minimum of death and pain, although ideally, there would be none at all of either.
Closer to home, I first heard this song in high school, and I could relate to it then as well. I yearned for freedom, too, but freedom of a different kind. I wished for the freedom of having people who understood my autism spectrum disorder. I hoped for the freedom of being able to express myself in a manner that was healthy and wouldn't have people questioning my sanity. I wished for the freedom that a stable family could provide, as opposed to the unstable family unit that was part of my life from 1995.
I actually quoted this song in my Yearbook quotes section when I graduated high school in 2001. My yearbook quotes all came from pop culture. It was primarily 80s-based, although material from before and after the 80s was quoted as well. There were some rules the school laid out, like how you couldn't use profanity. Other than that, they gave us free reign, so I put in the Free lyric, "Be glad that you are free. There's many a man who's not". High school was something like prison for me, so I felt grateful to finally get out.
It took me a long time, but I finally got that freedom. Okay, I'm not entirely free. I do have to worry about Social Security Disability breathing down my neck and paying attention to my paychecks. Other than that, though, I have all the freedom I wished for in my high school years. I owe my psychologist a lot of thanks for that. Some may view psychology as a straitjacketing thing. It wasn't for me. Psychology and the right psychiatric medication have led me to better days, and I'll keep riding this train as long as possible.
Returning to Prince, we come to 1999's ninth track, Lady Cab Driver.
After the seriousness of Free, this track is another energetic song. Prince is desperate for a ride (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more) from the title character, and when he finally gets it, every thrust is for somebody, even unlikely individuals like "Yosemite Sam...The tourists at Disneyland...The creator of Man". It's the kind of deliciously off-color humor that would make it into some of Prince's best sex songs.
Of course, this track has a bit of a political edge as among those who get thrusts dedicated to them are "politicians who were born to believe in war" and "the rich. Not all of them, just the greedy. The ones that don't know how to give". Prince believed in the concept of love in all forms, so he would naturally be repelled by warmongers and the selfish. If he were still alive today, I sometimes wonder if he would revise the lyrics of this song for our current chaos.
1999's tenth track is All The Critics Love U in New York.
To my ears, this sounds like Prince making a statement about his art and critiquing the critics. Prince talks about all the things you can do that will impress New York critics, and then talks about how he's doing things on his terms. His basic attitude with this song is "Don't listen to the critics...Just keep doing your thing". While his attempts to do his own thing worked against him short-term, Prince's unique way of doing things did benefit his legacy in the long run. We're over half-a-decade past Prince's death, and his art is still being discovered to this day.
Speaking for myself, I've gotten a lot better at dealing with criticism, mainly because the people who criticize me also make notes of what I do well. That way, it's not all an attack. However, I still occasionally have to deal with people who say negative things about me without some compliments to soften the blow. Whether it's people at work who assume the worst about me, or family members who disrespect me and have no idea what my autism spectrum disorder entails, rough times still happen every so often. Thankfully, those times are now fewer and further between.
We wrap up 1999 with the eleventh track, International Lover.
As you can tell from my discussion of the previous tracks on this album, much of Prince's 80s music was explicitly sexual and sexually explicit. A lot of those explicit songs were dance tracks, but International Lover is an excellent example of the slow jam. Those are, of course, the songs that are all about lovemaking, with the slowness of the song reflecting those certain motions. Slow jams can be very explicit as well.
In this song, Prince uses international travel as a metaphor for lovemaking. The second half of the song is a half-sung, half-spoken monologue that really leans into the travel metaphors. Near the end of the song, it sounds as though Prince and his lover have reached climax. I wonder if such metaphors could apply to flight and sex as they both stand today. Things have changed a lot in the 40 years since this song made its' debut, yet in some ways it seems as though we haven't made that much progress.
In summation, Prince's 1999 retains its' vitality four decades after its' debut. Every song, from the big hits to the deep cuts, is an excellently crafted piece of pop creativity. The themes of yearning for freedom in all its' forms while the world teeters on the brink of darkness have never really gone away, and that's why, although the references and the productiopn may change, 1999 will continue to impress listeners to this day.
With that, what are your thoughts on 1999? What are your favorite songs on the album? Are there any special memories you associate with 1999? Feel free to leave a comment below. I'll see you all again soon. Be well, my dear friends.