To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.

“I knew how to make hits by my second album,” Prince once told Rolling Stone. He had been very vocal about how the Prince record was designed to get him on the charts and shore up finances after he’d spent an abundance of time and money on his less successful debut, For You.

Prince’s strategy worked. Prince’s lead single, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” topped the Soul chart and peaked on the Hot 100 at No. 11. The album sold almost one million copies, and Prince seemed poised to become the next great R&B star.

But “Bambi” hinted at a different path.

To quote Dez Dickerson, Prince’s guitarist at the time, the sixth track, and sole rock song on the album, is “a pure [Jimi] Hendrixian guitar-fest.”

The lyrics are a more complicated matter. Prince sings about a woman with lovers who look like her, and informs her that “it’s better with a man,” and “maybe you need to bleed.” It’s a problematic treatment of lesbians and women in general. And it’s just one part of a long, complex history Prince had with the LGBTQ community, in which he’s been labeled both progressive and homophobic.

Even as Prince matured and then later jettisoned some of his racy repertoire after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, “Bambi” stayed in the lineup, original lyrics intact.

“He’s done ‘Bambi’ for years,” Prince’s former bassist Rhonda Smith said. “I think maybe he just likes the groove. … That’s probably more of an emotion thing.”

And it’s interesting to trace when and how the song was either re-recorded or revisited live. For example, in 1991, rapper T.C. Ellis included a version for his album, True Confessions, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records. Prince also re-recorded the song in 1993 for The Undertaker album, which was scrapped. But it popped up later in The Undertaker short film.

Given the controversial lyrics, it’s startling to find out that Prince played a live version on openly gay comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ show in the early '00s. The horn-heavy performance was ultimately unaired.

It was also jarring for some fans to see a video of Prince playing “Bambi” with his band 3rdEyeGirl in 2012. Although he’d kept the song in rotation over the years, it was generally played at aftershows, according to Smith. So for those who only saw Prince’s main concerts, or solely kept up with him via the media, it appeared he was up to old, musical ways.

Erica Thompson is a journalist in Columbus, Ohio. She is currently writing a book on Prince’s spiritual journey and the spiritual themes in his music, which was the source of the interview with Smith. Keep up with the project at A Purple Day in December.

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