(Featured Image: Susan and friend in the music video for “Drive Me Wild,” 1983; © Warner Bros.)
Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.
At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).
If Susan was responsible for the lyrics to “Drive Me Wild,” then she certainly had an uncanny grasp on Prince’s own preoccupations: from the fetishization of virginity–present in earlier songs like “Leaving for New York,” “I’m Yours,” and “Head”–to the use of cars and home appliances as sexual metaphors. The “brand new convertible” Cadillac in the first verse points the way to “Little Red Corvette”; the third verse’s radio (“Call me up, make a request”) echoes “Turn It Up”; even the second verse’s telephone (“Whatever you want, just dial”) foreshadows the Time’s “777-9311.” These parallels, combined with the sense that her tale of an impromptu audition for Prince has Howard Bloom written all over it, suggest that Susan’s authorship was a fabrication.
It was, of course, standard practice for Prince to eschew credit for his protégé albums; the credits for Vanity 6 are especially byzantine, listing not only the “Starr ★ Company” as producer, but also the Time as musicians and co-songwriters. Yet it feels significant that he would go so far out of his way to acknowledge Susan as the writer of “Drive Me Wild”–as if, for all his desire to push the envelope, he recognized that writing this song for a barely-legal sexpot to sing may have been pushing things too far. Attributing “Drive Me Wild” to Susan grants her a sense of sexual agency that the rest of the song sorely lacks; but even this illusion of agency is ultimately unconvincing. Where “Nasty Girl”’s saucy assertiveness made it at least somewhat plausible as a woman’s sexual fantasy, the pliant, literally objectifying role Susan plays in “Drive Me Wild” feels flimsily constructed for the male gaze: particularly the final verse, where she compares herself to a “baby doll” and cringeworthily proclaims, “I may be young but I’m a whole lotta fun.”
Whatever its lyrical shortcomings, however, “Drive Me Wild” shares a sleek electronic sheen with Susan’s other Vanity 6 feature, “Make-Up.” In its original incarnation, on the album and the B-side of “Nasty Girl,” it has a spare, minimalist quality. Like “Make-Up,” it lasts just over two and a half minutes, with only Susan’s speak-singing and two keyboard lines–one low and percussive, the other high and gauzy–to accompany the driving proto-techno pulse of the Linn LM-1. But when Prince decided to release it as a single in early 1983, he beefed it up: adding guitar and additional layers of synthesizers, and almost tripling the song’s length. These additions were recorded in January 1983 at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles with the aid of David Leonard, a staff engineer whose acumen for cutting audio tape earned him the nickname “the Blade.”
The additions made to the 12″ remix are mostly window dressing: stretching the instrumental intro like taffy to nearly the length of the original song, and adding a noisy, “Private Joy”-like guitar solo to the outro. It is remarkable mostly for its length, which as biographer Matt Thorne writes, at some points suggests “the possibility that Prince might spin out this basic track for ever.” Thorne argues that it’s these hypnotic, interminable grooves–“Prince proving his youth, energy and exuberance by matching himself against machines”–that were most influential to the musicians and producers who pioneered Detroit techno in the early 1980s (Thorne 2016).
Finally, “Drive Me Wild” was also notable for having the most involved music video of the Vanity 6 singles–albeit one so weird that it’s doubtful it received much play on MTV (see above). The video begins with Susan asleep in bed, wearing striped footy pajamas and cradling a teddy bear (naturally). Her bedroom door slowly opens and Vanity and Brenda appear in the doorway, lit from behind by a flood of heavenly light: an aesthetic Prince had used liberally in his abandoned film The Second Coming. The other four-sixths of Vanity 6–now illuminated, in a nod to Prince’s Controversy– and 1999-era stage design, by the light from Susan’s Venetian blinds–coax their partner out of bed and into a waiting Cadillac, depositing the teddy bear unceremoniously onto the pavement.
Now in the car, Brenda drives with Vanity in the passenger’s seat and a still-dozing Susan in between. The vehicle–which, based on the lighting, is located in the same ethereal plane as Susan’s hallway–hits a bump and jolts Susan awake; she and Vanity stare ahead through the windshield with awe. Bizarrely, what they appear to see is…themselves, performing choreographed dance moves to “Drive Me Wild.” At the end of their performance, the setting shifts again to a party scene filled with motley characters: including a clown, a man juggling cassette tapes in a Richard Nixon mask, and Prince’s bodyguard, “Big” Chick Huntsberry, wearing a crown and cape and waving a magic wand. Finally, the whole video flashes by again in fast forward before returning to a shot of Susan back in bed, revealing that it was all a dream. It’s a fun little bit of pop surrealism, paving the way for the even weirder unreleased short film starring Vanity 6 successors Apollonia 6.
Unfortunately, like every Vanity 6 single not called “Nasty Girl,” “Drive Me Wild” performed disappointingly, failing to make an impact on any of the Billboard charts. Its importance in Prince’s extended discography is more historical: as one of his first extended 12″ mixes, along with “Let’s Work” and “Little Red Corvette”; and as one of his most overt early dabblings in electronic music. And it did inspire at least one group of unlikely admirers: alternative rockers the Foo Fighters released a New Wave-flavored cover version in the U.K. on the B-side of their 1997 “Everlong” single.