(post by Megan Lent)
Commonly misheard lyrics, also known as mondegreens—I wish I could say that I had to research this term and didn’t already know it due to a memorable swan-dive into a Wikipedia K-hole last summer that started with “malapropism” and ended with me splayed out in one of the deeper circles of semiotics hell—are wonderful. I think it’s beautiful that some people hear one thing and some hear another and they’re both kind of equally right, or at least equally revealing as to the listener’s interior life.
“Hold me closer, Tony Danza” is an adorable phrase, and even though I think that joke is from Friends, it has so entered the popular cultural lexicon that I feel I can reference it without necessarily acknowledging a show I don’t like. Neutral Milk Hotel fans can go on for days about whether the line in “Oh Comely” is “drunk on your awe to me” or “drunk on your automy” (as in a shortened “autonomy”) (as in “it’s totally this one because it’s so much more gorgeous to think of a person drunk on their own sense of self and sense of freedom than someone worshipping another human, that’s so gross, like, go get a tattoo and reassert your individual humanity, better yet get a Neutral Milk Hotel tattoo, better yet get a tattoo of Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics that are so nonsensical that strange men will use them as a means of attempting to start conversations with you any time you wear short sleeves for the rest of your life,” but I digress.) There are swaths of Bob Dylan songs that could either be smartly cynical indictments of modern capitalism or recipes for brownies with a dash of coffee added into the batter to pack a little punch.
The whole reason I’m bringing up mondegreens, though, is to talk about my favorite mondegreen that isn’t a mondegreen. By which I mean that it’s the actual line to an actual song, but it’s so, so, so terrific, and so unlike anything anyone else I’m familiar with would ever write, that I can’t totally believe it’s real.
I’m talking about the part in “Raspberry Beret” where the girl with the raspberry beret comes into the Five and Dime: she came in through the out door.
In just seven words, Prince created an entire character who’s so full and engaging, immediately recognizable yet wholly new. He’s efficient, it’s effective, it’s affecting. People spend hundreds of pages in novel after novel trying to do this. People spend their whole lives trying to do this. And very few can do what Prince did as well as Prince did.
But most of what Prince did very few can do well, if at all.
I’ve watched Purple Rain three times in the past two and a half weeks; I listen to Dirty Mind or1999 daily; I’ve consistently worn more purple eye shadow than is usually required for daytime activities. His face is my phone’s home screen for god’s sake. I’m past the point of consciously knowing if I’m doing this out of self-care or in some last-ditch hope that it will bring him back. It’s a harmless preoccupation that will probably flirt with the border of obsession sometime soon. But “flirting with obsession” seems like a very Prince-esque concept, with Prince as the flirt, the obsessor, and the obsessed-over.
You can see him playing those roles, to some degree, in “Little Red Corvette.” He depicts himself as overwhelmed by the girl who pops her color and loves ‘em and leaves ‘em fast—she’s more experienced sexually, she’s savvier in relationships, she’s both in control of herself and intoxicatingly exciting. He may say she’s got to slow down, but it’s not because he’s trying to tame her. No—it’s that he wants to keep up. His depiction of their dynamic is, just like in “Raspberry Beret,” economical and brilliant. But it’s phrases like “the ride is so smooth you must be a limousine” that really take the song to the next level. There aren’t many cases where a metaphor for sex is somehow way dirtier, way sexier, and way cooler than the explicit.
Or, take this part in “Let’s Go Crazy:” He calls his girlfriend. She answers. She drops the phone on the floor. And she starts ecstatically moaning, presumably because of someone else, presumably knowing that Prince is listening. That moment is brief, but so vulnerable and funny, containing the particularly bleak absurdity of being alive. And it’s in an all-time great dance anthem. Actually, just take all of Purple Rain: “I Would Die 4 U” (also a great song to dance to, and the second-best song on Purple Rain to reference doves) features Prince challenging the gender binary in the very first two lines. Regardless of what he meant or didn’t mean by “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man,” I’m so comforted by the fact that a song like that exists, and has existed since 1984. As clear of a character as the girl in “Little Red Corvette” is made out to be, the way we’re introduced to “Darling Nikki” has to be in some XXX-rated Hall of Character Exposition Fame out there. (Which is, incidentally, the only type of museum I would ever be qualified to curate.)
And like, who the hell would ever own up to wondering if your relationship turmoil is caused by you and your lover being too much like your own mother and father? Like who has a) that kind of insight and b) that kind of honesty and c) who would write that into the first-best dove-related song on Purple Rain and also possibly the best song of the 1980s? Who would do that? No one would. No one but Prince. Only he would.
He was one of the best storytellers in pop (and funk and soul and rock and 50 other genres, some of which he himself invented) music. And not just from a lyrical standpoint, although that’s what I’ve been focusing on here. Taking the bass out of “When Doves Cry,” and thus nixing the level of steadiness that instrument typically provides, allows listeners to better experience the ungrounded dysfunction of the relationship depicted in the song. Every sonic element of his first few albums form fascinating interactions, which makes a decent amount of sense, given that he played every instrument and produced every track. With meticulousness and passion, he could coax a guitar into admitting heated emotions and difficult thoughts and not-just-sexual (but sometimes also 100% definitely sexual) desires.
He could create whole universes in the span of a 4-minute song, and in those universes he found ways to reflect aspects of each of our individual, personal universes. And, despite his enigmatic reputation, he gently threw in pieces of himself, too. Most songs are not universes. There is nothing wrong with this, though—no one ever said a song had to be. But I’m thankful that Prince decided that songs needed enormity. It’s not like anyone else was going to.