Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ Almost Leads to the Downfall of Society: 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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.
While never released as a single, 1984’s “Darling Nikki” is one of the most notorious songs in Prince’s fully-stocked catalog. “Nikki”’s lyrics, which describe an unforgettable encounter with a sexually aggressive woman, led to the creation of the Parents’ Music Resource Center. This organization is responsible for those rectangular “Parental Advisory-Explicit Lyrics” stickers that have become commonplace on LPs and CDs deemed to have objectionable content.
From a narrative perspective, “Nikki” is one of Prince’s most vivid compositions. He encounters the song’s protagonist in a hotel lobby, where she is pleasuring herself with a magazine (whether said magazine is being used as a visual aid or as an actual device of pleasure is left up to the listeners). This chance meeting leads to a mind-blowing sex session (“I can’t tell you what she did to me / But my body will never be the same”). Nikki then vanishes, but not before leaving her phone number in a note on the stairs complete with an invitation to repeat the encounter if desired by Prince. The evocative, bluesy jam is punctuated by some of Prince’s most feverish panting and screaming--as would befit the erotic lyrical content.
Said lyrical content raised the ire of Tipper Gore after the Purple Rain soundtrack made its way into the musical collection of her pre-teen child Karenna. At the time, Tipper’s husband, Al, was a member of the U.S. Congress. Shortly after Al won his seat, Tipper founded the Congressional Wives Task Force, an organization founded to create awareness for social issues of the day.
Offended by “Nikki”’s frank descriptions of sexuality, Gore joined forces with Susan Baker (wife of James Baker, who was Secretary of the U.S. Treasury) to form the PMRC. The organization asked Congress for a rating system in music similar to the one used with films, in order to determine whether content was unfit for the ears of young people. Several years later, despite hearings that included passionate testimony from Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, John Denver and Frank Zappa, the PMRC got their wish. With 30 years perspective, however, and in light of the subsequent rise of more aggressive forms of music within youth culture, no one can say that the stickers were effective.
Governmental brouhaha aside, “Nikki” remains one of Prince’s best-loved songs for several reasons. One, it’s lent itself to several memorable cover versions, with the most successful being Foo Fighters’ take from 2003, a Top 15 Alternative Rock radio hit. It could be said that Prince returned the favor in 2007, when he performed the Foo Fighters hit “Best of You” during his iconic Super Bowl halftime show performance.
“Darling Nikki”’s coda also perfectly illustrated Prince’s propensity for seamlessly blending the sacred with the profane. The song (and thus, side one of the Purple Rain soundtrack) ends with a mysterious a capella passage, played in reverse. When un-reversed, the words turn out to be: "Hello, how are you? Fine fine 'cause I know that the Lord is coming soon. Coming, coming soon.”
Ultimately, what is most surprising about “Darling Nikki” (and much of Prince’s work) is how female sexuality is used as an empowering mechanism. In 1984, there weren’t too many songs where women were the sexual aggressors (unless you think of songs like “Billie Jean," in which the sexually aggressive titular character is cast as a conniving vixen attempting to pin a baby on Michael Jackson). Prince’s Nikki is sexually forward, turns Prince out, and leaves Prince bewildered. However, Prince looks back on the experience fondly and unashamedly, and the door is left open for further experiences. Upon further reflection, Prince was singing about “p--- control” a full decade before he gave a song that name on 1995’s The Gold Experience.
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