Prince defies hyperbole; when news of his shocking death leaked out Thursday afternoon, critic Steven Hyden tweeted that the world had just lost its best singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist on the same day, because Prince was all four. This is correct. With the possible exception of Stevie Wonder, Prince was the most absurdly talented musician of the rock ’n’ roll era, a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, a superhuman singer, and the greatest songwriter ever produced by the state of Minnesota. (Yeah, I said it.) Prince was a miracle, a gift we never really deserved and the sort that never goes away, even when he suddenly does.
Prince’s career was marked by a sort of insatiable musical wanderlust, every masterpiece (and there were so, so many) seeming to double as yet another turning point. One of the most significant of these was “Little Red Corvette,” the breakout single from his album 1999 that finally gave him a bona fide pop hit, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1983. Prince was 24 when he recorded “Little Red Corvette,” and 34 years later it remains the greatest song about casual sex ever written. It’s fitting that Prince holds this distinction, considering how fluent he was in matters of the flesh, particularly early in his career, with songs like “Head,” “Jack U Off,” and the still-breathtaking “Sister” pioneering new modes of irresistible musical pornography.
It’s unexpected, then, that what makes “Little Red Corvette” so great is how seriously it takes casual sex: It’s awash in ambivalence, vulnerability, and fear. It’s not about sex as fun—or at least it’s not just about that, but rather about the entirety of the act: its physical, emotional, psychological, even spiritual dimensions. And uniquely, “Little Red Corvette” isn’t really about anything other than sex. The song is resolutely uninterested in love, relationships, or fulfillment in anything but the most primal, desperate sense, and as such brings a radical honesty to one of the most fundamental and complex of human interactions.
“Little Red Corvette” achieves all this by reviving one of the great subgenres in pop—the car song—and linking it to one of the other great subgenres, the one-night–stand song. “Little Red Corvette” is the story of someone who finally got Sally to slow her mustang down, but now all he can do is wonder if she’ll still love him tomorrow. Car songs are usually just songs about girls, with a built-in objectification that veers too easily into misogyny. From Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” through Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and even the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe,” the car is fast, beautiful, and dangerous: You want it, but you know you should know better. Car songs are songs about lust.
The one-night–stand song, on the other hand, is about the consequences of lust, waking up the next morning and wondering if you shouldn’t have done that—or worse, wondering if the other person wonders if he or she shouldn’t have done that. “Little Red Corvette” acknowledges that the playing field of casual sex is rarely a level one, which is an awfully heavy concession for a pop song to make. And it’s made almost immediately, in the song’s opening lines: “I guess I should have known/ by the way you parked your car sideways/ that it wouldn’t last.” “Little Red Corvette” is a song about Saturday night—I guess that makes it all right—but with one eye warily fixed on Sunday morning.
Prince is often described as the first great “post-disco” musician, and “Little Red Corvette” is a post-disco song in every respect. It’s forged from electronic keyboards and drum machines but feels incredibly alive, from its haunting washes of synthesizer chords, to its pulsing heartbeat of a kick-drum, to its ravishingly beautiful guitar parts, including a solo by Dez Dickerson that may be the finest instrumental moment on a Prince record performed by someone who isn’t Prince.
But the song’s greatest triumph is in its writing, its brilliant deployment of metaphor, evocation, and ambiguity. In fact, for a song that’s kind of, sort of, but not really about a car, “Little Red Corvette” spends an awful lot of time talking about horses: “I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockeys that were there before me,” remarks our protagonist at one point; or, even better, “I guess I must be dumb, you had a pocketful of horses, Trojans and some of them used,” the most poetic description of prophylactics ever uttered. The simple phrase “I guess” appears constantly, from the very first line, to its recurring refrain—“it was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right”—to “I guess I should have closed my eyes when you drove me to the place where your horses run free,” an exquisite lyric of ominous hesitation.
And consider the moment on which the second verse turns: “Believe it or not/ I started to worry/ and wondered if I had enough class.” That four-word aside, “believe it or not”: The mind boggles at its implications. Who is it addressed to? What is its aim? It’s as though our narrator feels the need to assure us, or maybe just himself, of his own prowess amid a song that’s entirely about fear of inadequacy. The fact that it’s so unconvincing makes it that much more compelling.
“Little Red Corvette” is also a song about consequences, another way in which it’s definitively post-disco. “You’re gonna run your body right to the ground,” our narrator admonishes, a dark warning for a song released at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Disco lived by the myth that Saturday night never ends. “Little Red Corvette” not only insists that it does, it reminds us that a lot of what took place in the darkened corners of clubs and alleys was shadowy, fumbling, detached, or often worse.
The hazy imagery and slow-churning synths preserve this foreboding and confusion, though “Little Red Corvette” is anything but joyless. For a while, its physical descriptions are clipped by politeness: “A body like yours ought to be in jail/ cause it’s on the verge of being obscene,” sings Prince at one point: on the verge of being obscene, a little like the next line, “I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine,” which could be heard as pretty suggestive, but come on; you don’t use music this beautiful to make off-color remarks about the female anatomy.
Until you do, in the song’s final lines: “Girl,” Prince sings, elongating the word in a thrilling display of vocal acrobatics, “got an ass like I’ve never seen/ and the ride is so smooth, you must be a limousine.” Prince’s falsetto on “smooth” serves to remind us, and that girl, that for all the cards she’s holding, he’s still the best singer on the face of the Earth. It’s outrageously forward, and our first indication that, well, maybe this was all kind of fun, too. It’s a strange ending, one that in lesser hands might render the whole song a little ridiculous. But like everything else in this radically honest song, it’s perfect: After all, the ass was what it was always about.
I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it went astray. “Little Red Corvette” was Prince’s pop breakthrough, a song that altered the course of his career and, by extension, popular music. After 1999 became his first platinum album, he followed it up with Purple Rain, an album that spent 24 weeks atop the Billboard charts and turned him into one of the biggest stars of late–20th-century music. “Do I believe in God/ Do I believe in me?” Prince once asked, many years ago. The rest of us never had to choose.