Top of the Pops: 1999

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September 8, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

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As you well know, the 80s are considered to be the decade of decadence because of all the excess.  Now, while the concept of excess is a vague one at that, when we talk about 80s excess we meet many things.  To keep it simple think of it as a formula, 80s excess=

70s Hangover x(cocaine+explosion of sex in mainstream)+Wall Street Boom   Reaganomics

Despite this notion of excess, the 80s were also a rather scary time as well.  The Cold War between the U.S. and the C.C.C.P. seemed to intensify, thus reigniting fears of nuclear war, on top of the latter’s 10 year long invasion of Afghanistan.  Religious fundamentalism was rising in the Middle East in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Egypt.  South America, as a continent, was mired in a cycle of political instability and international debt, while Argentina fought the U.K. over possession of the Falkland Islands.  On the home front, crack cocaine was gripping the nation with fear and addiction in a way that no drug ever did before.  Reaganomics was hurting more than it was helping, and the country was mired in a recession, the worst one since the Great Depression.[1]  Race relations seemed to be breaking down, while the youth began to rebel in new, different ways.  Overall it was a time of great excess, but also a time of great concern and fear over what would become of the world.  And so, in the face of such tumultuousness, the only thing to do is go crazy, so in nostalgia for the 80s, let’s go crazy.

I know that “Let’s Go Crazy” isn’t on 1999, but I couldn’t think of a better segue.  Just as Let It Bleed summarized the 60s, 1999 perfectly summarized 80s.  It exposed everyone to the concept of “Apocalyptic Hedonism”, which as it would turn out would come to typify what the 80s were: a mix of palpable dread of what is to come and a desire for immediate carnal satisfaction.  While this concept has always existed, Prince through 1999 popularized it by putting it in terms that anyone could understand.  Apocalyptic hedonism is the notion that in the face of catastrophe (i.e. the end of the world) one should party and live their life in whatever pleasurable fashion.  This idea stems from Prince’s own devout belief in Christianity and his own personal belief about salvation.  This is never more present than in 1999.

Kicking off the album is the titular track, and despite the fact that it’s fairly obvious to discern from the lyrics, most people don’t understand that the song is literally about the end of the world and it heavily relies on the Book of Revelations for much of its imagery.  The very first line of the album is an ominous voice telling the listener that he only “wants you to have some fun”.  This is the voice of God telling us that it’s ok to enjoy life and party so long as you remain a devout and good person.  The very first lyric however is directly calling upon the biblical notion of receiving prophetic vision in sleep, “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if I go astray, but when I woke up this morning, could have sworn it was judgment day”.  So, similarly to the structure of Revelation, “1999” is in actuality a vision of prophecy, wherein everything described in the song is a vision of an impending doom.  However, despite this impending doom, Prince insists that “We could all die any day but before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away”.  Even the chorus itself is saying that if the world will end in 2000, then 1999 will be spent having a blast.  No other song captures the uncertainty over the future and its ensuing response from an already excessive and decadent culture that rose as a result.  The crux of the song then becomes enjoying life in the face of catastrophe, even if it’s the end of the world, and I think at the time (1982) that’s exactly what the world needed to hear.

Three tracks later on “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” Prince somehow manages to find a way to put in another religious message in an a capella epilogue to the song, despite the first lyric being “Excuse but I need a mouth like yours”.  That little speech he gives at the end of the song goes like this:

“Whatever U heard about me is true
I change the rules and do what I wanna do
I’m in love with God, he’s the only way
‘Cuz U and I know we gotta die some day
If U think I’m crazy, you’re probably right
But I’m gonna have fun every motherfuckin’ night
If U like 2 fight, you’re a double-drag fool
I’m goin’ 2 another life, how ’bout U?”

Here, Prince perfectly captures that sense of “I’m just gonna have fun and let the rest of the world take care of itself” mentality which has come to characterize the 80s.  Again though there’s another reference to God and his belief that he’s going to Heaven because of his faith, which as a result would allow him to go out and have fun every night and use strange women’s mouths.

D.M.S.R. is the next track on the album, and it was after hearing this song for the very first time that I came up with the idea of apocalyptic hedonism.  This is the both the centerpiece of the album as well as the most ambitious song on the album.  I still can’t fully explain it, but despite the song being about dance, music, sex, and romance, there’s still something apocalyptic and dreadful about it.

Dance, music, sex, and romance sums up Prince’s entire career, but in 1982 this is exactly what was going on.  Yet again, we get another reference to religion “Nevermind your friends, girl it ain’t no sin, to strip right down to your underwear” which means that it’s ok to have fun, after all this is what God told us right before “1999”.  The entire song is a celebration of hedonism in the form of dance, music, sex, and romance, but it’s Prince saying that they’re all ok things to be doing.  As I mentioned before about that sense of some background dread, the song finishes with a voice over of a woman screaming for help and for someone to call the police.  The first thing that went through my head was “shit this is really dark”.  But that feeling of doom that I had through the first time listening to the song was confirmed and that’s the point.  D.M.S.R. is a song about the excess of having fun.  There are two ways to look at the ending: 1) the girl is a victim of her own excess, or 2) she is actually in need of help and no one lends a hand because they are so entrenched in their own hedonism.  Nonetheless though it remains a masterpiece along with the rest of side one.

Now, with that said, if 1999 has a flaw, it’s that it is too ambitious, especially for a pop album.  Released as a double album in 1982 it clocks in at a whopping 71 minutes.  There are only 11 songs which means that each song is on average 6:30; for a pop album that is insane.  As a result though it means that by the time side two starts, we’ve already heard the best 1999 has to offer.  The best songs on the album are the first five (“1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, “Delirious”, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, and “D.M.S.R”), and “Automatic” and “Lady Cab Driver”.  The other four songs, because of the strength of the other songs sound boring and repetitive.  It’s like we’ve heard it before and it was better on the other tracks.  However, despite this, 1999 is still a masterpiece of pop music and will always be considered a classic.  Not only because the songs are amazing, or that he fuses so many different genres of music together (rock, pop, RB, funk, soul, and gospel), but because of the overarching theme of doom and trying to escape it through a good time.  Looking back on it, that’s all the 80s were, a time of fear and dread that gave rise to excess.  1999 is the preeminent paradigm of the 1980s because it gave a name to that feeling of dread and excess, I call it apocalyptic hedonism.


[1] The Volker recession was actually a blessing in disguise.  Thank Paul Volker for the U.S.A. not having to deal with double digit inflation in over 30 years

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