‘Controversy’: Remembering Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ and The PMRC: how Prince’s struggle of sinner vs. saint inflamed the moral majority during the Reagan era.
Like many, I’m still in shock about Prince’s death last week. Only recently I eulogized David Bowie, an artist who changed the face of pop-culture.
And Prince, an artist who certainly followed in Bowie’s footsteps, is equally influential. The term “genius” gets thrown around too often, but he was the real deal. His talent so diverse that he forged his own genre: The Minneapolis Sound, which weaved funk, New Wave, soul, psychedelia, and glam into a seamless concoction.
In memoriam, I’ve been blasting his back catalogue, watching his videos on MTV (they’re playing music again!), and trying to pinpoint exactly what made him the musical icon that the world is mourning.
There have been many deserved tributes to his talent and legacy, from as high up as president Obama and divisive Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Which is amazing in its own right, because back in the 80’s, Prince was public enemy number one during the Reagan era, where he was viewed as the devil incarnate by the political establishment.
Prince hit the mainstream when I was in junior high, thanks to his 1984 album Purple Rain. I remember buying it on vinyl, hooked on each track. And I also remember turning down the volume in my house every time Darling Nikki hit the needle, so as not to raise my parent’s eyebrows.
That track, a luridly captivating tale of a sexual tryst, contained this immortal verse:
I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
Those lyrics freaked out political activist Tipper Gore when she heard her daughter listening to the song. Outraged, she formed the PMRC (Political Resource Music Committee), who went before congress on a public crusade to have record companies place parental advisory stickers on albums featuring provocative lyrics.
The public congressional hearing captivated Middle America, leading to Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider’s impassioned plea against censorship.
In the end, musicians lost the fight, and record companies bowed to the moral majority. But it eventually turned into a shrewd marketing tactic: teens are always drawn towards the provocative, and a parental advisory sticker was seen as a seal of approval for Generation X.
So it’s important not to forget what made Prince so thrilling upon his arrival: his sense of danger. Often his best material showed a conflict between the sexual and spiritual: even Nikki ends with a backmasked recording featuring religious overtones:
Hello, how are you? I’m fine.’cause I know
That the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon.
This dichotomy was even more pronounced on Temptation, the album closer to 1985’s Around The World In A Day, which ends with Prince receiving judgement from God over his lascivious ways:
Let me go, let me go
I’ll be good
This time I promise
Love is more important than sex
Now I understand
I have to go now
I don’t know when I’ll return
When Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he stopped performing his provocative material. When asked about his thoughts on Darling Nikki in 2004, Prince told The Washington Post “Times were different back then. I wouldn’t stand out today if I was brand-new and came like that. But see, back then nobody else was doing that, and I knew that would get me over. I didn’t dress like anybody, I didn’t look like anybody, I didn’t sound like anybody.”
American society is at a curious place sexually in 2016: while gay marriage is legalized, the backlash is intense, with the latest uproar erupting over transgender bathroom laws. A women’s right to choose or obtain birth control feels more threatened than ever, given the attack on Planned Parenthood. We even have a presidential candidate who tried to ban dildos in Texas FFS. It’s a depressing state of affairs.
Prince’s lyrics didn’t offer any answers, or clarifications about human sexuality, indeed his androgynous image and edgy performances blurred the lines, prompting only more questions. But isn’t that what art should do? Provoke? To zero in on what makes people uncomfortable and create a dialogue in the process?
So while we mourn Prince’s death, let’s never forget his inner hell raiser, the sinner behind the Saint, and how art should never play it safe.
Modern rock and pop stars can learn a lot from Prince: as a reminder that learning your craft beats having a producer/songwriter doing it for you. And that every tired, pre-programmed attempt at outrage from the next big thing is boring and dead eyed. Prince paved the way. Until someone with access to the mainstream is willing to push that needle further, we can’t move forward.
Besides, Rock and Roll’s very origins are raunchy. The genre is even named for a roll in the hay. It’s a musicians duty to carry that erotic torch. Let’s honor Prince’s memory by keeping it burning.
RIP Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)
You can own ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Around The World In A Day’ below. Stay tuned later this week when I’ll examine the latter’s legacy upon its 31st anniversary.