During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mind anti-war song “Partyup” to the recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “Thank God we got a better President now,” he said, with “bigger balls” than his predecessor Jimmy Carter. “I think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.” Salewicz, good leftist rock journalist that he was, didn’t know how to take this sudden detour into conservative politics. “Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out,” he wrote (Salewicz 1981).
Indeed, as a Midwesterner who grew up in the shadow of the 1980s, I can attest to hearing more than a few anti-Carter rants like the one Prince engaged in–even, in my case, many years after the comparative merits of the Gipper and the Peanut Farmer had relinquished any claim to relevance. Yet it’s also hard not to read a subversive undertone into his abrupt political endorsement. As Salewicz pointed out, there was unmistakable homoeroticism in Prince’s singling out of the president’s “balls” for praise; you can almost hear him smirk when he goes on to say, “He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth is his one big asset” (Salewicz 1981). But whatever Prince’s actual thoughts on Reagan’s mouth and/or balls, the Salewicz interview was an early indication that even this sexually and racially ambiguous libertine had a soft spot for the Ur-Republican president–at least when it came to the Cold War.
In this, Prince was in plentiful company. Reagan had won the 1980 electoral college by a landslide, and the popular vote by a comfortable margin. Endorsing the new president was still controversial in left-leaning music circles–Neil Young, for example, alienated critics when he expressed even fairly ambivalent support in the early ’80s–but hardly out of step with a national mood that was sliding steadily rightward. And key to Reagan’s appeal for many Americans was his, well, “balls”: a hawkish, authoritarian tendency that stood in contrast to what was widely viewed as Carter’s ineffectual handling of the Iran hostage crisis and the increasingly unpopular policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Reagan’s campaign was won on notions of restoring a sense of patriotism and national strength to a United States that was floundering economically and facing uncertainty in its status as a world power.
For Prince, as for many other Americans, the crux of the issue was the threat of nuclear war with Russia, which felt less distant than it had since the beginning of the Cold War. As noted in a previous post, in early 1981 the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences’ Science and Security Board set its famous “Doomsday Clock” at four minutes to midnight, indicating the most credible risk of global disaster in almost 30 years. And while in a year’s time Prince would be greeting this possibility with millenarian fervor, on Controversy he took a different tack: pleading with the new president to “talk to Russia… before they blow up the world.”
Like Prince’s remarks to Salewicz earlier in the year, it’s difficult to determine just how seriously “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” was meant to be taken. The use of the decidedly un-presidential diminutive “Ronnie” indicates that it was just a goof, but the lines about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua–“You can go to the zoo, but you can’t feed guerillas… Left-wing guerillas… Who wanna blow up the world”–suggest that his concern about the spread of communism was genuine (pretty rich coming from a guy who just called for organized revolution three songs ago). The third verse, in which Prince tells Ronnie “if you’re dead before I get to meet ya… Don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” is especially curious, as it’s either making an off-color reference to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt or suggesting that Prince has the cockroach-like ability to survive nuclear holocaust.
Musically, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” falls firmly on the “goof” side of the equation. Opening with a howl of guitar noise–a hangover from the previous track, “Private Joy”– “Ronnie” lurches to life with a series of machine-gun-like drum fills and muffled shouts from Prince, before careening into a manic keyboard and guitar riff. Like on “When You Were Mine” and the Time’s “After Hi School,” Prince uses the Oberheim OB-X to mimic the sound of a Farfisa organ, resulting in a kitschy retro bubblegum vibe; this, combined with his and Lisa Coleman’s chanted vocals, make the song sound a bit like a demented version of Toni Basil’s 1982 cheerleader-pop hit “Mickey.” As the song progresses, sounds of artillery begin to clutter the mix; the final “don’t you blow up my world” is punctuated by a detonating bomb–the product, no doubt, of the extensive sound effects library at Sunset Sound. The whole thing is over in less than two minutes: at the very least, unlike the actual Ronnie’s two-term presidency, the song doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Maybe the most interesting thing about “Ronnie,” however, is a mere footnote to the actual song. Ronnie, of course, did end up talking to Russia, holding a series of summits with Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev between 1985 and 1988 which led to the thawing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. To commemorate these events, in 1988 a 17-year-old Anglo-Dutch singer and model named Anna Garcia recorded a song called “Ronnie–Talk to Russia!” under the stage name “Sheree.” The only thing this “Ronnie” had in common with Prince’s was the title: it was written by West German songwriter and producer Dieter Bohlen, formerly of Europop duo Modern Talking. But Garcia would soon play a more significant role in Prince’s world, with another new name: Anna Fantastic.
(Thanks to Freek Claassen in the comments for reminding me of Anna Fantastic’s Dutch background!)