Tonight We're Gonna Market Like It's 1999

I am dreaming as I write this. Forgive me if it goes astray. The artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and currently known only as The Artist, has been baffling critics and fans for the better part of the decade. Ever since his 1993 decision to change his name to a squiggly glyph, Prince has maximized his professional and personal idiosyncrasies. He scrawled "Slave" on his face, flung off the shackles of his contract with Warner Bros., then released a series of leviathanic albums through an independent distributor. He got married, had a child, and then refused to comment on the death of that child from a rare fused-skull syndrome. He stopped being a recluse, hit the road running with a funk supertour that included Chaka Khan and Larry Graham, and then supposedly joined Graham as a member of the Jehovah's Witness faith.

Basically he's been all over the map. But soon enough, Prince-watchers will have him just where they want him. Why? Because (as your calendars indicate) it's late 1998, almost 1999. And 1999, of course, will be Prince's year.

Way back in 1982, in fact, when he was merely a 23-year-old polymorphously perverse polymath who dabbled brilliantly in rock, pop, funk, punk, and soul music, he composed, performed, arranged, and produced a little song you might remember. Titled "1999," it kicked off the album of the same name, and was a searing six-minute-plus slice of space-funk that cemented his position as the most innovative artist on this or any other planet.

1999, the album, wasn't all about "1999," the single. Prince's first double album, it was also his first record to hit the Top 10, and it established him as the premier star of the decade. "Little Red Corvette" and "Delirious" also charted, and the second half of the disc, full of dense, robotic funk, contains some of Prince's most challenging music. "Automatic" weds New Wave pop to the high technology of the day; "Lady Cab Driver" is a perfectly perverse amalgam of the profane and the sacred; and "D.M.S.R." locks down on a groove that would make the Gap Band run for cover. The album even had social impact: a few years later, songs such as "Let's Pretend We're Married" made 1999 a flash point for the rock censorship controversy.

But make no mistake: 1999 (the year) will be all about "1999" (the single). Starting with the first spark of January, and running until the final embers of December die out, Prince's first big hit will blanket the airwaves, assuming control of television, radio, and the Internet. If you think Sly Stone's "Everyday People" has been overused by Toyota, just wait until the advertisers get their mitts on "1999." Marketers like to talk about mindshare, the gross presence of a brand or product. Come January, "1999" is going to have everyone's minds, and it's not going to share.

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the song is the top request from ad agencies nationwide, and bids are starting at one million dollars, roughly four times what's usually paid for exclusive licensing rights for a pop song. Whoever ends up buying the song will make the song's owner rich.

There's only one problem with this scenario: The Artist doesn't own "1999." Or rather, he doesn't own it entirely.

As the song's composer he receives residuals whenever it's played, but a high percentage of the spoils goes to the owner of the master recording. And the master of "1999," along with the master of every other song Prince submitted to Warner Bros. from 1978 until 1996, remains the property of the record company. Warner is already scrambling to profit from the song's timeliness. Promotional copies of a reissued "1999" single went out to radio stations last month, and the label is also shipping new versions of the original album and Prince's greatest-hits package with stickers highlighting the song.

So what's a former funk legend who's lost use of his name and masters to do?
Well, here's where we enter the fascinating world of American copyright law. Although Prince isn't master of the masters any longer, he does have the right to record a new performance of his old composition. He could update "1999," deepening the bass, tweaking the lyrics, overlaying a rap by one of the lame rappers he seems to favor. He could create a 45-minute party mix designed to be played at New Years parties on December 31, 1999. He could even allow his song to be worked over by a hotshot producer, and there are rumors that he's doing exactly that, calling on Miami native Cesar Sogbe, a veteran world-music mixman who engineered tracks on Prince's Chaos and Disorder and Emancipation LPs. In this case, The Artist's new version would vie with Prince's old version for top billing.

But there's another possible outcome in the great "1999" sweepstakes. According to the terms of music copyright law, Prince could create a sound-alike version of his original hit. An absolutely identical sound-alike version.

That's right. As long as he doesn't use the original Warner Bros. masters, he could vanish into his studio, fabricate a note-for-note replica of the original song, and release it to radio as competition for the original "1999."

This kind of thing isn't without precedent. Think of early rock stars such as Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, all of whom re-recorded their greatest hits after leaving their original labels. Often, these reprises were live versions, but not always. Roy Orbison's 1987 In Dreams record, released by Virgin to capitalize on the appearance of the title song in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet, contained re-recordings of his original Sun and Columbia classics. Orbison's tracery was apparent. By 1987, his voice, while still pure, had lost much of its power, and the glossy production hamstrung the new versions. Prince, on the other hand, has a near-total command of modern production techniques, which greatly increases the chance that he could manufacture a note-for-note copy.

There's even talk that Prince, unwilling to give up an inch to Warner Bros., will create an auditory Xerox of the entire album.

Can seventeen years be elided with technology, or will careful observers always be able to tell the difference between the Prince of 1982 and The Artist of today? In the end, fans alike will have to wait for these questions to be answered, because His Purpleness has given no official word on a re-recording, either altered or identical.

But even if twin versions of "1999" do hit the airwaves, it's unlikely that either one will do much to deepen America's appreciation of his booty-shaking masterpiece. The use of the song in an endless series of commercials will surely obscure the fact that the song's words are actually anything but jingly. In fact, they're downright apocalyptic.

See, way back in 1982, Prince wasn't thinking of 1999 as the year to recoup millions. He was thinking of it as the year to end all years --literally. When he sang, "The sky was all purple/ There were people running everywhere," he wasn't talking about the scene at one of his arena shows. He was talking about the end of the world.

Strictly millennarian ("2000 zero zero party over oops out of time"), shadowed by a profound fear of nuclear holocaust ("Everybody's got a bomb/ We could all die any day"), the song's dance-in-the-face-of-death message is a sequel to an earlier Prince song called "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," which appeared on 1981's Controversy. Written at the height of Cold War tension, "Ronnie" urged then-President Reagan to take a softer stance in his dealings with the Evil Empire.

It, too, buried the sound of an explosion in its rhythm track. Read as an extension of "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," "1999" drops the bomb, P-funk style, on the Bomb. As the song rushes to a close, in fact, a child's voice asks repeatedly, "Mommy ... Why does everybody have a bomb?" Then there's the sound of an explosion. The world ends ... and "Little Red Corvette" begins.

Pop fans aren't the only ones to blame for the loss of the song's original message. The Artist is at fault, too. After Purple Rain, Prince's agenda became less political and more personal, and the other artists who went banging on the millennium box shifted their focus to domestic affairs.

Specifically, rap took up the end-of-the-world rhetoric and used it to describe the dire condition of America's cities. Artists such as Brand Nubian, NWA, and Public Enemy all drew on apocalyptic symbolism (remember Flavor Flav's Countdown to Armageddon clock?). Such doomseeking persists. The Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man just released Tical 2000: Judgement Day.

Meanwhile The Artist, having abandoned his preoccupation with geopolitics, has transformed "1999" into an encore for his arena shows. And these days, when he does ascend a soapboax, it's usually to complain about copyright law.

Times change. People change. Names change. Songs change. Even when they remain the same.

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Ben Greenman

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