1999 has gained poignancy since The Purple One’s death last year. It’s not just the effect of hearing a voice from beyond the grave that sounds so alive, though that’s definitely part of it. It’s also the words he’s singing, particularly on the first two tracks, which flirt with ideas of death and destruction whilst maintaining an unquestionable lust for life.
“1999” is a song about dancing your troubles away, even though you know it’s all inevitably going to end: ‘life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last’. It makes you weep inside to recall how Prince’s own party was tragically cut short, and hence gives the musical buoyancy of the song (ah, those synths!) a deep well of sadness. Meanwhile “Little Red Corvette” is more conventionally erotic, making a link between cars and sex that has been a part of rock n’ roll mythology since at least Chuck Berry, yet whenever I hear it now I picture this simple, moving testament to his enduring legacy in the form of an ad that was published in the New York Times after his death.
“1999” and “Little Red Corvette” were always two of his most iconic songs, and now their iconography has doubled in power. Which they were always going to, following the inevitable, considering their themes.
The reason Prince’s and David Bowie’s deaths shocked us so much was that they always appeared superhuman, as if they had existed forever and always would. This was partly because of their superheroic talent, of course, but it was also because they both carefully crafted their various alter egos in public and on stage. David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. Prince had Camille and, erm, an unpronounceable symbol. Ok, that latter one for Prince was deeply silly, but the point is that they created their own mythologies during their lifetimes so that death seemed like an impossibility, because how can parts of a popular culture ‘die’ in the way that human beings can?
What’s interesting about 1999 is that it opens with a dance music track about death, and then goes on to consider the way in which Prince the pop star will, in some form, manage to survive beyond death: technology. Whether it’s by playing his songs on Spotify, listening to his albums on CD players, or streaming his videos on Youtube, Prince has left such a huge impact on various media that he will continue to be played via multiple mediums for decades, if not centuries to come. And every time he is streamed, in whatever format, he is cheating death just a little more, because his memory is still lingering on in the minds of those who cherish his music. Somehow, in some postmodern way, he will still manage to exist.
So 1999 is fascinated with modern technology, as if Prince realised early on in his career that it was his best chance at living forever. The album contains a red corvette, a romance that’s described as “Automatic”, something in the water that ‘does not compute’, a cab driven by a lady, and Prince as a captain wooing a lover on a plane called the ‘Seduction 747’. Meanwhile synthesisers and drum machines, overtly sounding like computers rather than musical instruments, dominate the funky tone of the album, reminding us again and again that technology doesn’t necessarily have to mean soullessness.
Because although Prince is clearly fascinated with how technology intermingles with sex, relationships, and death in the modern world, he also never loses his faith in humanity. The rockabilly of “Delirious”, the warmest track on the album, captures the excitement of new love like few other songs in rock history, with its squeaky riff generating genuine delirium in the listener. “All the Critics Love U in New York” uses its bass-tastic structure to create rich veins of sarcastic humour, whilst avoiding tipping over into hostile spitefulness. And “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is a clever inversion of the idea that sex gets less interesting when you’re married – the couple can only go at it all night if they’re pretending to be husband and wife. These are all tracks that show a great interest in the subtleties and joys of being human, and they make 1999 a thrilling listen where, for instance, Kraftwerk’s similarly technologically obsessed albums can feel like frosty intellectual exercises.
So I adore Prince, and I adore this album. It’s always impressive to consider how the tracks are all essentially extended dance remixes of singles, a risk that pays off because they are all improved by length. They stretch out into a technological infinity, which matches the overall concept of machines inevitably overtaking mankind, and allowing the greatest musician of the ’80s (no question) room to breathe and stretch his instrumental muscles on guitar and vocals in particular.
As usual with Prince, you have to make some allowances for the less well thought out lyrical ideas – the apocalyptic overtones of “1999” get dafter the more you think about them, particularly as they’re tied to such a specific date (and yes, I do realise it’s a metaphor, just not a particularly good one). And his credo for “D.M.S.R.” makes it sound suspiciously like he thinks Dance, Music, Sex, and Romance are the only things worth living for – whereas anyone who’s thought about life for more than a few seconds will know that that’s simply not true. No matter how great all of those things unquestionably are.
But that’s really just nitpicking, and those two songs are still terrific, infectious, funkadelic, eternally danceable songs. 1999 remains an exhilarating listen, for this writer slotting in behind only Sign o’ the Times and Dirty Mind in the pantheon of great Prince albums (most would put Purple Rain on top, yet though it contains some of his best work, I’ve never really engaged with much of the filler).
I’m glad that Prince and the rest of the world survived past 1999, but I’m still devastated by his early loss. Do yourself a favour and give 1999 another spin, to carry the flame of his memory a little further, and to help the genius to live on and cheat death just that little bit longer.