What’s Your Favorite Prince Song?

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Photo: Michael Ochs Archives

How do you choose a favorite song? Do you go by structure and melody? Do you look at its scope and ambition? Do you think about its cultural impact on the world? Or do you, as we here at Vulture have done, simply pick the song that speaks to you? Prince died at the impossibly young age of 57, and he left behind a vast and varied musical legacy. It's impossible to choose just one song from his oeuvre (and some of us didn't), but what we wanted to do was simply remember what he gave us. As Prince himself said, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life."

Dee Lockett, “When Doves Cry”
You know when you hear a song for the first time and it just feels like you've always known it? That's "When Doves Cry" for me. I wasn't even alive when this song reached ubiquity. In fact, I was probably a toddler, in the early '90s, by the time it entered my music canon. Prince is one of my mom's favorite artists — he probably would've been my father in a different life, the love is that real — so of course she passed on the obsession with a song fittingly about fractured love. If you're looking for me tonight, I'll be screaming every word at peak volume and dancing so bad Prince will have no choice but to end me with his masterful side-eye, even in death. Rest in power, Purple One.

Gazelle Emami, “Kiss”
I'm a sucker for a good dance-floor jam, and "Kiss" is the kind of song dance-floor dreams are made of. There's nothing like watching everyone around you scrunch up their faces as they stretch to reach Prince's falsetto, and flail around "ain't no particular type." But what gets me every time is the palpable, unself-conscious energy it brings to a room with its lyrics, which, in typical Prince fashion, really fly in the face of conventional love songs. No song has ever made me feel more comfortable in my skin than "Kiss." From
its opening "you don't have to be beautiful to turn me on," to all the words that follow, it's disarmingly good at stripping away any inhibitions. You don't have to be anything but yourself to be lovable is a sadly rare message for a girl to get outside of a Dove commercial — and who else but Prince could make it one of the most popular songs of all time?

Jackson McHenry, “Darling Nikki”
Guitars that whir like electric fences. Truly absurd lyrics. The way Prince’s voice arpeggios between observing pleasure and enacting it. “Darling Nikki” is the kind of song you remember hearing for the first time, and later, getting for the first time. This radio station used to play it, for some reason, all the time when I was in middle school, gawky, in the closet, and deeply afraid of sex. Then there’s Prince telling this gloriously filthy story. It’s only few minutes, but he’s not ashamed for one second. He’s proud. And that's the kind of thing that makes a difference.

Nate Jones, “When You Were Mine”
Even among the shameless smut of
Dirty Mind, Prince could still do innocence. With the help of an immortal riff, vintage harmonies, and some of his most vulnerable vocals, he made this tale of infidelity sound as timelessly clean as an early Beatles track. Other Prince songs make you want to do unspeakable things; this one makes you want to swaddle him up in a big ol' blanket.

Jesse David Fox, “Sister”
The answer to why I’d pick any Prince song to be my favorite would be the same: It’s a perfect pop song. “Sister” is a perfect pop song. It’s also a very curious one. Running just over 90 seconds, it ends quickly — so quickly it demands to be played on loop. With minimal instrumentation, the Prince-ness of the vocal overpowers. It has that sort of Prince freak-out scream, the falsetto, the perfect harmonies. Also, it has lyrics like “Showed me where it's supposed to go / A blow job doesn't mean blow / Incest is everything it's said to be.” Again, this is a song called “Sister.” I cannot imagine how disruptive, mind-blowing it was to hear this song in 1980; it feels revolutionary right now, 36 year later.

Kyle Buchanan, “7”
I have such an outsize response when Prince's "7" plays at a party that I wonder whether a rival government has programmed me to kill to it. It’s so romantic, so defiant, and the stakes are so high, that it’s like its own little epic. I also got super into this song when I was a Final Fantasy–obsessed child, and with its scope and focus on toppling seven obstinate bosses, “7” basically sounds like Prince planning his own fabulous Square-Enix RPG. Which would have the most amazing hair and costumes!

Abraham Riesman, “One of Us”
In 1996, Prince (well, his name was a symbol at the time, but it's not available in the Unicode character set, so we'll have to muddle through) released a sprawling, three-disc album called
Emancipation. It's a bit of a challenge to wade through the whole thing, but if you stick around until track 34, you'll hear a remarkable '90s pop artifact: Prince's cover of "One of Us." You know, the Joan Osborne song about God being a slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus, and so on. In a career filled with tremendous reinventions of existing hits, this near-forgotten gem might be the best. The Purple One was still a few years away from joining the Jehovah's Witnesses, but he had long possessed a personal and passionate relationship with the Almighty (n.b. "The Cross," "Let's Go Crazy," the spoken-word portion of "Let's Pretend We're Married"). As such, although Osborne had sung the lyrics with a condescending sneer, Prince opted to make the song an ecstatic and evangelical call to arms, sung from a true believer to an agnostic world. The production (done by Prince himself, naturally) is baroque and apocalyptic; the vocals alternate between an imploring croon and a shredded howl; the 43-second guitar solo is unspeakably good. By the time you get to the literal explosion that caps off the track, your soul will be sweating. If God had a face, I can't help thinking it might look like Prince's.

Rebecca Milzoff, “I Would Die 4 U”
In college, my dorm was known for having an annual '80s dance (this was in the early aughts). When I went for the first time as a sophomore, I remember the dance literally felt like something out of a John Hughes movie — disco ball, cute upperclass boys, older girls who seemed way cooler than I'd ever be, and, of course, a killer playlist. When "I Would Die 4 U" came on, I remember everyone screaming in glee the minute those perfectly calibrated synth chords began. They  got me in the gut. When I downloaded it from Napster (yep), I actually paid attention to the lyrics and Prince's voice more. I love that the vocal line is, essentially, unchanging, but the urgency in his voice makes you not want to miss a word. "I am something that you'll never comprehend" — that's Prince in a nutshell, right?

E. Alex Jung, “Kiss”
In a magnificent
essay in Harper’s, Hilton Als writes, “To enter Prince’s world, then, was to know that rules, racial or otherwise, were self-imposed and self-limiting.” When I think about Prince, I think about my friends: queer, beautiful, courageous people of color. They were the ones who first introduced me to Prince, singing “Kiss” in the karaoke room, and I was bewildered by their unabashed caterwauling. I listened to the song quickly thereafter and understood: Prince is one of our forebearers, someone who created space for us to live and love. Prince reminded us we were not what they said we were. We were greater. We could be everything.

Jada Yuan, “Purple Rain,” Raspberry Beret,” and “1999”
I don't know where to begin. I can't choose one — just fundamentally can't. Every association I have with Prince has been joyful, full of sparkling hoods and glitter capes and that phallic love-symbol guitar jizzing all over that Super Bowl stage. I grew up in rural New Mexico, didn't have older brothers or sisters, didn't see MTV till 1992. Prince to me was that amazing otherworldy creature on the VHS of "Purple Rain" my dad rented from the library, and that's how I picture him, always to that song or "Raspberry Beret," in a downpour, and maybe simultaneously wailing on guitar and having sex in a barn. Is that what even happened? I can't tell if I don't remember specifics or that the movie just never made sense. And because of my weird, pop-culturally isolated childhood, I got to discover him all over again in college, which was where I heard "1999" for the first time, and then at every party for the next four years,  because it was the late '90s and we were young and binge drinking and really were partying like it's 1999. Even now, whenever I hear that song, it transports me straight back to dancing in sweaty dorm rooms until sunrise, to simpler days when we never believed we'd be out of time. It's terribly sad that we are.