Prince – Sign o’ the times
It is silly, no? When a rocket blows
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain't happy, truly
Until a man truly dies
Oh why, oh why, sign o' the times
Some songs leave a mark, I think we agree on this. Maybe suddenly, maybe it takes longer. But for some songs it is immediately clear that the song is bound for history, it’s special, you don’t really know why, it’s probably less beautiful than other songs, but it’s bound for history, maybe for the lyrics, maybe for the moment it is released. This happened to Sign o’ the Times. Maybe not the happiest song of Prince’s, but definitely one of the most emotional, important, evocative.
We are towards the end of February 1987 and the genius from Minneapolis is working on the release of his new album, which will be released in March anticipated by this single. For Prince this is a particular moment in his career: he worked on this song and this album practically alone, thus closing the period of his collaboration with The Revolution, which have been an integral part, however, of his history since the days of Purple Rain, and we can say that Prince basically created this song alone with a synthesizer (and some electric guitar, I would say). And he did it on a Sunday afternoon, the day he reserved for his most intimate creations.
The song, we said, is certainly not a happy song: in the space of a few minutes it reviews the most negative and threatening looming on the horizon of the late 80s, from real existential nightmares, such as the omnipresent danger of nuclear war, to global disasters such as the presence and spread of AIDS, to specific catastrophes such as the explosion of the shuttle Challenger that occurred a year earlier, up to familiar tragedies, as in the verse in which Prince mentions a cousin who in few months tries marijuana for the first time, and soon finds himself down the tunnel of heroin.
Sign o’ the Times on the album cover was written as Sign “☮︎” the Times, and we know that Prince had a strong passion for writing lyrics and titles with numbers and symbols, as he had done for example years earlier with I Would Die 4 U or Take Me With U. Prince had been working on this song for some time, and it should have been released on two albums he was working on, but which never came out, as if to symbolize this period of strong inner change that the genius was living.
And this change undoubtedly also involved his collaboration with Warner Bros, who had refused to produce a triple album and had ordered Prince to cut seven songs, so that Sign o’ the Times would be a double album, but not triple. Prince had to accept, but this was the first sign of breaking with the record company, starting a journey that will lead him to no longer use the name Prince but to call himself T.A.F.K.A.P. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), then to even use a logo instead of a name, and here we go back to the use of symbols in texts and titles, and finally to strenuously fight the availability of his works on the internet and on social networks, up to a historic posthumous agreement signed by his heirs with the major record companies.
The song was naturally a resounding success, even if as we said it was completely different from the most recent hits (just think of the very sensual Kiss released just a year earlier), and even if it had an absolutely minimalist video: for the first time, in fact, a song had what we now call a lyric video, which is a kind of karaoke with the lyrics appearing on the screen, minimum graphics, and nothing else. Prince doesn’t even appear in any single frame.
One last curiosity: on the cover of the single we see a female figure with her face obscured by a large black heart. There was a rumor that the female figure was Prince himself, but today we can say with certainty that this was not the case: the girl portrayed on the cover was the beautiful Cat Glover, representative of a new generation of muses of the artist, after the periods of Vanity and Apollonia, and then Wendy and Lisa.
And a few months later we will see Cat absolutely protagonist together with Sheena Easton in the video for U Got the Look, taken from this same album. The only muse who always stayed by Prince’s side was the talented and beautiful drummer Sheila E.
But after all, that too was a sign of the times.
Prince on Wikipedia