In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”
From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”
Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.
It isn’t hard to see why Prince was thinking along these terms in early 1982. The United States under President Ronald Reagan had been steadily toughening its rhetoric against the Soviet Union, fueled by the accelerating nuclear arms race and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Less than a year after Prince recorded “Free,” Reagan would deliver his infamous March 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, in which he described the U.S.S.R. as an “Evil Empire” which predicted “its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth.” And while Prince was nobody’s idea of a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite, his fluid politics were not immune to the rightward drift of American attitudes toward foreign policy; the previous year, he’d praised Reagan’s leadership (and his, er, “balls”) in an interview with New Musical Express, and recorded a song imploring the Great Communicator to “talk to Russia… before they blow up the world.”
Evidence of Prince the Cold Warrior is most prominent in “Free”’s bridge, which echoes the opening sound collage with a reference to “soldiers… a[-]marching” and a bold declaration to “all fight together for the most important cause.” But it’s also there in his admonition that “there’s many a man” who lacks the freedoms we enjoy–a line that would have been received pretty much universally in 1982 as referring to those living under communism. The uncomplicated patriotism of these lyrics is all the more remarkable for being wed to elements of African American gospel music: a tradition with its own heavy emphasis on freedom, but as a promise of future liberation from a racist society, not a celebration of the liberties currently enjoyed by a privileged few. Hearing Prince adopt a gospel growl to sing about being “glad for what I’ve got,” one understands why some older artists–notably Rick James–looked askance at the young upstart for his perceived lack of engagement in the struggle for Black liberation.
Yet for all its apparent conservatism, “Free” still carries a mild undercurrent of subversiveness. As Eric Henderson writes for Slant Magazine, “Prince (of all people) has to understand how important freedom of speech is to those who want to write songs about, say, fucking their sisters,” and the moments of undimmed libertinism elsewhere on 1999 provide an important counterweight to the song’s dewy-eyed patriotism; unlike the hypocrites who demand we appreciate our rights as Americans so long as we never call upon them, Prince can be counted on to take advantage of every liberty he’s got. The specific freedoms he notes are also interesting: not only the freedom “to go most anywhere[,] anytime” (like to a restaurant, wearing lingerie), but also the freedom “to change your mind”–one of particular importance to a mercurial artist like him.
Further complicating the song’s ideology is the small chorus Prince assembled to sing backing vocals: girlfriends Jill Jones and Vanity, plus keyboardist Lisa Coleman and her own long-term girlfriend, an 18-year old Los Angelena named Wendy Melvoin who makes her first (though certainly not her last) appearance in the Prince catalogue here. For those keeping track at home, that’s two lesbians and two Black women in a quasi-polyamorous relationship with the singer, joining together in song to celebrate civil liberties. “Be glad that U are free,” indeed.
Political matters aside, “Free” is an undeniably important song in Prince’s musical trajectory. Its slow build to an anthemic, lighter-waving chorus contains the seeds of his impending masterpiece “Purple Rain”; on the other hand, its slightly grim sense of pomp and circumstance contains the seeds of “Purple and Gold,” the bizarre fight song he would gift to the Minnesota Vikings in 2010. Arguably its most prominent legacy, however, is in the solo piano sets that Prince would include in his shows starting with the 1999 tour. Prince would add “Free” to the set at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on April 8, 1983–intriguingly, a month to the day after Reagan’s aforementioned “Evil Empire” speech. He’d continue to play it regularly on the Purple Rain tour and other one-off shows during this era; “Free” would be one of only a handful of previously-released songs played at his famous birthday show at First Avenue in June 1984. While not a staple of his set, it would also crop up on the Lovesexy tour in 1988–89. Most significantly, it would return to regular rotation on the One Nite Alone… tour in 2002, with an April 29 version from Seattle’s Paramount Theatre captured for posterity on One Nite Alone… Live!
Just over 20 years after he first recorded the song, Prince invests the One Nite Alone… version with a sense of hard-won experience. Having spent the better part of a decade battling with his former record label for control of his music and his name, he no longer sounds presumptuous or patronizing when he sings, “Be glad that U are free”; now, it just seems like good advice from someone who’s earned it. Cutting the song down to its first verse and chorus also helps to remove its patina of early-’80s jingoism, putting the focus on its more hauntingly personal dimension: “Don’t cry unless you’re happy, don’t smile unless you’re blue / Never let that lonely monster take control of U.” It isn’t a definitive version of “Free,” exactly, but more like a coda–bringing the brashness of youth face to face with the wisdom of age, and breathing new life into the song beyond its immediate context.
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One reply on “Free”
“on the other hand, its slightly grim sense of pomp and circumstance contains the seeds of “Purple and Gold,” the bizarre fight song he would gift to the Minnesota Vikings in 2010.”
you are right about this on the original version and it really grates. and it feels as though the song takes a left turn there in its original configuration. and perhaps he was playing into that whole patriotic jingoistic sound deliberately. Or being ironic but I don’t think so.
As you say in its later versions it had greater resonance in his struggles with WB and became a more personal statement.
Interestingly, I was listening to it today as it was the encore for his second concert at the P & M Gala night in January 2016 and he says the whole issue is about freedom and goes out with the crowd singing the coda and him sitting on the piano conducting them.
It obviously meant a lot but I think the meaning changed over the years.