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Allen Beaulieu / Reverend

Prince’s 1999 album and Generation X

By Douglas Rasmussen

Writer Scott Woods notes in his blog “Every Prince fan is the World’s Biggest Prince Fan,” that for most Prince fans, “you likely have your own origin story.” My own Prince origin story happens to be with the album 1999, which is getting its own deluxe edition treatment this winter. As with a number of Generation X individuals I discovered a significant amount of new music through MTV.

At the time I was being raised by a single mother who could not afford cable television, but my father, whom I visited every second weekend, had access to cable television. It was the only opportunity I had to watch music videos and would obsessively—often to my father’s chagrin—consume as many music videos as I possibly could during that weekend. It was through MTV that I first discovered music acts such as David Bowie, The Talking Heads, and the Eurythmics. With Prince my earliest memories are of seeing the “Little Red Corvette” and “1999” music videos on MTV and then listening to some of the cassette singles before eventually buying the full-length 1999 album in either late 1983 or early 1984, just months prior to the release of Purple Rain. 1999 was the first album, or, in my case, cassette tape, that I ever purchased with my own money after a slow trickle of music videos and singles.

I was perhaps was not old enough to fully comprehend the BDSM imagery that appears throughout 1999. What I did understand was that the appearance of an androgynous singer dressed in purple with make-up on his face made my father apoplectic about the loosening of social morals in contemporary society. That sense of rebellion was enough to provide me with my initial hook to listen to Prince, although my immersion into the music universe of Prince did not occur until a year or two after the album’s release. As music psychologist Daniel J. Levitin writes, “It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest.” Indeed, I would have been around ten or eleven years old before I finally scraped enough money together to purchase 1999 on cassette tape, depending on whether it was 1983 or 1984. I was initially intrigued by the music video for “1999” and had enough of a recognition that Prince was singing about the malaise and cynicism that was emerging with Generation X and apocalyptic fears over mutually assured destruction. Donald E. Miller observes in his book Gen X Religion, “In many ways, Gen X is not more cynical than previous generations, but simply more realistic, living within the bleak reality of a society no longer whitewashed with a Leave It to Beaver front.” This was evident in the obvious disconnect between the youth of Generation X and our parents, particularly with the hypocrisy of their words with their actions. Prince’s existential malaise in the song “1999”—with its feeling that the world we have inherited is hopelessly corrupt—so why not just dance and party and have fun?— provided a counter to the hypocrisy that was occurring in the homes of many Gen Xers. We were beginning to understand that the social and moral authority of our parent’s generation could not be relied upon or trusted.

‘1999’ Live at The Summit, Houston, TX, 12/29/1982

1999 is both a funky dance album, but also is a powerful ode to individuality. The breakdown of the nuclear family that is so identifiable with Generation X is why it is evident why albums like 1999, and two years later with Purple Rain, would constitute my first exposure to “real music,” to borrow Levitin’s terminology. As Generation X we were all feeling the same disconnection expressed by Prince. When Prince sings “War is all around us / My mind says prepare to fight” it acts as a rallying cry for a generation that was already on edge. As Lawrence Grossberg points out, “ authentic rock depends on its ability to articulate private but common desires, feelings and experiences into a shared public language.” Rock and pop music are experienced individually, but the common frames of reference connect fans in a collective understanding. Prince’s music, especially 1999, which was a chart-topping album, but just on the cusp of the massive media explosion that would dominate Purple Rain, did feel authentic to our generation. Prince seemed to be a musician who was an auteur who also just happened to be commercially successful.

The album 1999 and the contexts that surround it, such as my parents’ divorce and the difficulties that accompany those conditions, is rooted in the growing awareness of life’s difficulties and the failure of the nuclear family unit. Since 1970—the first year that divorce became statistically dominant—the divorce rate has steadily increased. In the early 1980s, the divorce hit 9.5% per 1000 marriages in the United States and 9.33% per 1000 marriages in Canada (where I am from). These rates roughly correlate to around 60% of marriages ending in divorce, meaning that more people understand my experience being a young child of divorced parents rather than the experience of having the same both parents their entire lives. 1999 and Purple Rain both reflect this more cynical reality of divorce, and the general failure of our social and moral institutions, whether they are parents, teachers, or Church ministers. For Generation X there was a feeling of the breakdown of society because the norms and traditions put in place by previous generations were crumbling. If our parents and school teachers could not be counted on to maintain their values, how do they expect the younger generation to follow suit?

When Prince sings “Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day” he is signalling to Generation X the new harsh, cynical reality that was emerging for us.

When Prince sings “Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day” he is signalling to Generation X the new harsh, cynical reality that was emerging for us. The moral authority of our parents, or anyone from the prior generation espousing a moral viewpoint, when these are the same individuals who are contributing to the social strife all around us, was made evident. As Richard Kim notes in an article for The Nation, “On one side there is your childhood, there is Reagan and AIDS and nuclear war. On the other side, there is Prince.” Hearing the party anthems of 1999 and that it upset our parents became like a salve to our difficult situation, a call-to-arms for rebellion against the constrictions of a false reality.

1999 is not only is one of Prince’s earliest albums—being only his fifth—but is the first actual album that I was able to purchase with my own money (well, allowance and a combination of birthday money, but certainly the first purchase I consciously decided upon myself). What is particularly interesting about this perspective is that I can analyze Prince at an early stage in his career and correlate it with my own development to focus on how they match up and how have they shifted over the decades since. In terms of 1999 this means looking at the album to decipher how those views changed through the decades and what they mean to both fans of the material, especially those who grew up with Prince in the 1980s, as well to Prince himself. Questions such as, “How has the context of 1999 changed?”, “Does knowing about Prince’s later career trajectory alter my autobiographical experience with the album?” and “How much of my past impressions of 1999 have been rewritten in my consciousness in accordance with aging, maturity, and a deeper understanding the album’s themes and symbols over the period of four decades?” pepper my reading of the album these three decades later.

Prince’s 1999 album and Generation X
Credits: Allen Beaulieu / Reverend

Our identification with music has long been a source of interest for sociologists and psychologists alike. How do these bits of sound and noise form a coherent experience which informs our identity to the point where we connect in a tribalistic fashion with our musical associations? The emotional connection to this album, in particular, conjures up many questions about music’s role in shaping autobiographical memory and whether it reflects our reality or in part helps construct our identity. The intensity of our teenage years, combined with music releasing dopamine and serotonin into our brains and creating a neurological bond, creates a strong emotional connection and even nostalgic fondness for certain songs of our youth. Which brings into question a multitude of questions about music and identity and how our musical choices are formed and changed over time. Just how accurate are our impressions of the past, and have they been influenced or altered by music? Because popular culture has become so ingrained in our contemporary media landscape, disentangling these sociological issues and their impact on identity formation in youth, especially during the peak 1980s when music videos became more easily accessible through MTV or Friday Night Videos, proposes a significant challenge to our understanding of the effects of rock and pop on the self.

To this effect music sociologist Simon Frith in an essay called ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music‘ theorizes that popular music performs four basic social functions. These four social functions, as Frith has outlined, are particularly relevant to the music of your youth. And since I have already established 1999 as an important cultural signifier to my younger years, it is interesting to see how this album correlates to music and identity. For instance, the first social function Frith identifies is that music provides enjoyment “because of its use in answering questions of identity: we use pop songs to create for ourselves a particular sort of definition, a particular place in society.” For “1999” this has the specific context of Generation X and the aforementioned apathy. A typical view of Generation X, and certainly the one held by my father for many years, was that we were a generation of slackers and malcontents. However, we were living in economically dismal times during the peak of cold war hysteria. In “1999” sings:

The sky was all purple

There were people running everywhere

Trying to run from the destruction

And you know I didn’t even care

— '1999' by Prince and the Revolution

Seemingly this would confirm the perception of Generation X being slackers, but we were left to a world that was largely screwed up by older generations and we felt powerless to do anything about it. I was labelled as being a difficult child with learning difficulties by my school teachers— the stigma of which would prevent me from going to university for many years—and we inherited a social reality with poor economic prospects and politicians who seemingly had their fingers poised on the button. Nuclear war was a palpable and real fear amongst Generation X. Prince’s lyrics spoke directly to that fear, and as such contributed significantly to our generation’s autobiographical sense of self. This was music made for us.

Prince’s lyrics spoke directly to that fear, and as such contributed significantly to our generation’s autobiographical sense of self. This was music made for us.

The second social function Frith discusses is that popular music also gives us “a way of managing the relationship between our public and personal lives.” This is most evident in love songs, which speaks to humanity at its most vulnerable and intimate. At eleven years old this obviously was not the case for me. But Prince did speak to an inner, private self that I was not expressing, and much like a lot of other young kids, felt like I was experiencing alone. In 1999 Prince touched upon the malaise and cynicism that was emerging with Generation X with the song “1999” and its apocalyptic fears over mutually assured destruction. Two years later Prince would continue this idea with Purple Rain, which crystallized in me the feelings of alienation, loneliness, and the effects of my parents’ divorce that I was reluctant to express at the time. My parents divorced when I was eight years old, so very early on I was aware of just how broken the idea of a nuclear family truly was. By the time of 1999 and Purple Rain’s respective releases, I was already very familiar with just how corrosive dysfunctional family dynamics can be on an individual’s state of mind.

It is notable that Purple Rain begins the album (and movie) with a track that not only expresses despair over the conditions of modernity and this new cynical generation, but also continues on the same apocalyptic tone from his last album, 1999. The sermon that begins “Let’s Go Crazy” is an extension of the generational malaise of the previous album and threads the two albums together, signifying an important cultural trend for Generation X. Continuing the apocalyptic tones of his previous album 1999, the title track “Purple Rain” points to an apocalyptic rain of blood-red against a blue sky (red + blue =purple) which signals a sort of postmodern rapture where the values of old struggle against the values of the next generation. When Prince sings, “I know times are changing / It’s time we all reach out for something new, that means you too” it is a powerful anthem for a young generation who are in constant tension with the acceleration of modernity and the increasing fragmentation of society. When Prince sings in “When Doves Cry”: “How could you leave me in a world so cold?” the personal anguish expressed by him resonated deeply with me, and with a lot of kids who were the products of divorce, suffered heartbreak, or have been subjected to the failures of our social and moral institutions. The bleakness of that song is felt on a personal level, yet it is the collective experience of surviving through Generation X that connects all of us fans together.

The third social function Frith discusses is how music helps “shape popular memory, to organize our sense of time. Clearly one of the effects of all music, not just pop, is to intensify our experience of the present.” Which is perhaps why after all these decades I can still recall the first time I saw “Little Red Corvette.” The music video is etched in my mind as the genesis of everything Prince, my particular Prince origin story, to borrow from Scott Woods again. From that point, I can extrapolate a rough guideline, aided with some help from Wikipedia for the dates, for how my interest in Prince developed over the years. Music not only places in an ethereal and timeless present when listening to an album, especially upon its initial discovery, but also provides a sort of outline for our maturation and development. As Frith continues, “music in itself provides our most vivid experience of time passing.” Music becomes more needed during times of duress and anxiety.

The fourth social function Frith denotes is that music becomes “something to be possessed.” This can be taken both literally and figuratively. In literal terms, this applies most especially to record collectors and memorabilia collectors. I was never much into collecting anything, which remains true to this day. I never grew up with enough money to actually collect so the habit never formed. But I do recall scraping together, ever so slowly, enough money to purchase those singles and the eventual cassette tape. Interpreted figuratively, however, and this possession also accounts for the obsessive nature of fandom. In my particular instance, it is the feeling of getting in on the ground floor, of discovering Prince before the massive commercial success of Purple Rain made him a household name. Even though he was a chart-topper with 1999, not to mention that fans who started with Dirty Mind would look at that album as the ground floor. My only defence being, of course, that I am limited by age. Even as it is I was probably far too young to be listening to Prince.

Since the two year span which gave us 1999 and Purple Rain occurred at a pivotal moment in my development, as well as having already seen my parents’ divorce, the emotional connection to 1999 conjures up many questions about music’s role in shaping autobiographical memory and whether it reflects our reality or in part helps construct our identity. With rock music and albums such as 1999 there is the paradoxical feeling of having a collective experience and an individualizing form is what is intriguing about music’s effect on our identity. There is also a circular loop created by popular music. As Lawrence Grossberg writes in an essay that appears in the anthology On The Record he writes that music “constructs a circular relation between the music and the fan.” The social community that develops around popular music contributes to this circular nature, with the collective experience reinforcing the intensity of the individualizing art. As Grossberg points out, rock “depends on its ability to articulate private but common desires, feelings and experiences into a shared public language.” Rock and pop music are experienced individually, but the common frames of reference connect fans in a collective understanding. In regards to 1999 that means the individual anxiety we felt is reinforced by the overall cultural atmosphere, we felt as members of Generation X.

The collective experience of rock and pop music, however, gives way to some concerns about commodification and the external factors in its mass appeal. Because rock music has always been connected with imagery, whether it was the musical films of Elvis Presley or the music videos on MTV, there is criticism that rock is prefabricated rebellion sold to a youthful audience. I would counter that as Generation X came to realize the failure of our parents’ values, this need for music to act as a catharsis against familial constraints became ever so powerful. In this manner, 1999 and Purple Rain introduce a necessary sense of rebellion and individuality at a young age and in a fashion that is more accessible by young people. In my perspective rebellion and individualism, particularly a rebellion against familial conformity, performs a vital function for young kids.

Prince was a unique and creative performer who spoke to a generation who were fighting against the rigid hierarchies implemented by the previous generation. 

Questlove put it best when he said: “Prince created a culture.” Prince was a unique and creative performer who spoke to a generation who were fighting against the rigid hierarchies implemented by the previous generation. That Prince created a culture is why Prince’s death inspires so many reflective explorations of his legacy. In my case examining his career in a parallel trajectory with my emotional development through the years. This means looking at Prince’s earliest albums, with 1999 being only his fifth album, in conjunction with his later musical development. This retrospective of his legacy, whether through personal anecdotes, sociological studies, or just analyzing his music, are why the deluxe editions of his albums are a much-needed project for the Prince Estate. 1999 has obvious reasons for why it is next in line, being that it essentially made Prince a commercial success that would pave the way for the superstardom of Purple Rain. For me 1999 also carries with it the nostalgia of being the first album I ever purchased with my own money. But it is not just nostalgia, for unlike some of my other 1980s musical tastes, like *ahem* Billy Idol, Prince’s albums still figures heavy in my rotation because they are acknowledged masterpieces of musical art. Although if the Prince Estate could also get around doing a Parade deluxe edition—one of my absolute favorites of his—that would also be cool.

About the author

Douglas Rasmussen

Douglas Rasmussen was born on the Canadian prairies, but his maternal grandfather originally was born in Prince's home state of Minnesota.

He has a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan where he majored in American Literature and Film Studies and wrote his thesis on the AMC TV series Breaking Bad. He has published articles on Canadian History and Virginia Woolf, and has chapters in upcoming collections of critical essays on various Film Studies topics to be published in 2020. Discussing film is his first love, but any time he has a chance to discuss Prince, David Bowie, or Tom Waits, he is more than happy to do so.

You can follow him at @grumpybookgeek on Twitter.

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