A Dance to the Music of Time — “Raspberry Beret”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music. It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Raspberry Beret”
from the 1985 album Around the World in A Day by Prince and the Revolution
reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100

Prologue: August

“One, two, one two three”

Friday 13 August 2021. 2:30 in the morning. I’m lying in bed, and my body and mind are currently doing battle. I have dinners to attend later in the city, and I seriously do not want to look like a zombie in front of my friends. Yet my brain is resisting all stern commands to shut down for the night — in fact, it seems to be exploding in a million different directions, leaping from subject to subject with the hyperactivity of a child who’s just discovered their dream playground. Being ADHD, this is a routine that I know by heart. But it is still not a pleasant one.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can feel the anxieties tugging at me even when I can’t see them in the darkness: future writings, plans to emigrate, a tentative relationship with a girl I barely know. I think about them just long enough to realise that I’m hitting dead-ends for every single one of them, that I’m banging my head against a wall, and then it’s onto the next item, unfinished fragments all without beginning or end. So I retreat to the most constructive outlet I know, and think about my writing plans for the rest of the year. Part of my plan at this stage is to write a piece for and about Christmas — I’ve been watching Mad Men for a bit now, and I’m kind of interested in why Christmas is the one festival we all go crazy over, why we all get that fuzzy feeling from hearing the New Seekers’ “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”. But it feels wrong: the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that I can’t think of any deeper answer than “it’s capitalism, innit”. Plus, I’ve already done a Christmas-adjacent piece, and to go over the same grounds just feels lazy.

Stuck at another cul-de-sac, I allow my mind to wander. The stereo in my brain turns on, and a whole selection of songs parade through my brain, each one allowing me just a brief snatch of their melodies before the next rudely asserts its presence. Slowly I realise that there’s one song that’s more insistent than the rest, a song I rediscovered just a few hours ago and which just won’t stop coming back. Its opening synthetic drumbeat is an irresistible march, the first vocals an undeniable command. “One, two, one two three, HUH!”

It’s so unrelenting that, against my better judgment, I find myself getting up and Googling “Raspberry Beret”. I come across words, a never-ending stream of words: on Prince’s genius, the Revolution’s squabbles, on psychedelia and sex. Somebody online describes it as “the best pop song of the 80s”. And slowly, surely, the pieces drift into place.

Chapter One: April

“Cause I was a bit too leisurely”

Do you know how hard it is to write 30,000 words? I don’t mean the type where you word vomit everything onto a piece of paper — once you’ve gotten the rhythm in your fingertips, rambling about subjects you barely know becomes a piece of cake. I mean the type which you have to incessantly pore over every word, rearrange sentence structures again and again, stuck in the fear that it won’t get somebody else’s approval. Even when you’re given two years to write it all out, it’s still a very daunting task. It takes me ages of writing and rewriting just to get one sentence right, one sentence that probably will get deleted a couple of revisions later.

So I envy Prince a lot: not just because of his effortless songwriting (we’ll get to that in a minute), but also because of how much there is. By one estimate, he’s got enough material in his vaults to release an album for every year remaining in this century. That’s crazy enough, but how are so many of them classics? In less than four and a half years, you got “1999”, “Little Red Corvette”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Pop Life”, “Sign o’ the Times”, “Alphabet St.”, and a whole bunch of other songs that I really should get to some time. This man was churning out albums every year, almost all of them critically and commercially beloved — and I haven’t even started on the ones he wrote under a pseudonym (“Manic Monday”, anyone?). Anyone that churned out that many bangers in a short time, and made them instant classics — not just good or great, but instant stone-cold classics — is not human. They need to be stopped, or if that’s not possible, adored.

A lot of people attribute this success to Prince’s instinct for a catchy tune or his music box of vocals, but I also like to think that his lyrics play a part. Prince’s lyrics evoke feelings in you, whether that’s a conflicted feeling of parental neglect or just a general feeling that you need to bed someone ASAP. “Touch if you will my stomach, feel how it trembles inside”, he says, and you can feel the stirrings within you immediately. But rarely does he try to set up a scene: his narrators are always caught in the heat of the moment, trying to confess to someone their tortured souls or being all foxy with his ladies. (A lot of the time, it’s both.) Even when he does make the effort, none of them are as good as “Raspberry Beret” in telling a complete story: the boy who slacks off at the five-and-dime, the racist boss who says he doesn’t “like my kind / Cause I was a bit too leisurely”, all of them jump to life as soon as you hear Prince describe them in his confidently disinterested way. You can feel the moist summer air sucking off from the fans, smell the soap and the cardboard wrappers swirling around you. Dig, if you will, the picture. Watch it come to life.

It’s not just the lyrics though: you don’t get to play the fricking Beatles if you don’t have a sense of melody. Again, though, Prince defies all expectations here: when the curtain rises, you don’t hear the angry thud of the drum machine, you don’t hear him shredding his guitar. That hollow drum sound is still there, but in front of all that you find a lush, sunny landscape, complete with full string section serenading you. Prince has gone classical, the desolate, rain-drenched artificial wasteland of Purple Rain disappeared into the shadows. I absolutely hated this version of him when I first listened to the song, way back in the spring: where was the twisted soul, the Freudian figure who kept on seeing his never-been-satisfied momma in his girl? It felt like a sham after all that darkness I’d just heard of, a feeble attempt to cover up his wounds. It made him sound too pretty, and cheaply so too.

Looking back on it, I can’t figure out why I pushed it away. I’m a guy who falls for pretty things — what do you expect from a guy who counts ELO as one of his favourite bands — and every story I write is basically a mushy romance or a warm fuzzy tale set in a world of wonder. I’ve tried writing darker tales, and it just hasn’t worked for me: I’m too much sunbeams and ice-cream. (I do not get accused enough of being a manic pixie dream boy. I am a disappointment.) It’s not that I don’t have a darker side, and I’m fascinated by all those dives into the intensity of human emotion that other people create, but the world is such a dark and despairing place that I feel like I don’t need to add to the mix with my piss-poor creations. But turning my nose up at such a happy, exciting confection? Unconscionable.

Maybe I just didn’t know what to do with it, this unconventionally sweet offering from one of the most intense songwriters on Earth. I only realised this while writing this piece, but I haven’t written anything creative all year. That fantastical outlet which gave me an escape, where I created a world of my own — I didn’t engage one single bit in 2021. Instead, I’ve been cooped up in my room and my office desk, writing about books from the early 20th century and metro systems. All the stories I’ve told this year — the songs, the books, the Taskmaster rankings — all of them have a basis in fact, taken from real life. Compared to last year, when I churned out a whole series of short stories, this year I didn’t get a single chance to escape from everyday life. And that won’t do: irrational optimism is my bread and butter. I need to constantly affirm my belief in happy endings, escape at regular intervals into the perfect world. So later on, when I’d discovered the intricate storytelling of “Raspberry Beret”, I fell for it hard: songwriting is so often an abstract, emotional thing, especially for Prince, that sometimes the human gets lost in the verses, the emotions never coagulate into somebody that you or I could relate. But here I could see his characters. I could root for them, imagine myself in their shoes. It’s not that I begrudge Prince Rogers Nelson for writing a story much better than I do — only one of us has won seven Grammys — but I do wonder how he manages to make it so effortless. I adore what he’s done here, turning people on with just a few short, evocative sentences. I wish I was able to do that as well.

Yet this isn’t the story. The slice of modern life in suburban America is not a subject that interests Prince (though I’m sure some overzealous fans will correct me in the comments). It’s not a Prince song if a girl doesn’t enter the picture. So let’s move with the song, and dive two months deeper into that hot, sultry summer.

Chapter Two: June

“She walked in through the out door”

We bonded over dumplings. That much I remember. It was a swelteringly hot Tuesday, and the veggie canteen in CUHK was packed with people — people who wanted to have one last round of vegetarian food before it closed down for good. By the time I went down at half past one in the afternoon, every seat in that tiny, stuffy glass house was taken — all but one. By sheer heavenly coincidence, it happened to be the one opposite her. As I sat down, I couldn’t help looking at her, at her perfect hair, her elegant dress, and that warmest of smiles, and for the first time in six years, this painfully shy, Asperger’s-ridden misanthrope started a conversation with a stranger he did not know over the dumplings she had on her plate. She looked up at me, and she smiled.

This is not a love story.

The arrival of the girl in “Raspberry Beret” is an earth-shattering moment. One moment the boy’s lazing about in the store, trying to figure out how he can slack off again — and suddenly she walks in, already the coolest person on earth. It’s the first thing we notice about her: before the hat, before her physique, before her way of mingling with the clouds, that single act catches our eye. It’s a moment that’s so cool that Prince immediately has to break off into a chorus, where time literally freezes and he takes in every little detail about her — “she wore a raspberry beret”, he sings over and over. No matter what happens after that, he finds himself coming back to that chorus, that moment, savouring her showstopping entrance. She might wear a cheap-ass raspberry beret, but the moment she arrives is invaluable.

But something else about this girl is special: not just the way she grabs our attention, but what we want to do with her. Now, Prince was not subtle when it came to sensuality: he thrived on it like the average rock band thrives on cocaine. If he is writing a sex song, he will declare it in the very first sentence. It was always confusing to me how this Seventh-Day Adventist, this devout believer who once withdrew a whole album run after it had been printed because it was “too sinful”, could write some of the horniest songs in existence — but there’s no denying what those howls on the record are. Which makes it all the weirder that sex doesn’t enter the equation until the third verse in “Raspberry Beret”, and even then it’s really oblique: he describes the barn where they do it and the stormclouds gathering above them, but none of it qualifies as even slightly saucy, unless “you feel like a movie star” is some sort of code for the missionary position. Contrast that with his next big hit, “Kiss”, where he opens by saying how turned on he is despite his girl’s lack of beauty. St. Augustine’s Confessions, this is not.

“Kiss” is my favourite Prince song, but even so there’s something fascinating about the girl in “Raspberry Beret”. Sex is really just an afterthought here: what she does, what she wears, what they do together is much more interesting to this narrator than straight-up fornication. There is a world that exists beyond the realm of the senses — she’s so much more well-defined, so much more capable of surprising you. Basically, she sounds like someone you might meet in real life. That makes me curious: like Prince (and I suppose a lot of other men), I’ve always found girls the most fascinating people on the planet. Not because I was horny or anything, but because they always felt like they already had their shit together, and we boys were only spending our days playing catch-up. (“She wasn’t too bright” but “she knew how to get her kicks”? Please.) When I sat opposite that girl at the canteen, I was bursting with a whole cornucopia of questions: what’s your name, what are you studying, how do you feel about the Beatles, that kind of thing. I know that it’s a tired cliché to find girls interesting because they’re mysterious or something, but this is the kind of girl that makes you curious about them.

That is, of course, if we even remember to ask. You can pick up on those lyrical nuances all you like, but I usually lose interest sometime in the second verse and have to go back afterwards, because those violins in the background of the song are just too romantic for me to pay attention. It’s not a conscious decision: the strings just seep through and I let myself float, and by the time I remember that I’m supposed to be listening to the words as well Prince is already talking about the sound of raindrops on that iron roof. Nothing else matters during that section: it’s just you and that feeling of soft, velvety bliss, floating your way into paradise. You might have a million questions for the girl, yet there’s this hazy, undefinable aura around them too, an aura that holds that urgency at bay while never really taking away from it either. Every second, every moment, you’re slipping in between those two different states, trying to put the right letters together and make a better day. It’s one big duel that you never really extricate yourself from.

I spent the rest of this year trying to figure out that blissful curiosity, mostly ineffectually. When I started the year, I’d made the big-headed mistake of claiming that I didn’t really care about love: I thought that I could distract myself with books and music and city explorations, and in the meantime I’d get enough of a grip to love myself or something. As some of my friends can testify, this instead turned out to be the year where I thought about it most. There was so much to think about, and I found myself getting more and more confused, especially after she’d walked in through my out door. We went on a couple of lunches together, and she seemed interested for a bit until she wasn’t, at which point I went back to Chesterton and Forster with a vengeance. Bliss was a heavenly feeling at the best of times, but it was also addictive: all I really wanted throughout that summer was to keep that feeling going, to keep having infinite questions about girls. Bittersweet endings just weren’t built into my system.

It doesn’t last in “Raspberry Beret”. Of course it doesn’t: he’s just a teenage boy, it’s his first time, and they move on to other people after that stormy afternoon. But he still thinks of her, that heart-stopping moment when she stepped in and turned into perfection incarnate: even after he’s told the story, all he thinks about is “tell me, where have all the raspberry women gone?” And well he might, because that one split second is love and infatuation concentrated: feeling the questions erupting within you, discovering the sunbeams radiating from her every pore — your whole life changed completely, at the drop of a raspberry beret. Everything afterwards just pales. Prince knew that too well: he reuses almost the exact same scenario in “U Got the Look”. But he never gets to describing the dream we all dream of as fully, as prettily, as in this song.

Chapter Three: September

“Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees”

Have you heard of a band called the Lightning Seeds? They’re mostly famous for that one football song (apologies to “Pure”), but the best story about them has to be how they got their name in the first place. Legend has it that when band leader Ian Broudie was looking for a name for his solo project in the late 80s, he listened to some Prince, misheard the line that I’ve just quoted and thought “‘The Lightning Seeds’. Now there’s a good band name”.

I love stories like that: not because of any music nerdery on my part, but because they tell us things about the randomness of creativity and of life in general. This complete accident, this quirk of hearing on ONE listener’s part, brought forth the third most evocative band name on Earth. (Above it: “Electric Light Orchestra” and “Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark”. I have a thing for orchestras, I’m sorry.) If you think about it though, it means absolutely nothing at all, yet at the same time your mind conjures up some image in response to this beautiful nonsense — a foetus curled up inside a lightning bolt, David Bowie on the cover of Aladdin Sane. It’s a nothing that lends itself to a lot.

But does that make it the best pop song of the 80s, like that comment said way back in the intro? No. No it’s not. It’s not even the best Prince pop song of the 80s, not when you’ve also got “1999” in the same shed; and even above that masterpiece I’d put things like “What Have I Done to Deserve This” or “Come On Eileen” or “Bad”, things I can actually sing in the shower. (Nobody really knows if you’re butchering Dexys.) Yes, Prince occupies a lot of those top slots — like I said, the man wrote nothing but bangers in the mid-80s — but there’s no way I’ll relate more to a singer you could say was a sex fiend than a guy shying away from the girl of his dreams. That said, though, I’ll still argue that of the Prince tracks I’ve heard so far, this is the most beautiful Prince song he ever wrote, more so than “7”, more so than goddamn “Purple Rain”. Everything about that perfectly constructed scene blows me away, from the violin serenade to its realisation of the perfect girl. Even if it’s not as elementally raw or danceable as “Kiss”, it’s still an immaculate work of art.

Perhaps you do not agree: perhaps the romantic croonings of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” or the seductive moans of “Cream” are more to your liking. Or perhaps you are one of those people who think Prince was overrated, and that his rival Michael Jackson was the greatest Black songwriter of the 80s. I do not mean to say that any of these statements are wrong, but they intrigue me nonetheless: why would you think that his 90s offerings are better? Is “Smooth Criminal” really as good as “When Doves Cry”? Everyone who’s anyone will have their own ideas about what makes the perfect pop song, their curiosities bouncing off one another in a never-ending discussion. All the same, I feel like this is the first year when I’ve been truly able to appreciate these raging arguments — understand that popular music is popular, only because it foments a million different images in a thousand different brains, and appeals to everybody’s different desires. Am I a person desperately in need of sex? Do I worry about the apocalypse? Popular music, I’ve discovered this year, is an eternal series of questions we ask ourselves, even as we sashay down the street to the groove of the beat. Hang on: haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Yes, and of course there’s something to be said about how fascination about music mirrors itself in fascination about romance. Many a time, we use popular music to discover how we feel — we just can’t seem to find the right words to speak our minds, so we lose ourselves in music instead, trying to channel ourselves through the mouths of endless scribes, composers, chanteuses, examining what it’s like to navigate the latest twist in life.

And maybe it’s because of that need to articulate myself correctly, but I listened to a lot of music in 2021. I went through the entire discography of Simon and Garfunkel and ELO, listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder and new jack swing. I never did manage to finish the new Olivia Rodrigo album. But in those songs I tried to assemble a collage of feelings, one that would explain this really weird and, I’ll be honest, rather dissatisfying year. I learnt about funk, I found myself curious about hip-hop music. I tried my hardest to decipher what Bjork was shouting at me. My curiosity is of course nothing compared to the legion of music journalists out there, not to mention those friends of mine who milked their Spotify plan dry. There’s a lot I still need to catch up to, and I’m aware that my knowledge of music is still framed by a very white Anglocentric system. But I turned on for real this year, and perhaps I can attribute my much more emotional state this year to pop music. For an Asperger’s kid, that’s a pretty big deal.

It got better than that, too. My favourite piece of writing this year wasn’t a story I’d written, nor was it any essay I’d written for my studies (if anything, this year hammered home just how much I didn’t like academia). Instead, it was a 1500-word blogpost on Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, something that I’d banged out one September afternoon and posted online without further thought. But I never felt so intensely about something this year: the thrill of those chilly synthesizers, the carpe diem quality of the song. I couldn’t stop asking how, couldn’t stop wondering at the excitement it produced in me. I loved it so much, I immediately knew that I’d never write anything as good for the rest of the year. I still don’t think I have. But for me, that’s the value of songs like “Kids in America” and “Raspberry Beret”: they articulate feelings you didn’t even know you had, and you’re so changed by the experience and by the discovery that you too, are inspired to create your own work in homage and response. Great art, as they say, creates sparks. And so that’s why I wrote this piece: I want to salute this song, for being a brilliant conduit, for firing off so many synapses in my brain — and of course, for being just a damn good song. I think I love it, you know?

Epilogue: December

“I think I, I think I, I think I loooooooove her”

I had a lot of sleepless nights this year. Most of the time, they weren’t as constructive as that Friday night in August: I would simply lie in bed, and panic about the future. So I’m grateful that that particular bout of insomnia led me to “Raspberry Beret”, and that that song, in turn, led me to think a little bit deeper about my whole year. There were a lot of candidates I considered for my freshly-traditional end-of-year piece: besides the New Seekers, I also found myself wondering lots about Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, the Beatles. I came very close to writing this one on David Bowie’s “Modern Love” — a cheesy rocker about religion and disillusionment, it became my favourite pop song ever this year. (The song it displaced? “Golden Years”. Even I didn’t know how much I adored the man.) I have lots to say about that one, and maybe you’ll see it someday — there’s simply too much to love right now. It’s just a power to charm, has good old Davy Jones.

But Prince won out in the end, not just because “Raspberry Beret” is a damn fine piece of music (have I mentioned that?), but also because he seemed like the logical conclusion to the end of a year of writing, music, and romance: here was someone who wrote the most exquisite songs, the most enchanting songs, the most beautiful songs in the world, and somehow it just got me: I could see my life falling into place with that song, trace the story of that summer crush in Prince’s words. I could marvel at his ability to tell a tale with music, then read between the lines to see the power of pop. These were things in the realm of popular music that I pondered extensively, more or less, in 2021 — some of them turned out real good, some of them not so much (I definitely have to rework that Buggles piece someday). But they were all an adventure I loved having, and “Raspberry Beret” is the culmination of that journey.

That was 2021. In less than three hours, we will find ourselves navigating a whole new calendar, and this time I really have to face the music. Last year, in the outro to “Those Were the Days”, I wrote that I had to learn to become a responsible adult and reduce my output for a bit. That didn’t really work out, and I have no idea whether the same promise will work for 2022 either. But I have a thesis to finish, a new project to do, and friends and family to be seeing. Long-form pieces like these are fun, but I think it’s time I did something that wasn’t close to nothing. I have one more longform piece planned for April, but God knows if I’ll be too rushed off my feet to write it up then. Whatever happens though, I’ll still remember what “Raspberry Beret” taught me this year about love, about writing, about the journeys we make when it comes to pop music. Those are just my own thoughts. Forgive me if I’ve gone astray.

Thank you all so much for reading my blog this year! If you’ve read thus far, please know that I’m really grateful that you’ve taken the time to read all the way through this piece, and I hope you found something good to think about, for good or ill. See you around in 2022!

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