Sub-Cult

Why Prince's Sign o' the Times Deserves More Attention

With the recent death of pop icon Prince, Nathan Rabin looks back at an oft overlooked concert film directed by him and based on one of his greatest albums.

by | April 26, 2016 | Comments

Sign-o-the-Times-Title-Card

 

We tend to publicly mourn dead celebrities in a fairly specific way these days. For writers, the death of a major artist is immediately followed by feverish pitching of think pieces, as ink-stained wretches scramble to say something profound about the legend who just passed before their colleagues can beat them to it.

In turn, readers are flooded with odes to the latest celebrity whose passing shocked and saddened us, as well as television and live tributes and reverent covers by artists who were all deeply, if conveniently, influenced by whoever just passed. There’s something wonderfully cathartic about being able to share your grief with the world, in realizing that you’re not alone in having been profoundly touched by a great artist. It makes the awfulness and terrible finality of death seem a little less oppressive.

In that vein, when an iconic musician dies, Facebook and other forms of social media are transformed instantly into places of mourning and remembrance, as fans fill their walls with videos of the dearly departed at the height of their powers. Thanks to Youtube, seemingly the whole of pop music is forever at our fingertips, just waiting to be rediscovered at the right moment and shared with like-minded fans.

I write “seemingly” because Prince’s astonishingly vast and important discography and videography is not available on Youtube. If you see a Prince video on Youtube, that’s only because his lawyers haven’t gotten around to having it taken down yet. But it goes beyond that: a lot of great work he did is perversely, frustratingly unavailable, including his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, which astonishingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United States and can only be seen illegally.

Prince was so staggeringly, inconceivably brilliant at so many things in his lifetime that it almost felt like being a genius bored him, and just to make life interesting, he constantly had to sabotage himself professionally. He always seemed willing — even eager — to seek out the weird and defiantly non-commercial.

For example, when Prince made Sign o’ the Times, he had long since established himself as one of pop’s greatest hit-makers, with monster hits the world never tires of hearing. But if fans come to Sign o’ the Times to hear the smashes from top-selling albums like Purple Rain and 1999, they’ll have to settle for two minutes or so of “Little Red Corvette” (as a medley with Sign o’ the Times’ “Housequake”), because otherwise the Prince-directed concert film excludes almost all of the hits he was known for in favor of deep cuts from Sign o’ the Times the album.

Prince-Singing

For all of his fabled otherworldliness, Prince was at heart a soul singer.

Like so much of Prince’s life and work, Sign o’ the Times is intoxicatingly odd and unexpected. It was billed as a Prince solo album following the dissolution of the Revolution. On that album, Prince played pretty much all the instruments on all the songs (with the exception of the saxophone). Yet in the film based on Sign o’ the Times, a gracious, supremely confident, and unexpectedly and endearingly goofy Prince is continually ceding the spotlight to individual band members so that, for example, the drummer, the bassist, and back-up singer all get extended solos.

Prince clearly envisioned the film as a star-making vehicle for a dancer named Cat Glover. She’s perpetually at the center of the action, and the star of weird little sketch-like interludes that thread through the film. Yes, I suppose you could say that Prince was a real Cat fancier, but despite his best efforts, he failed to make Cat happen, even on the level of lesser proteges like Carmen Electra.

Sign o’ the Times opens with its title track and the album’s first single, a message song so preposterously over the top in its depiction of a grim world that it borders on self-parody. It’s a song that exaggerates the social ills of the time into a feverish comic book depiction of the world as a nightmarish hellscape of endless suffering. In other words, it’s a bit of an odd choice to kick off an energetic concert film, but then the film is full of odd choices that are also oddly inspired.

Watching Sign o’ The Times in the shadow of Prince’s unexpected death, I was reminded throughout of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, which similarly captured one of the most important artists of the 20th century both at the peak of his creative powers and in a fascinating state of transition. Prince and Bowie combined the cerebral, aesthetic genius necessary to think up a persona as powerful, enduring, and enigmatic as Ziggy Stardust or Purple Rain-era Prince with the sweaty, primal sexual rock and roll charisma necessary to pull it off.

For all of his fabled otherworldliness, Prince was at heart a soul singer, and a great soul singer has a connection to his audience that goes beyond sex, beyond adulation, beyond appreciation. For Prince and others like him, music isn’t just the perfect sonic backdrop for sex and a source of infinite fashion: live performance is sex. Here he wields his guitar as a potent weapon of both aggression and seduction.

Prince didn’t reduce women to sex objects, though. He held sex — and women and female sexuality — in such high regard that he elevated the beautiful women he was understandably obsessed with to angelic beings of divine sexuality. Besides, Prince would never ask one of his proteges to wear anything more sexually provocative than he himself would wear.

Prince-Girlfriend1

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is at once philosophical and emotional, a dissertation on the fluidity of gender cunningly Trojan-horsed as a great R&B song.

Like Michael Jackson, his biggest rival, Prince inhabited a world beyond race, beyond gender, beyond sexuality, beyond black music, beyond pop music. But he was just as interested in inhabiting a space between gender, between race, between sexuality, between black music and pop music.

On that note, Prince’s performance here of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” feels like one of the most seminal performances of his career. It’s a quietly audacious, even revolutionary song (and single) where Prince contemplates an emotional intimacy that exists only between women and ponders whether this intimacy might be more powerful than sexual intimacy. Prince isn’t just interested in women’s bodies, he was interested in their minds as well, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is at once philosophical and emotional, a dissertation on the fluidity of gender cunningly Trojan-horsed as a great R&B song.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is all about exploring and challenging the barriers between man and woman, platonic love and sex, heterosexuality and everything else. Prince is baring his soul in a way he does throughout Sign o’ the Times, the album and movie. He runs the gamut of emotions here, from the grim blues of the title track to the ebullient optimism of “Play In The Sunshine” to the playful sensuality of “Hot Thing” and “U Got The Look” and finally, the brooding, purposeful evangelizing of “The Cross.”

With Sign o’ the Times, Prince struck a perfect balance between the demands of being a major rock star and the dictates of his complicated muse. Sign o’ the Times was a creative apex, but the seeds of Prince’s long commercial and creative slide were already planted. Sign o’ the Times is almost too much of a good thing — it’s more Prince than even some of his most ardent fans can handle — but it’s grounded in the undeniable pop genius of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “U Got The Look,” and “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man.” Prince’s subsequent albums would be, if anything, even more sprawling and messy and outsized than Sign o’ the Times, but the hits stopped coming early in the 1990s and never returned, and Prince found himself performing for an increasingly small and devoted cult.

Like Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Sign o’ The Times ends not with a song so much as a statement as bold and profound now as it was at the time of its release. Bowie’s concert film ended with “Rock and Roll Suicide” and its iconic, desperate, yearning cry of “You’re not alone!” He found transcendence and salvation in the secular churches of sex and rock and roll. Similarly, Prince didn’t just know a little something about sex and rock and roll; he knew everything about them.

But for Prince, the church of rock and roll and the divine ecstasy of sex could never compare to spiritual salvation. For Prince, everything came down to Jesus. At the core of his being wasn’t nihilism or decadence or hedonism but a fierce spirituality and unshakable faith that informed everything he did. He was the sexiest man alive for decades running, but that intense sensuality coexisted with an equally intense spirituality.

Prince ends Sign o’ the Times with “The Cross,” a powerfully direct expression of his Christian faith that implores listeners and fans and acolytes and worshippers (of both Prince and Jesus) not to die without knowing Jesus’ salvation. It’s a song with one eye on a corrupt materialistic world full of sin and the other on the promise of Jesus’ return, and with it the redemption of all mankind.

Prince-Cross

He was the sexiest man alive for decades running, but that intense sensuality coexisted with an equally intense spirituality.

Sign o’ The Times begins with a bluesy dirge of weary social protest, but closes with a hypnotically intimate appeal to accept Jesus as your lord and savior before the ultimate spiritual reckoning of death. In between, it’s one hell of a party, albeit one that finds one of the greatest hitmakers of the 1980s perversely choosing not to play his most popular songs in favor of letting some deep album cuts really breathe. Among the film’s many strange qualities is one of patience; Prince takes his time with these songs, confident in his ability to control his audience even with lesser-known material.

In other words, it’s a Prince kind of shindig, mystifying and magical and wonderfully befuddling all at the same time. While still in his twenties, Prince Rogers Nelson knew exactly who he was and his final message here is the same message he was promoting at the time of his death. His peculiar, personal Christianity will be his legacy as much as the incredible songs he wrote and the unforgettable shows he played.

This otherworldly genius wanted us to accept Christ as our lord and savior, as he had. He explicitly devoted the last song of his greatest movie based on his greatest album to making sure we’re good with God before we meet Her. I take comfort in knowing that Prince was at peace with the lord when She called him home, possibly because heaven was getting just too goddamned boring, and She needed to call up another of Her personal favorites to make it more interesting.


Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 85 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanrabin

  • I agree on this. The film is severely underrated. I saw it on Showtime years ago and was like “Wow” as it was fun from start to finish. The performance of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is my favorite just for its sense of energy, the editing, Cat Glover, and of course, Prince as he does that killer guitar solo it looked like hell of a show.

  • Jan Terri

    I love his cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”.

    • Guy

      I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic here or if you’re not aware that Prince had written and performed that way before Sinead?

      • Gaby

        Dom’t MInd it, this guy has been trolling every page in the internet about Prince

        • Guy

          Ah, fair enough then. What an odd way to spend ones time.

          On topic, I watched Graffiti Bridge last night, other than some fun song performances and Morris Day hamming it up, it was dire. Shame.

      • Jan Terri

        Of course he performed it. That’s what a cover is.

        • supersahr

          I think he just wanted to make you aware that Prince both written and recorded the song before he allowed Sinead to “cover HIS song.

          • Jan Terri

            He “written” the song? Get lost until you learn English.

          • Sandy Bandt

            There is nothing grammatically wrong with that sentence. And again, you have it turned around. That was a Prince song that he allowed SO to cover for him. And what’s with the snark when you obviously are the one who is confused. It says “Prince had both written and recorded the song”. That is perfect English. I don’t quite know why that is such challenge for you.

          • Rob

            Where in heck do these people get their information?….Wikipedia?!….LOL!

    • Jay Thornton

      He wrote that song

      • Jan Terri

        You are confusing this song with something other one.

        • Rob

          You are a comedic genious….LOL!,,,,Will you be performing with Carrot Top?

        • genovelle

          Prince wrote the song for is group the Family who performed it on their debut album. SO even thanks him for allowing her to cover it. Her actually released a version of him singing it later while there were bootleg of the original demo with his vocal on it. The Family just released a live video with the original score done by Claire Fisher and them singing at the exact time corresponding with the first lyric and the time of his death.

    • Sandy Bandt

      Um, you have that backwards.

      • Jan Terri

        LOL

        • Rob

          LOL

    • Rob

      He truly reworks the meaning of her original lyrics. It’s the best cover of the song, in my humble opin

  • kenni

    Agreed!! “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is infinitely more deserving of the populous attention than his though obviously well crafted, hits a song that sits in your psyche long after the pulsting atmospheric beat has ceased. Another obscure favourite that speaks to the street in me is ‘Positivity’.,

  • whensly

    If you never saw Prince live or like his music watch this film!

  • noshun

    It’s great to see so many fans start to appreciate more of his music @nathanrabin. My friends and I had “sign o the times” before the film was released and had already been rocking several of the songs at parties and on mixed tapes etc. All that to say, that from a filmic or “singles” perspective, the title track “sign o the times” may be a strange opener. But from an “album” as an artwork standpoint, and remember, Prince was still making comprehensive albums not just singles at this stage, the song “SOTT” was not at all an exaggeration but an account for what was really going on in 1987 (aids, crack, horse, space shuttle challenger explosion, etc). And it was on rotation for a while on Black radio before and after the film was released. The film SOTT was in fact an extended video/ performance piece. The mainstream wanted more Purple Rain and wasn’t ready to see his full range yet.

    • Stacy Hawkins

      I appreciated the song when it came out, always said it was my favorite.

  • Barney Watson

    thought u should have mentioned his brilliance as a guitarist! jackson only sang other peoples songs!

  • Gail Picco

    Beautiful piece … and I’ve read a lot of them this week … nicely done.

  • Stacy Hawkins

    I am curious why this author refers to God as a female. Just never heard God referred to that way……

    • Jacque5178

      Really? Never?

      • Stacy Hawkins

        Yes, never in my 52 years have I read an article or heard any one speak of God as a female. I know I have heard stuff in passing, light hearted joking that “God must be a woman” but not in this manner at all. Curious as how the author came to that conclusion….not trying to start a debate, just curious

        • Stacy Hawkins

          Actually, I just saw where the author also uses God’s name in vane-something Prince would not have approved of-according to those close to him that have said that once he converted he didn’t cuss or have any collaborations with those who did.

          • Sandy Bandt

            Do you mean “in vain”?

          • Rob

            THAT’S IT!…I knew it!………mumble mumble….

          • Stacy Hawkins

            yes, was pretty tired when I wrote that and remember thinking it didn’t look right. :/

        • Sandy Bandt

          I’ve heard of it many times. It’s not a new concept.

    • Rob

      It’s hard to really peg God.

    • Royal Rican Prince

      The Bible clearly states that The Lord is a male in a figurative manner because He does not have or need genitalia. Male is the Godhead and we are created in His image hence Adam the male was the first creation.

  • Rob

    Nice review.

  • McPhee VoniaBlack

    Loved this article. Much respect to the writer.

  • Royal Rican Prince

    Without a doubt his most creative & artistic albums. This and LoveSexy are utterly BRILLIANT!!!!

  • DrRobY

    I have always used the “If I Were Your Girlfriend” test to see if someone really connected to Prince—if they understood it’s importance within the Prince canon, even if they don’t like it.

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