A minor discussion broke in the comments of my post on Purple Rain‘s 25th anniversary about the most notorious song on the album, “Darling Nikki”—specifically, if “Nikki” was released today, would it still seem as shocking? It’s hard to imagine that it could be. It was, after all, the song that kicked off Tipper Gore’s ridiculous censorship movement that led to the parental warning stickers that turned straight into a joke and even a selling point. (Without the stickers, it’s hard to imagine that gangsta rap would have had nearly the same appeal that it got, for instance.) In the 80s, Madonna rolling around in a wedding dress and Prince sitting in a bathtub were considered provocative, and now you pretty much need that kind of overt sexuality in order to get a video played at all on MTV, in the 20 minutes a day they play music videos. Graphic song lyrics aren’t a big deal, anymore, either. So, is “Darling Nikki” still shocking in that context?
Of course I’m going to say yes. The song is still incredibly unnerving, and if it’s lost some of its power to shock with words like “masturbating”, I’d argue that it hasn’t lost its reputation much at all. The most obvious reason is that it mines territory that’s still taboo in our culture—female sexual assertiveness. There are exceptions to the rule, like much of Missy Elliot’s catalog, but on the whole, I’d say that no matter how raunchy pop music gets, it still puts women in the role of objects. “Darling Nikki” is 25 years old, but it still feels futuristic, just like the movie “Blade Runner”.
I’d say the song also maintains its reputation as the most notorious Prince song. Certainly when I saw him perform about a decade ago, he played a little of it, and when the audience started to sing along, he teasingly stopped and told us we were dirty-minded. But if you think about it, the subject matter—female sexual aggression—is rarely far from Prince’s mind in most of his 80s and early 90s oeuvre. There’s two other songs I can think of off the top of my head that basically tell the same story, just with small tweaks: “Little Red Corvette” and “Shockadelica”. On top of that, you have songs that draw on that theme to varying degrees: “When U Were Mine”, “Head”, and “Gett Off” come to mind. The subject of aggressive female sexuality absolutely fascinates Prince, and at times it bothers and revolts him.
But what’s interesting about Prince, particularly his decade plus of utter genius, is that he draws on liminality and he positively rolls in delight over contradiction. Well, delight and anguish, but already you see what I mean. He’s a notoriously sexist pig and a homophobe who also worships women, openly plays with embracing his feminine side, and borrows heavily from gay culture and gay colleagues. He doesn’t even try to hide his fascination with alternately delineating and then subverting categories—he’s pretty bold about that in the lyrics to “Controversy”.
I just cant believe all the things people say — controversy
Am I black or white? am I straight or gay? — controversy
Do I believe in god? do I believe in me? — controversy
I cant understand human curiosity — controversy
And if it wasn’t clear that he’s calling you a fool for wanting resolution, he reiterates later in the song:
People call me rude, I wish we were all nude
I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules
Prince is drawn to the topic of Bad Girls because he can’t decide what he thinks of them. Are they saints who live above the rules imposed on them by a cruel society, or demons that are attempting to tear men down with their sexuality? In struggling between these two views, Prince ends up creating a fascinating portrait of how at least a certain kind of misogyny takes hold, as men entranced (as he is) with the idea of masculine sexuality as a dominating force feel vulnerable because of their desire for women, and they want to lash out. The balance of his feelings shakes out differently in every song. For instance, in “Little Red Corvette”, the narrator is trying to control the woman by the end, trying to shame her with judgmental words like “fast”, while the music creates an interesting counterpoint, suggesting that making Corvettes drive slow is the real crime here.
But “Darling Nikki” stands out because it really lays bare the issues at stake. Our narrator is cocky at the beginning, and his tone is one of someone describing a conquest of sorts. Then, his ability to even speak about his experiences falls apart, and he’s left with talking about Nikki’s pleasure palace (implied S&M dungeon, I’d argue) in incredibly vague and euphemistic terms. At the end, when she reverses his expectations of who should wake up in the morning craving love and feeling vulnerable, the song gets weird and dark and angry. It’s implied that he should have seen it coming, of course. Nikki is characterized from the very beginning of the song as masculine, not just in her name, but the fact that she masturbates to magazines (porn is generally understood as a male interest) to the fact that she owns a “castle” (like she’s a king). Nikki is a post-gender woman fucking a man who isn’t ready for that, and what’s he left with is the undeniable and disturbing sense that he’s being emasculated.
What makes the sexuality in Prince songs so amazing is that he really seems to express how much sex can really deconstruct gender, by making men vulnerable, in particular. There’s an immense amount of energy in our culture put into covering this up, with everything from excusing sexual violence (using sex as a weapon against women is a perfect way to get back at them for making men feel vulnerable!) to homophobia (gay sex reveals to straight people what we don’t want to admit—that sex is more about two bodies than two genders, especially in the midst of it) to machismo in general. Which Prince has loads of, so the tension that it dredges up in him to be honest about his fascination with women who reject social constraints on female sexuality makes the songs even more immediate and sexy, while adding a layer of psychological disturbance.
By the end of “Darling Nikki”, though, there isn’t any macho shield he can grab onto to rewrite the vulnerabilities out of the experience he just had, and instead he just wails at Nikki to come back, while the music gets loud and eventually chaotic, as if his world is shattering. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, either—didn’t she just say to call her whenever he was feeling horny? But obviously, that’s not what he means by “come back, Nikki, come back!” He wants her to come back and play the role of the person who was laid emotionally bare by the experience, so he can feel the balance of power set right again. Laudable? Of course not. But it’s a fascinating document in that he just lays it all out for the audience, the internal workings of a man whose machismo and attraction to sexually adventurous women results in a slide towards misogyny.
That’s why I think the song still has the power to shock and unnerve. It’s not the sexual explicitness, but the fact that it cheerfully exposes the vulnerability and ego problems that drive so many other emotionally false sexual displays in our culture saturated with them. The objectification of women, the attempts to shame and control them—in the world of this song (and many others by Prince), it’s traced back to macho desire in so many men to hide from others and even themselves that they feel vulnerable and even dependent on women. Dependence and vulnerability are supposed to be female traits, and when a woman refuses to play the role assigned her, it all falls apart. To make it all worse, the song bundles up this disturbing revelation in a song that starts off as if it’s a little sexy jaunt, so that when the end comes, it’s like smacking you upside the head.