Monday, May 5, 2008

Bend Me, Shape Me #2: 1999

It's difficult to remember now, in 2008, how far away the year 1999 seemed in 1982 when Prince released his breakthrough album 1999. Believe me, for a 12 year-old thinking about what the world would be like when he was 29, 1999 felt like a million years away (kind of like it does now in the rearview mirror).

"Can U take me 4 a ride?"

Fortunately for me, Prince hadn't yet gained notoriety for his explicit lyrics and I was allowed to own and play 1999 at such a tender age (though after one listen I made very sure never to play it when grown-ups were around). I was turned on to the record by a pivotal radio station in my musical evolution: WBLZ 103.5 in Cincinnati. WBLZ was a dance-oriented urban station that played a lot of the electrified post-disco/pre-hip hop funk (Roger's "In the Mix" and Art of Noise's "Beat Box" were two staples) that was hot in those days, and Prince was the belle of the ball.

I feel like the entire summer of 1983 was devoted to listening to 1999 while playing marathon ping-pong "tournaments" and ColecoVision Zaxxon and Donkey Kong in the basement of my friend CS's house. My insatiable thirst for funk was born and, thanks to Prince's dirty mind, my adolescent curiosity about sex was ramped up, oh, about 11,000%.

Prince could even make chain mail gloves look sexy

Look here Martian, I'm not sayin' this just 2 be nasty
I sincerely wanna fuck the taste outta your mouth
Can U relate?

Actually, Prince, I couldn't relate, but lyrics like this from "Let's Pretend We're Married" sure did get the blood boiling (and, frankly, scared me). That said, the music on 1999 was even more compelling than his lyrics (and that's saying a lot). Released only one month after "A Broken Frame" on October 27, 1982, 1999 took two of that album's primary instruments- synthesizers and drum machines- and used them in polar opposite fashion. Prince took electronic music and made it feel visceral and organic and alive (as opposed to the clinical, glacial sounds of early Depeche Mode). I just discovered today that Prince was heavily influenced by BLADE RUNNER while recording 1999, and the connection makes perfect sense: both masterpieces are obsessed with the blurring of the line between man and machine.

remember how hard it was to fly through those gaps in the wall?

"Automatic" and "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" are my two favorite tracks on the album, and both of them felt like they were exploring alternate universe male/female relationships.

U ask me if I'll kiss u
It's automatic
And if u cry, me cry, boo hoo
That's automatic 2, ooh

As amazing a musician as Prince is, it's still weird that his signature sound (to me, anyway) is the drum machine hand-clap found all over this record, but it also makes sense too. Listening to 1999 then was so exciting and so confusing and so infectious, and the album holds up like a champ today. I'd wager that any deejay who dropped "D.M.S.R." in a club on a sweaty Saturday night would see the dancefloor jump. Not for nostalgic reasons either- it's a timeless booty-shaker for the Prince fan and the uninitiated alike.

**If you're new to the site, the goal of the Bend Me, Shape Me series can be found here.**

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