With Albert Magnoli on board as director, preparations for Prince’s film debut finally began in earnest. The artist’s new rehearsal space on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota became the epicenter for a “flurry of activity from morning ’til night,” recalled Brenda Bennett of side project Vanity 6 (Bellaire 2015). Along with a stage setup and recording console, “the Warehouse” also included a small wardrobe department for Vaughn Terry and Louis Wells: costume designers, best known for their work with Earth, Wind & Fire, who had joined the Prince camp during the 1999 tour and would be instrumental in crafting his iconic Purple Rain-era look.
Soon, Terry and Wells would be joined by another familiar face: tour manager Alan Leeds, whose capable handling of the inter- and intra-band tensions during the latter months of the 1999 tour led to his being rehired to help coordinate the film’s production. “I got a call from [manager Steve] Fargnoli sometime in July, offering me the gig to come to Minneapolis,” Leeds told journalist Alan Light. “And I said, ‘Well, what’s the gig? Are you going back on the road?’ ‘Not right away. We’re going to make a movie first.’ I go, ‘Okay, you need me to come there because you’re making a movie? First of all, I don’t believe you’re making a movie. Second, why do you need me to make a movie? I don’t make movies.’ He said, ‘We got three bands: we got Prince and his guys that you tour managed, we got Morris [Day] and the Time, we got Vanity 6. They’re all in the movie. Everybody’s taking acting lessons, everybody’s taking dance lessons, and everybody’s rehearsing new music. We need an off-road road manager to coordinate all this stuff.’ ‘Okay, Steven–you’re really making a movie? Get the fuck outta here!’” (Light 2014 82-83).
Leeds wasn’t the only one surprised by the sudden increase in scale. As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled, “For the longest time, we would talk about [the film] like, ‘We’re gonna make the best cult movie, it’s gonna be cool, we’re just gonna put it out there and see who responds to it.’ Then Al Magnoli came and actually kind of connected with Prince, and Al was the one who was like, ‘If we’re gonna make a movie, why don’t we make it a hit movie? It seems like we’ve got all the parts here. Let’s not just make some artsy movie, just for fun’” (Light 2014 91).
In aiming for a “hit,” however, Prince faced the inevitable temptation to sand away some of his rougher edges. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had been a fan before she joined Prince’s band, recalled being disappointed by the new material at rehearsal: “The songs weren’t as funky to me,” she told Light. “They were pop songs; they were definitely watered down.” Coleman remembered Prince himself poking fun at his newfound populist tendencies: “He would imitate an old granny, like, ‘You could make Granny dance to this one,’ but then I think he was just like, ‘We’re leaning it too far to the granny; we still need danger’” (Light 2014 77).
“Darling Nikki” would become Purple Rain’s standard-bearer for the “danger” of Prince albums past. Recorded by Prince in his home studio (billed in the liner notes as “a place very close 2 where u live”) sometime in mid-to-late July of 1983, the song even sounds dirty: not just in the sexual sense–though, of course, it is that, too–but in terms of pure fidelity, like a grubby fingerprint on the album’s otherwise spotless surfaces. And that’s not to mention its unforgettable opening vignette: “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess u could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / masturbating with a magazine.”
Surprisingly, those lines weren’t part of the original vision for the song. An early draft, published as part of Prince’s posthumous memoir, takes a decidedly sillier tack: “I got a girl named Nikki / Thank God that she’s fine,” it begins. “Twice she cooked me dinner / Taste like shit both times / Thank God Nikki’s fine / The girl can’t cook but lawd she sure can grind” (Prince 2019 226). The discarded verse stands as rare evidence that Prince’s lyrical genius could be iterative as well as intuitive. The repetition of “Thank God that [she’s/Nikki’s] fine” feels like an awkward placeholder; more importantly, the overall premise is hackneyed, more like low-hanging fruit for a stand-up routine (or, in Prince terms, a Time sketch) than the opening of an iconic story-song. One can see Prince decide as much on the page: He toys with pushing the lines into the second verse, penciling in a “2.” on the left margin, then thinks better of it and crosses out the verse entirely. The rest of the lyrics are more or less exactly as recorded.
Once Prince had settled on an appropriate tone, “Nikki” fell into place as arguably the most indelible of his femmes fatale. Like the subject of “Little Red Corvette,” she is a figure of fascination and no small amount of fear: Marked by conspicuous deviancy–the “Corvette” with her pocket full of used Trojans; Nikki with her hotel-lobby exhibitionism–she overwhelms the narrator with a sexuality as irresistible as it is intimidating. The result, in Nikki’s case, is literally transformative: “I can’t tell u what she did 2 me,” he confesses, “but my body will never be the same.”
What sets “Nikki” apart from its predecessors is the delicious pulpiness of its narrative. Nikki doesn’t just have a “mansion” like the “Lady Cab Driver” or a “place where [her] horses run free” like the “Corvette”; her lair is an honest-to-God Gothic “castle,” complete with a torture chamber full of erotic “devices” (shades, here, of the unreleased 1977 track “Neurotic Lover’s Bedroom,” with its “multi-faceted sex devices” to “blow your mind from every angle”). As Edgar Kruize points out in a Twitter thread on the song, there’s a hint of the occult in Prince’s description of Nikki as a “sex fiend”–the origin of the word “fiend” coming from the Old English for an evil spirit, demon, or even the Devil himself. Her insistence that the narrator “sign [his] name on the dotted line,” meanwhile, evokes a Faustian pact.
Indeed, so deliciously wicked is “Nikki” that she apparently sent Prince running straight to church. On the album, the song’s orgiastic conclusion fades into a collage of wind, thunder, and rain effects from the library at Sunset Sound–the same clips, according to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, previously used for the Vanity 6 track “Wet Dream.” Against this cleansing backdrop emerges a chorus of multitracked voices played, for maximum eeriness, in reverse. At first listen–and in keeping with “Nikki”’s demonic undertones–the sound evokes the contemporary “backmasking” controversy of the early 1980s: a moral panic led by fundamentalist Christians who were convinced that rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and the ever-sinister Electric Light Orchestra were hiding Satanic and other subliminal messages in their songs, which one could reveal by playing them backwards. Perform this trick on “Nikki,” though, and you’ll find the “hidden message” is pure gospel: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine / ‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.”
According to engineer Susan Rogers, who began working with Prince soon after the recording of “Nikki,” the backwards coda wasn’t motivated by irony alone. “It was really common for Prince if he went very far in one direction, that was strongly lust, passion based on just carnal lust, he would attempt to balance that statement with a more spiritual statement,” she told BBC Radio in 2003. So, “that place where that backwards gospel comes on the album is no accident. That’s the redemption that follows his journey to hell in Nikki’s castle” (Tudahl 2018 174).
Still, Prince wasn’t exactly wracked with guilt over “Nikki”–at least, not immediately after he recorded it. Lisa Coleman recalled him picking her up late one night to show off the song: “He blasted it in his car,” she told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Blew my head off… Musically it was so cocky” (Bream 2017 “Revolution”). She wasn’t wrong: Even more than the bravura shredding of “Let’s Go Crazy” or the lighters-aloft pomp of the title track, “Nikki” is Purple Rain’s quintessential rock-star moment. The stop-start descending synth and guitar line, punctuated by vicious drum fills, exudes, in Coleman’s words, “full-out angry energy” (Light 77). As the song builds to its climax, Prince explodes into a frenetic guitar solo, all while augmenting his live drums with a rapid-fire Linn LM-1 pattern that mimics the sound of a double bass pedal. Little wonder that “Nikki” would later inspire a straightforward hard rock cover by the Foo Fighters, what with its ample opportunities for frontman Dave Grohl to exercise his own throat-rending scream.
Albert Magnoli, meanwhile, instantly recognized the song’s potential as a setpiece for the film, in both the musical and the dramatic sense. “I just sensed that this is going to become very controversial,” he told Tudahl, self-effacing as ever. “I knew it was extremely dark… And I knew narratively I was going to be in a very dark place with these characters anyway, because now they’re going to start to betray each other” (Tudahl 2018 111).
“Nikki” quickly found a place in Magnoli’s screenplay, where it would mark a key turning point in the relationship between Prince’s character and the female lead–a part originally written for Vanity, and played in the finished film by Apollonia. In the scenes immediately prior, “Prince” had slapped “Vanity” in a fit of possessiveness upon learning that she was joining a group assembled by his rival, Morris; stalked her to her band rehearsal, where he was roughed up and forcefully ejected by the Time’s Jellybean Johnson (a deleted scene, incidentally, that I absolutely have to see); flirted with suicide by playing chicken with a freight train; and broken up a scene of domestic abuse between his parents. Now, spotting Vanity in the crowd with Morris during his set at First Avenue, he launches into “Nikki” as a form of sexual humiliation. Realizing that the character is intended as a cruel parody of her, she flees the club, “fighting back tears” (Magnoli 1983).
The scene, frankly, doesn’t work on a dramatic level. Perhaps sensing this, Prince at one point suggested that Magnoli change the “Vanity” character’s name to “Nicartha Ann” (“Nikki” for short)–an edit that would have improved the film’s legibility, if not the quality of its writing. But the real problem is that Prince was too damn good. His performance of “Nikki” is supposed to represent his character’s lowest point: the moment when he finally alienates not only his (now-ex-) girlfriend, but also his bandmates, his employer, and even his audience. Instead, he’s captivating. When the aforementioned employer (fictional First Avenue manager “Billy Sparks,” played by real-life Detroit concert promoter Billy Sparks) deadpans, “The Kid is in rare form tonight,” it’s meant sarcastically, but it makes more sense at face value.
“The Kid” begins his performance of “Nikki” stripped to the waist, bathed in porno-red light and sweat from the preceding “Computer Blue.” One arm extended toward the ceiling, he punctuates the opening drum fills with choreographed slaps across his face. Every gesture is drawn out, freighted with eroticized portent. As he sings those famous opening lines, he curls his left arm behind his neck and strokes his own hair, creating the crude but effective illusion that the hand belongs to someone else. In a 2016 essay for The New Yorker, author Maggie Nelson writes of the moment, “It’s Nikki’s hand, it’s one’s own self-pleasuring hand, it’s creepy, one’s own body made other” (Nelson 2016).
As the song builds in intensity, Prince’s gestures grow bigger, more kinetic. Nailing an old James Brown move he’d often replicate in concert, he kicks away his microphone stand, passes it between his legs, catches it and drops to his knees. Mounting the speaker cabinets at the side of the stage–the climax of a pantomime in which he acts out discovering Nikki’s “phone number on the stairs”–he tosses the mic aside, grins wolfishly, and pounces on it like a playful kitten. Finally, the music reaching a fever pitch behind him, he goes apoplectic with lust: Letting out a strangled shriek that I can only with the aid of the lyrics sheet identify as, “Your darling little Prince / wanna grind, grind, grind,” he humps the cabinets furiously, grabbing a dainty, pointy-heeled ankle and pushing himself in deeper for good measure. Billy and Apollonia can feign righteous disgust all they want; the rest of the viewing audience, at this point, could probably use a cigarette.
In the end, of course, it was left to one Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore to bring that feigned righteous disgust to life in the real world. In December 1984, the story goes, Gore (the wife of then-U.S. senator-elect Al Gore) purchased a copy of Purple Rain for her 11-year-old daughter, Kareena. All seemingly went well–until “Nikki.” “The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us,” Gore later wrote in her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. “Millions of Americans were buying Purple Rain with no idea what to expect. Thousands of parents were giving the album to their children–many even younger than my daughter” (Paulson 2016).
In response, Gore and nine other “Washington Wives”–including Susan Baker, wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker; Peatsy Hollings, wife of U.S. Senator Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings; and Ethelann Stuckey, wife of former U.S. Representative W.S. “Bill” Stuckey–formed the Parents Music Resource Center, a watchdog group ostensibly dedicated to protecting children from explicitly sexual or violent language in popular music. What this meant, in practice, was de facto censorship. Wielding their considerable political connections (plus funding from conservative donors including Coors Brewing Company owner Joseph Coors and Mike Love of the Beach Boys), the PMRC pushed for Congressional hearings to “suggest” that the recording industry adopt a rating system to warn consumers of potentially offensive lyrical content–and, by implication, that retailers refuse to stock music that had been labeled as objectionable.
Key to the PMRC’s strategy was making the case that the music they targeted was pornography, not art, and thus not protected under the First Amendment. As Baker argued, “Pornography sold to children is illegal, [and] enforcing that is not censorship. It is simply the act of a responsible society that recognizes that some material made available to adults is not appropriate for children” (Chastagner 181). Taking up the unintentionally badass mantle of “porn rock,” in 1985 the group compiled a list of songs they deemed particularly deserving of the title, the “Filthy Fifteen”–with “Nikki” holding down the top spot. It was, in fact, one of no less than three Prince-adjacent tracks on the list, along with Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls” (credited to the mysterious “Alexander Nevermind”), and “Strap On ‘Robbie Baby,’” from the ignominious solo debut by ex-protégée Vanity.
The irony has never been lost on Prince fans that the song kicking up all this fuss came from what was easily his tamest album in half a decade. One gets the sense that if it hadn’t been “Nikki,” it would have been something else; and indeed, months before the formation of the PMRC, the National Parent/Teacher Association had launched a letter-writing campaign calling for warning labels after a Cincinnati couple’s seven- and 12-year-old children were exposed to the infamous outro of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”
Meanwhile, Prince stayed above the fray. A Senate hearing proceeded on September 19, 1985, with musicians Frank Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and (most incongruously) John Denver serving as opposing witnesses. Conspicuous in his absence–to the reported chagrin of Zappa in particular–was the naughty boy who’d started the whole mess in the first place. The closest Prince came to a public comment on the issue was his response to a question about the so-called “Tipper sticker,” soon after it was formally introduced in 1990: “I think parents have a right to know what their children are listening to,” he told Neal Karlen of Rolling Stone. He wouldn’t broach the subject again for almost 15 years–and even then, only with a couple of anodyne remarks about how innocent his brand of “porn rock” seemed in retrospect, now that the new boogieman of hip-hop had taken its place.
But then, what more needed to be said? “Nikki” did what it was supposed to do: It added a hint of “danger” to Prince’s bid for mainstream success, ensuring he could rocket to superstardom on his own terms, without landing in Lionel Richie territory. That it also ruffled the feathers of a few right-of-center “Washington Wives” along the way was little more than collateral damage–and anyway, as many an artist hit with the “Parental Advisory” label would soon discover, a little controversy never hurt album sales. Back when Prince previewed the song for Lisa in his car, she recalled him asking, “Am I going to get away with it?” (Bream 2017 “Revolution”). For a brief, glorious moment in the mid-’80s, he seemed capable of getting away with anything he put his mind to.
(Shout-out, once again, to Edgar Kruize, whose 2020 Twitter thread on “Nikki” is somehow still more comprehensive than my 3,000+ words. As ever, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thanks, also, to Snax in the comments for reminding me of the 1990 Rolling Stone interview after I spent way too much time this morning trying to track it down. Finally, this post was slightly edited to include the correct source for the original draft lyrics.)