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Nikki revisited

The Foo Fighters, covering Prince's "Darling Nikki".

A few places over the last week, I've seen people commenting on the 25th Anniversary of Purple Rain. Since we recently went through the 25th Anniversary of Thriller, I suppose I wasn't too surprised. These milestones tend not to upset me, as I don't really mind growing older.

But today, I read a piece on Pandagon, asking "Is 'Darling Nikki' scandalous 25 years later?" And I realized that I had no idea that it was scandalous in the first place. 25 years ago, I was 11 years old. I'd heard Purple Rain when it came out, watched all the videos on Friday Night Videos, and I later saw the movie when it came out on VHS. At some point or another, "Darling Nikki" came out on the radio, and I'm sure I sang along. But I don't really think I ever knew what it meant.

The irony, of course, is that this is the song that got Tipper Gore's panties in a twist, and I was the children that she was so worried about. I can categorically state that the song did not in any way, shape or form corrupt me. I had no idea what he was talking about. Part of my not understanding comes from mishearing the word "grind." I thought for years he was saying "cry." This totally changes the song. I also mistook "devices" for "vices," which is slightly less explicit. Part of it is because I thought it was similar to some of the more drug addled Beatles songs, what with the castle references, talk about messing with his brain, and funky good times. If I ever gave thought to it, I would have assumed that it was a cautionary tale about doing too many drugs with girls you meet in hotels. Seemed consistent with what other adults were telling me at the time.

This is Amanda's deconstruction of the song.
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.
After reading this, I went back and revisited the song. The Foo Fighters covered it on a export B-side, and they played it at some of their concerts. It's the best version I could find on YouTube, as Prince is pretty good at keeping his stuff off of there. From my research, it's unclear if Prince liked their version. In interviews, he said he hated covers and people should write their own songs, but he later covered one of their songs at the Superbowl. At any rate, the Foo Fighters version was the best that I could find that's easily postable.

At any rate, I also ventured into my iTunes library and pulled up the original, falling back to the version I knew the best. I listened.

I also took a look at the lyrics.

I knew a girl named nikki
I guess u could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
She said howd u like 2 waste some time
And I could not resist when I saw little nikki grind

She took me 2 her castle
And I just couldnt believe my eyes
She had so many devices
Everything that money could buy
She said sign your name on the dotted line
The lights went out
And nikki started 2 grind


The castle started spinning
Or maybe it was my brain
I cant tell u what she did 2 me
But my body will never be the same
Her lovin will kick your behind
Oh, shell show u no mercy
But shell shonuff shonuff show u how 2 grind

Darlin nikki

Woke up the next morning
Nikki wasnt there
I looked all over and all I found
Was a phone unmber on the stairs
It said thank u 4 a funky time
Call me up whenever u want 2 grind

Oh, nikki, ohhhh

Come back nikki, come back
Your dirty little prince
Wanna grind grind grind grind grind grind grind grind grind

My first thought was "Holy fucking shit, this is an awesome, awesome song." My second thought was "Holy fucking shit. This is pretty fucking out there song." I mean, Jesus. He goes to a hotel, she's going at it by herself, she drags him back to her place, which is full of sex toys and probably some BDSM gear, and she rocks his world so much he doesn't know which way is up. And then she fucking leaves him alone with a number and a note.

She's clearly in control of the situation, and he's just along for the ride. And it makes it a song about female sexual power, which really you don't hear that often, even 25 years later. I mean, compare it to that odious Theory of a Deadman "Bad Girlfriend" song, which I guess is about female sexual power, but sounds just like he's gloating and she has nothing to do with it.



( 3 comments — Say something )
Jun. 9th, 2009 02:52 am (UTC)
i can't honestly say i ever heard that song.
Jun. 9th, 2009 07:12 am (UTC)
The Food covered this song after Prince found God. So he wouldn't let them actually sell it as he doesn't want to make money off of the raunchy songs or something. So they had to give the song away. I heard Dave say this on KROQ a few years ago.

Personally, I love both of those versions. :)
Jun. 9th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Damn I love the Foo Fighters.

I don't remember ever hearing the song back in the 80s, though. I don't think that album made it into my brother's collection (he was the only one with $$ to buy records), though 1999 did.

( 3 comments — Say something )