(Featured Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” William Blake, 1805.)
As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.
“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.
As bizarre as “Annie Christian” was, however, it was not out of step with the zeitgeist. The end of the world was a widely-shared preoccupation in the early 1980s. Evangelical pastor Charles “Chuck” Smith, founder of the Southern California-based Calvary Chapel movement, famously predicted that Christ’s Second Coming would begin by May of 1981–an estimate he later revised, for obvious reasons, to December 31. These apocalyptic anxieties were fueled in part by contemporary events. Early in the year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences’ Science and Security Board set its famous “Doomsday Clock” at four minutes to midnight–the closest the world had come to global catastrophe since the 1950s. Themes of apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise, were a staple of late-’70s and early-’80s popular music, particularly art rock, post-punk, and New Wave: see, for example, Kate Bush’s “Breathing,” Killing Joke’s “Wardance,” and Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”
Having spent significant time as a child in both Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist churches, Prince would have been no stranger to Christian eschatology; as a “lifelong Adventist” explained to cultural critic Touré, “Growing up, Prince would’ve heard the world was going to end any day now and you had to keep constant watch” (Touré 140). In this context, the character of “Annie Christian” makes sense as a personification of the unrest permeating the new decade. Her name is an obvious play on the Biblical Antichrist–though, given the gender swap, the Whore of Babylon may be the more apt comparison. At her feet, Prince lays the blame for everything from the murder of John Lennon and attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan to the government corruption exposed by the FBI’s “Abscam” sting.
Most of these allusions to current events are totemic and, frankly, insubstantial: fleeting snapshots of headline news presented as evidence of impending social collapse. More resonant is the first verse, about how Annie “moved to Atlanta” and “killed black children”: a reference to the “Atlanta Child Murders” that terrified the city’s African American community between 1979 and 1981, claiming the lives of at least 24 children and six adults. Prince would have recorded “Annie Christian” around June 21, 1981, when a 23-year-old Black man named Wayne Williams was arrested for the murders of two of the adult victims; police presumed that Williams was also responsible for the other killings, and the cases were ultimately closed. There were–and remain–questions of Williams’ guilt, with the accused maintaining that the murders were carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prince, however, appeared unswayed: “what’s fair is fair,” he chants. “If you try and say you’re crazy, everybody say ‘electric chair!’” His response to the Lennon and Reagan shootings is similarly pat, not to mention audience-participatory: “everybody say ‘gun control!’” But the rage that registers in the line about Black children feels different somehow. If nothing else, it’s an early example of Prince aligning himself with the concerns of the Black community–especially notable because it came at a time when he was deliberately obscuring his racial identity.
There is also, in Prince’s characterization of Annie Christian as an aspiring “big star” who “wanted to be number one,” an interesting dimension of commentary on celebrity culture–and maybe even a note of self-reproach. The chorus–“Annie Christian, Annie Christ / Until you’re crucified, I’ll live my life in taxicabs”–is cryptic and haunting: an echo, perhaps, of the image that inspired Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, of a “person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.” Certainly, Schrader’s film was floating around the ether in mid-1981; Reagan’s attempted assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., famously claimed to have committed the crime to impress actress Jodie Foster. But these resonances don’t go much deeper than the shared visual of the taxi cab and a vague sense of violent paranoia. For the most part, “Annie Christian” feels exactly like what it is: an experiment, and not an especially successful one. Prince’s first attempt at lyrical profundity is, in practice, an exercise in clumsy pseudo-religious allegory.
Musically, at least, “Annie Christian” would find its footing on stage. Performances from the Controversy tour brought some vitality to the rather clinical studio arrangement; the rendition from Prince’s February 28, 1982 performance in New Orleans is particularly raw, with a more venomous vocal delivery and some Eddie Van Halen-esque shredding by guitarist Dez Dickerson. In the end, though, Prince seemed to be aware of the song’s limitations: after 1982, it was retired from his setlist, never to return. Its apocalyptic themes would be better served by “1999,” released later that year; its atmospheric synthpop arrangement would be better served by the same album’s “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”; even its taxi imagery would be better served by “Lady Cab Driver.”
Yet for all its well-earned repute as a minor part of the Prince canon, “Annie Christian” has led a surprisingly rich afterlife. Rapper Talib Kweli covered the song during a 2013 tribute to Prince at Carnegie Hall: updating the lyrics to reference the murder of another slain Black child, Trayvon Martin, and recontextualizing Prince’s robotic chanting into a more easily palatable hip-hop framework. After Prince’s death in 2016, indie-electronic duo YACHT released their own cover version on SoundCloud, which smoothed the almost anti-musical edges of the original into more blandly appealing dance-punk. But it’s the original, for better or worse, that remains definitive: a botched, mutated test subject from the mad scientist’s suburban Minnesota lab.
(Thanks to friends of the blog KaNisa for her insight on the Atlanta serial killings, and Arno for reminding me of “Something in the Water.”)