Confession: I was never that big of a Prince fan at his peak of popularity in the ‘80s. I watched MTV incessantly, so I had plenty of exposure to most of his big hits. But I was a repressed small-town midwestern Protestant white kid. I thought it was cool when I learned he was from Minneapolis, but I didn’t see that connection as an opportunity to liberate myself from my fear of everything; I was still freaked out by his uninhibited, guiltless sexuality. That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t pay very much attention to him, if I’m honest with myself about who I was as a 10-year-old.
But even though I didn’t consider myself a fan, and never owned any of his music until I was much (much) older, I still heard his music all the time. Because once MTV realized it was not only OK but necessary for them to play black artists, Prince was on there a lot. Videos like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” are burned into my memory. And honestly, even if I was a little sheepish about it, I liked them. As time went on, my appreciation grew. And so, as my small tribute to the Artist whose music touched so many people, here’s my list of 5 Prince songs. Not necessarily my “top 5” Prince songs, but 5 that have made a big impression on me, in the order that they did.
“1999” from 1999 (1982)
This song was my introduction to Prince. It was probably 1983 when I first saw it, so I would have been 9. I was fascinated by this song and the video. As a kid, I was always interested in the future. I wanted to get there, fast, whether it was a paradise or (as this song suggested) something more ominous. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as to music, but the lyrics of this song definitely got my attention even back then. It was my first exposure to the idea of an apocalypse. And it made a huge impression on me that Prince would sing about confidently, defiantly celebrating in the face of doom. The other thing that impressed me about the video was that it showed Prince’s band performing, and he had women in the band. The music industry is still far too male-dominated today, but back then I didn’t even think to question things like that. So to see a band with both men and women, playing music together, struck me as something unique.
“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)
Whoa. This video. The Rorschach-like mirror image effect had me transfixed from the first moment I saw it, but what really struck me was the sound of this song. It was sparse and futuristic and weird. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t. As a kid, this was definitely my favorite Prince song. And it was made even better for me as a nerdy college student in the early ‘90s when it was referenced in a Simpsons episode where Milhouse meets his Shelbyville doppelganger.
[Much time passes…]
“Let’s Work” from Controversy (1981)
I spent most of my adult life not really thinking all that much about Prince. As I became more of an accomplished musician myself, my appreciation of his immense skills grew considerably, but I still was not really that engaged with his music. Then, one day in 2010 I was listening to The Current on the radio, and this incredibly funky song came on. I wasn’t really familiar with any of Prince’s pre-1999 work, so I had no idea what it was but I thought, “Oh, that sounds like Prince. I wonder if this is something new.” (Yeah, I’m not proud of that… but I do think it shows how we’ve come full circle that the dry, immediate sound of Prince’s early ‘80s recordings sounds contemporary again today.) I fired up Soundhound on my iPhone to identify the track, and before the song had even finished playing, I’d purchased and downloaded the entire Controversy album. Thus began my exploration of Prince’s early work. I bought all of his first four albums and listened to them — especially Dirty Mind and Controversy — incessantly for the next several weeks. Finally, at the age of 36, I really “got it”. Prince was a visionary genius, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and all-around legend. And he was from Minneapolis and stayed here.
“Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980)
As I delved into the early work of Prince following my “Let’s Work” epiphany, I realized that Dirty Mind was really the album that defined Prince, the Minneapolis sound, 1980s pop music, everything. “Uptown” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I loved the upbeat funk groove, and the fact that it was a song about a neighborhood I used to live in. In 2011 I decided to record an album as a tribute to Minneapolis, the city where I was born and have spent most of my adult life. I had to include a song about Uptown, and I took inspiration from this Prince track.
“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)
The more I’ve listened to Dirty Mind (which has become my favorite Prince album), the more I’ve grown to love this song. It’s really kind of a weird song. It’s very poppy, with catchy hooks, but it is driven by strummed chords on an electric bass. And the lyrics seem, at first, like a typical pop song about a lost love, but as you listen closely you realize there’s a bizarre undercurrent to the story they tell that can only come from Prince.
I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us
I figured my appreciation of this song was a bit unusual; it wasn’t a single, it was from before he really hit big. But in the days following his death, I discovered on Twitter that a lot of his fans cite it as their favorite Prince song. To me, it kind of symbolizes what Prince was all about: showing us that we’re all a little weird, that’s OK, and we’re not alone.