Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Prince's "1999" and Carpe Diem Poetry
2016 appears bent on taking every androgynous, genre defying pop artist from us. As a longtime Bowie fan, I was pretty crushed when he passed away. Afterwards I must have listened to at least one Bowie album for about two months. I’ve long enjoyed Prince’s music, but I only really started to dive into his discography in the last three or four years, and it’s an embarrassment of riches. Prince was prolific. At nearly forty albums, Prince's discography is intimidating. The man had a whirlwind of energy packed into a tiny frame.. Prince has left any music fan more than enough material to spend a lifetime poring over, but I want to look at one of his most indelible hits to try to at least scratch the surface of his genius.
The song “1999” is of course the title track to Prince’s 1982 album, and despite failing to initially place on the Billboard charts, it has since grown into one of the artist’s most iconic statements. It also showcases why Prince happens to be pop music’s master craftsman of carpe diem poetry.
It seems like in the public consciousness the phrase “carpe diem” has become associated with lofty virtues, like reading a book outside on a balmy spring day. I mean, take a look at this google image search of the word. It’s a disgusting collection of quills, exclamation marks, and cursive. This image of the phrase most likely comes out of the execrable Dead Poets Society, a film that manages to take complex literary works and boil them down into acceptable bourgeois aphorisms.
Naturally, carpe diem isn’t singular, and the notion of what it means to “seize the day” (or more accurately “pluck the day”) differs from person to person. But limiting the phrase to politely acceptable forms of time wasting smooths overs the possible complications and conundrums present in the concept. If we’re going to seize the day and forget about tomorrow, why show up for work? Why obey any social or moral codes? Why spend time parenting or working through your relationship with your spouse? Why not just dive headfirst into hedonism? And of course all of these questions have been explored by authors over the years.
One of the most famous carpe diem poems, “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, is clearly interested less in lofty goals like spending time in nature and more interested in base desires. The poem opens up with the speaker addressing a woman: “Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime”. This is clearly a guy who wants to put on some Marvin Gaye and get busy. The speaker eventually goes on to suggest things they could do if they wanted to take their time, such as taking long walks and other romantic notions, but he clearly wants to skip that prelude to the main event. As the poem continues, the speaker’s strategy becomes downright vicious. Taking a cue from today’s pick up artist, he starts “negging” the poor woman by reminding her that her looks are fleeting.
I’ve both enjoyed Marvell’s poem and recoiled at his douchey protagonist, but I do think it manages to examine the conflicting facets of the aphorism much better than pablum like Dead Poets. Prince smartly takes fear of impending death that underpins carpe diem and blows it up to apocalyptic size. In “1999” the millennium serves as an endpoint for all of civilization, and it’s interesting to draw connections between the song’s end of the world scenario and the eschatology of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religion Prince would dramatically convert to later in life. Spirituality and sex are common bedfellows in Prince’s music, and the second couplet of the song has guitarist Dez Dickerson singing, “But when I woke up this mornin’ / I coulda sworn it was Judgment Day.” But unlike in other Prince songs, sex does not lead to spirituality; instead the impending afterlife leads him to bodily instincts.
Speaking of Revelations, the surreal imagery of the New Testament’s final book are arguably echoed by the song’s many references to dreams. The song has one of my favorite first lines: “I was dreamin’ when I wrote this / Forgive me if it goes astray,” a phrase that’s repeated later with a slight difference. The line recalls the surreality of the end times, but it’s also a brilliant humblebrag. Prince asks for forgiveness because he wrote the song in his sleep. But he’s also so damn amazing that he can write a song like “1999” in his sleep.
The spectre of apocalypse wasn’t only Prince’s response to the book of Revelations. There was also the real possibility of nuclear armageddon, a fear exacerbated by newly elected president Ronald Reagan’s more confrontational, some would say unhinged, worldview. A year earlier on Controversy Prince released the more explicitly political song “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” but here the politics are a little more subtle, or at least as subtle as they can be on a song about the world ending. In a Cold War context, the song’s hedonist urgings become a political statement. “1999” isn’t just about having fun before the world ends; it is about rejecting the notion of a “moral majority” that had overtaken the nation during Reagan’s ascent.
Prince also manages to make the icky gender politics of carpe diem poetry more egalitarian. Originally, Prince had planned for the song to be sung with three part harmonies, but he eventually split up the verses between himself, his guitarist Dez Dickerson, and backup singers Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones. By trading off vocals, the song has a looser party vibe. (Much of Prince’s music plays with the rigidity of 80s music production and the spontaneity of live performance, but that’s an essay for another day). By including female vocalists, the song makes it clear that pleasure seeking isn’t solely a male activity. In the delightfully over the top line, “I’ve got a lion in my pocket / And baby he’s ready to roar,” Prince is backed up by Jill Jones. In Laconian terms, the phallus is not solely possessed by males. Women have equal access.
Prince didn’t just make a damn catchy funk song perfectly suited for the dance floor. He took a thousand year old tradition in carpe diem poetry and resurrected it for his own time and purposes. There’s a darkness in much of Prince’s music and “1999’s” no exception. The song begins with an voice artificially slowed and deepened claiming, “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.” It’s not terribly comforting. The song bookends with a voice made to be higher pitched asking, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” Prince could find the darkness in every party and start a party to keep away the darkness. The two are inextricably linked. And it’s this ability to complicate “simple” party songs that made him an enduring giant of music. When it comes down to it, we all need to be reminded now and then that “Life is just a party / And parties weren’t meant to last.”