by Matthew Hall
While we await the next credit bubble, and with it the circumstances that justify pursuit of my master’s thesis, “Metaphors of Technology in R&B;,” plz allow me to share some notes for the chapter “Prince//The Komputer.”
Prince was an early adopter. He got down with l’ordinateur in the early 80s, and quickly established himself as a pioneer of romantic cybernetics. On this extended version of “Computer Blue,” from 1983, we hear a Wendy (Lisa?) monologue around the 10 min. mark:
Narrow-minded computer, it’s time someone programmed you. It’s time you learned. Women are not butterflies, they’re computers too. Just like you, Computer Blue.
Chauvinistic computer, it’s time someone programmed you. You fall in love too fast, in hate too soon — and take for granted the feeling’s mutual. We’re computers, too. Just like you, Computer Blue.
A) Right on.
B) The infamous discussion at the song’s opening (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Shall we begin?” “Yes, Lisa.”) makes better sense when heard less as nonsense hot-tub erotica and more as a HAL 9000 dialogue — or, rather, nonsense hot-tub erotica and HAL 9000 dialogue. Comically, the steamy scene seems all the more “sizzling” when we consider that computerized women are about to submerge in water. Let us consider also that this scenario was foreshadowed in “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” off “1999,” which was issued in 1982.
“Does Not Compute” itself harks back to Funkadelic’s 1973 “No Compute” in which, BTW, the narrator poses the incredible rhetorical question “Is pig pussy pork?” which, surely, is not HALAL 9000.
C) A note on l’ordinateur: A few months ago an elderly African-American woman knocked on our door, kindly asking us to consider the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was particularly trippy because C1) We had been upstairs reading about how Sly Stone’s bassist had converted Prince to Jehovah’s Witnesses (a faith to which he still belongs and for which he participates in door-to-door proselytizing, donning satin capes and platform shoes in suburban Minnesota); C2) the elderly, debonair woman was wearing an I-wish-I-could-tell-you-it-was-raspberry-but-actually-it-was-a-lavender beret; and C3) she closed by pointing to the website listed on the brochure, and said “you can find more information on l’ordinateur.” (Luv the idea that this current “computer fad” is so déclassé that it demands a distancing euphemism. Excuse My French, etc.)
It should be noted that “Computer Blue” was released on “Purple Rain” (1984), a full year prior to the Zapp & Roger masterpiece “Computer Love.”
A decade later, as society began to grapple with the “computer blues” as the human brain was vanquished by “Deep Blue,” Prince had moved onto the next fraught frontier: l’internet. And here, Prince, ever the social theorist, explored the inherent tension in technology.
For Prince — a visionary futurist — the computer offers new avenues of expressive possibility (e.g., he’s a deft cat behind the drum kit…
… but it takes an unsweaty robot to make certain rad beats.
But for Prince, who also serves the square masses as guru of carnality and erotic freedom, the obvious drawback of the computer is the threat that human embrace will be severed/mediated by machine interface.
Prince addresses both faces of the digital dilemma in a pair of songs on “Emancipation,” his 1996 album about divorce (both personal and professional) and the boon/burden of new freedoms. Song the first: “My Computer,” a duet with Kate Bush.
“My Computer” describes a world in which letters and telephones are obsolete, old forms of entertainment are dead, and the outside world is a parade of horrors. To combat loneliness (“I could count my friends with a peace sign — 1, 2”) Prince must turn to the internet, looking for “somebody 2 talk 2, funny and bright.” (For his doldrums, modern medicine offers no solution either: “I told them I don’t wanna see a doctor unless he’s lonely 2.”) The internet provides the rare chance to help Prince find companionship and “make believe a better life.” Listening to “My Computer,” brace yourself for good timez. In addition to time-capsule samples of modem blurps and Welcome, you’ve got mail!, the chorus showcases Prince’s shaky grasp (?) of the terminology: “I scan my computer, looking 4 a site.” Though, we will allow that as legit for 1996.
“My Computer” suggests the positive possibilities of computer-world, and the song is evidence for itself. Just as the characters are separate but connected through technology, so too are Prince and Kate Bush, who never worked together in the studio but swapped files across the Atlantic. (For more on this cosmic alliance, hear also both versions — pre- and post-Princeification — of “Why Should I Love U?” and enjoy the backstory.)
And yet. Prince is also hip to the dark side; 17 years ago, he was already wary of online romance. “Emale” — which presciently rhymes “computer screen” with “sex machine” — vaguely describes a dark internet love triangle where moves are plotted like a chess game. The chorus: “www.emale.com / The king takes the pawn / www.emale.com / It’s on, it’s on, it’s on.” (For chess as the metric of machine domination over man, see also/again/above, Deep Blue.)
The early bird gets the worm, and as Prince is first on the scene, he nabs the inevitable pun “Emale.” (And also the URL, though that has long since lapsed.) But, more importantly, in exploring online romantic duplicity, he uncovers the pun wherein “www” also amounts to “double-you, double-you, double-you.”
(It’s fitting that Prince would explore the love triangle on Emancipation, a triple album inspired by the structure of the Great Pyramids — three discs, each precisely 60:00, a perfect/mystic triangle. Get yr numerology freak on.)
Lastly, let’s consider a strange line on a strange track on a strange album. On “Batdance,” from the soundtrack album “Batman” (1989), Prince — in the midst of a cut and paste sound-collage of audio snippets from the movie — makes a silly-voiced aside to a sound engineer: “Hey Ducky… let me stick the seven inch in the computer…” Beyond the obvious innuendo, it’s also a riff on the incongruence of trying to merge old-fashioned music (7″ records) with the new digital formats.
The rather stupid album ends with one word: “Stop.”
In its due course, this chapter will require an exegesis on Afrika Bambaata’s “Looking For The Perfect Beat.”
p.s. For tangential research, I invite you to browse the Prince fansite thread Are we living inside a computer simulation??? (Answer: yes. “As off-the-wall as this sounds, a team of physicists at the University of Washington (UW) recently announced that there is a potential test to seen [sic] if we actually live in The Lattice.” What’s that you say? Oh, right, T H E L A T T I C E.)
p.p.s. “777–9311” would later provide the beat for 2Pac’s “What’z Ya Phone #?” and provide a template for the drum programming of the whole album (“All Eyez On Me,” 1996).
Of sexy phone number R&B; jams beginning in 77, see also “773-LOVE” by Jeremih — Your panty drawers is all I need / Falling off of your body — and a sweet remix by Cashmere Cat.
Of note: “777–9311” was written/recorded by Prince for Morris Day. When we consider that Morris Day & The Time was largely a Prince creation (a vehicle/outlet for his other musical personalities) it adds an extra level of depth to the bands’ rivalry in the film Purple Rain. And, if you wanna get jiggy with the film and today’s theme: “Computer Blue” was originally titled “Father’s Song” (and songwriting credit given to his father), as the track incorporated a guitar solo based on his father’s unpublished piano music. Computer is the Father of Man, etc. (According to the O.G. “www,” William WordsWorth.)
p.p.p.s Reader doesnotexist69 writes to remind us: “Don’t forget about Prince selling his music via the internet. When Prince bypassed the major distributors and sold his art directly to fans he was cast as an ungrateful rogue. Ten years later when Louis C.K. did the same he was lauded as a visionary populist.”
Yes. Prince was among the first major entertainers to use the web to communicate/commune with his fan base. As Anil Dash, who moonlights as an eminent Prince scholar, noted for Touré’s book on Prince: “Before he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol there was a newsgroup called called alt.music.prince, starting in ’93, on Prodigy and Compuserv and then AOL. These are among the first live synchronous gatherings of fans online. The Prince fan base did Paisley Park chats on Sunday nights but then he started showing up, laying the groundwork for what would today be a social media campaign.”
p.p.p.p.s. Missing from the songs embedded here, despite its above mention, is “Raspberry Beret,” which we’re sure you’ve had un-scant occasions to hear, and for some (no doubt deficient) reason is not among mine fav Prince tracks. For the record, my best-loved Prince song is “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Everything you want, really.
Hear Prince order silly food at a diner “Yeah, let me get a fruit cocktail”; hear Prince accept an invitation to a bubblebath, with a sly caveat “Cool, but I’m leaving my pants on cuz I’m kinda going with someone”; and hear how Prince, in several simultaneous voices, narrates the scene, quotes Joni Mitchell, provides telephone sound effects, gives Dorothy Parker’s dialogue, and offers inner monologue. Prince, healed by his flirtatious encounter with the witty waitress, returns to the home where earlier he’d been fighting with his girlfriend. And we all nod along as he declares triumphantly, “Let me tell you what I did: I took another bubblebath / With my pants on / All the fighting stopped / Next time I’ll do it sooner.”
p.p.p.p.p.s. Bonus Photo: Prince and the computer.
Matt Hall lives in D.C. and is one-third of the brog doomspirals.