Now, I’ll be the first to admit: the last couple of posts on this blog have stretched the definition of Prince “songs.” But today’s track, another home recording from mid-to-late 1978, is the real deal: it has a chorus and verses (well, verse) and everything. Granted, that’s pretty much all it has; it’s clear that “Donna,” at least in its presently circulating incarnation, didn’t make it far past the initial concept phase. But it’s a charming little ditty all the same: cut from a similar cloth as last week’s “Baby Baby Baby,” with a stronger central hook.
Along with the unreleased “Darlene Marie,” “Donna” is also an early example of Prince writing a song around a woman’s name: one of the oldest tricks in the Tin Pan Alley playbook for creating a sense of readymade intimacy in a pop song. Later, especially with the infamous “Darling Nikki,” Prince would play with these conventions, creating characters that were almost literary in their eccentricities and quirks. But in 1978, the titular Donna was as generic as they come: she’s pretty (as “pretty as [she] can be”), and she “belong[s] to another man.” The sole twist, if you can call it that, is that Donna appears to be the one who needs to be reminded of this: the song is all about Prince asking her when she’ll “ever see” that her boyfriend will “try to keep [her] any way he can”–rebuffing her affections, presumably, so he can avoid catching a beat-down. It’s an amusing take on the well-worn forbidden-love concept, but it’s also pretty clearly there just to make the rhyme scheme work.
With its double-tracked harmonies and simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, “Donna” points the way toward a few of the songs on Prince’s 1979 sophomore album: “With You” and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” in particular. But if we’re to draw any conclusions from such a raw demo, it’s that Prince hadn’t yet found his footing as a pop songwriter. One gets the sense that commercial songcraft was something he resisted in his formative years, to be pursued only when imposed on him by “authority figures” like Pepé Willie, Chris Moon, and Owen Husney. Much later in his career, he would observe that he tended to write “more Top 40” for other artists than for his own projects (Dash 2016). You can, I think, detect a little of that dismissiveness toward “Top 40” songwriting in the rote lyrics and melody for “Donna”: it’s as if he’s saying, “The masses want tripe, right? Well, here they go.” In the years to come, Prince would make an art form out of stretching the boundaries of formulaic pop music to incorporate his own idiosyncratic vision, to his own benefit as well as the benefit of formulaic pop. But he had to learn the rules before he could bend them.
Next time, we’ll look at another early song with a woman’s name in the title: this one based on an actual woman!