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This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Prince, “God.”
THE YEAR: 1984.
THE REASONS: Making a Prince fan question his faith… in Prince.
As someone who stumbled into adolescence in the early- to mid-’80s, I can attribute a lot of firsts in my life to Prince. First time to second base? Listening to Prince. First time to third base? Listening to Prince. First time I got in serious trouble due to the content of a song? That would be Prince, too. (Thanks, Warner Bros.: “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” was a great idea for a single. Sorry, Mrs. Cox at the skating rink; I’ll never trick you into playing it again.)
Prince was also the first pop star to show me that the song on the radio was only telling part of the story. Although these days, Prince is often mentioned in the same breath as fellow ’80s heavyweights Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen, it’s important to note that he was by far the fringiest of the four, and as inscrutable as he was omnipresent. Madonna was into sex, Michael was into dancing, Bruce was into rock ‘n’ roll; Prince was into all of it. This meant that Prince had something to appeal to—and repulse—nearly every segment of the music-loving population. When you said you were into Madonna or Bruce or Michael, your peers could instantly get a bead on what type of person you were and where you slotted into the regimented hierarchy of your public school. If you were a real, diehard Prince fan, you were too weird to hang out with the pop kids and too into pop music to be taken seriously by the weird kids. It didn’t matter that pretty much all the other kids probably liked a Prince song or two; it was just that they didn’t like all of them.
Me? I liked all of them. And when I discovered, upon flipping over my 45 of “1999,” that Prince had even more songs than the ones on his albums, my pre-teen mind was blown. Prince B-sides—far more than his hits—defined this period in time for me, and I would annoy the shit out of my friends with my insistence that, yes, “17 Days” or “Irresistible Bitch” were way better than the radio hits and album tracks they were listening to. (After “Erotic City,” I no longer had to do this; it was case closed.) Budding indie-snobbery aside, these B-sides were an assurance from the pop-music pantheon that all due efforts would be made to ensure that I got to hear as many different aspects of this dude’s music as possible.
This turned out to be not quite as awesome as I would have hoped.
When Prince released the title track from the Purple Rain soundtrack as a single in the autumn of 1984, it had, as a B-side, a song called “God.” And listening to that song for the first time, I realized that listening to Prince could be a deeply embarrassing experience. It was, doubtlessly, the worst song he had released to that point, worse than the treacly ballads, worse than the formative disco, worse than Side Two of Controversy.
With swooshing, echoey sound effects (clearly meant to evoke what the fluffy white clouds of heaven sound like to a rich, cloistered, 26-year-old pop star) providing the backdrop, Prince goes off on a supremely weird vocal tangent that sounds like a comedian doing a bit about Yoko Ono trying to sing gospel. That freeform stuff goes on for a while, until the “real” song kicks in with sing-song-y lyrics about “God made you, God made me/He made us all, equally” (with “equally” being sung like “eee-eeeehh-quaaaaaa-lllee-leee-eee-eeeeee”) punctuated by yelps and yowls and guttural screaming and … holy fucking shit, this cannot be the “Erotic City” guy, can it? To a 13-year-old, this is just an awful, awful thing, perfectly crafted to instantly elicit giggles. There was no explaining this one to non-fans. Hell, there was no explaining this to fellow fans.
I suddenly realized why everyone thought Prince was weird and creepy. It was because he was weird and creepy. Who else greets worldwide fame and multi-platinum record sales with a B-side that barely qualifies as music? “God” was a clear line in the sand from Prince, in which he made it clear that he was going to do whatever he wanted, regardless of how completely dumb or insane-seeming it might be. It didn’t diminish my respect for him as an artist, nor did it mute my rapacious quest to get my ears around every piece of music he records. But it did coalesce a couple of things for me. Primarily, being a Prince fan is to travel down a long, lonely road. The only other people that get your admiration and obsession are other Prince fans, and other Prince fans are just the worst. And, secondarily, if you’re listening to Prince in the car, make sure you’ve got the windows up.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
I say this as someone who’s heard the songs that Prince made for a Nick Nolte musical, as someone who’s heard the Prince songs that Tevin Campbell rejected, and as someone who has watched Graffiti Bridge: Nearly 30 years later, “God” is still one of the absolute worst songs that Prince has ever made. Still love Prince, still cringe at the thought of having to ever hear this song again.