Let the Party Begin

This kind of thing isn't without precedent. Think of early rock stars such as Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom rerecorded their greatest hits after leaving their original labels. Often these reprises were live versions, but not always. Roy Orbison's 1987 In Dreams record, released by Virgin to capitalize on the appearance of the title song in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, contained rerecordings of his original Sun and Columbia classics. Orbison's tracery was apparent. By 1987 his voice, while still pure, had lost much of its power, and the glossy production hamstrung the new versions. Prince, on the other hand, has a near-total command of modern production techniques, which greatly increases the chance that he could manufacture a note-for-note copy.

There's even talk that Prince, unwilling to give an inch to Warner Bros., will create an auditory Xerox of the entire album.

Can 17 years be elided with technology, or will careful observers always be able to tell the difference between the Prince of 1982 and the Artist of today? In the end, fans will have to wait for these questions to be answered, because His Purpleness has given no official word on a rerecording, either altered or identical.

But even if twin versions of "1999" do hit the airwaves, it's unlikely that either one will do much to deepen America's appreciation of his booty-shaking masterpiece. The use of the song in an endless series of commercials will surely obscure the fact that the song's words are actually anything but jingly. In fact they're downright apocalyptic.

See, way back in 1982, Prince wasn't thinking of 1999 as the year to recoup millions. He was thinking of it as the year to end all years -- literally. When he sang, "The sky was all purple/There were people running everywhere," he wasn't talking about the scene at one of his arena shows. He was talking about the end of the world.

Strictly millenarian ("2000 zero zero party over oops out of time"), shadowed by a profound fear of nuclear holocaust ("Everybody's got a bomb/We could all die any day"), the song's dance-in-the-face-of-death message is a sequel to an earlier Prince song called "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," which appeared on 1981's Controversy. Written at the height of Cold War tension, "Ronnie" urged then-President Reagan to take a softer stance in his dealings with the Evil Empire.

It, too, buried the sound of an explosion in its rhythm track. Read as an extension of "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," "1999" drops the bomb, P-funk style, on the Bomb. As the song rushes to a close, in fact, a child's voice asks repeatedly, "Mommy... Why does everybody have a bomb?" Then there's the sound of an explosion. The world ends... and "Little Red Corvette" begins.

Pop fans aren't the only ones to blame for the loss of the song's original message. The Artist is at fault, too. After Purple Rain, Prince's agenda became less political and more personal, and the other artists who went banging on the millennium box shifted their focus to domestic affairs.

Specifically, rap took up the end-of-the-world rhetoric and used it to describe the dire condition of America's cities. Artists such as Brand Nubian, N.W.A, and Public Enemy all drew on apocalyptic symbolism. (Remember Flavor Flav's Countdown to Armageddon clock?) Such doom-seeking persists. The Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man just released Tical 2000: Judgement Day.

Meanwhile the Artist, having abandoned his preoccupation with geopolitics, has transformed "1999" into an encore for his arena shows. And these days, when he does ascend a soapbox, it's usually to complain about copyright law.

Times change. People change. Names change. Songs change. Even when they remain the same.

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