32: Sign o’ the Times

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Humans beings aren’t designed to cope with today’s barrage of breaking news. If we keep pace with every single plot twist of hyper-capitalism’s march, does that make us informed citizens engaging on a macro level with the fast-changing world, or are we doom-scrolling dupes destroying our mental health by giving advertisers clicks for another microdose of that sweet dopamine? Sometimes it feels like we’re being forced to read every word of the Earth’s end credits which are scrolling past our eyes too fast to fully take in. A song like Sign O’ the Times or Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire couldn’t be written nowadays. The news is far too relentless to be be pinned down. The turnover too quick. And after having it beamed into our eyeballs, our hearts and our lungs every hour of the day, we want our pop music to be escapist. Before 24-hour news came of age with the OJ Simpson murder case, glimpses of a burning world were doled out in managable bite-size chunks. One such chunk reached Prince when he was in a particularly anxious state and it gave birth to the song that titled the album, tour and movie of his creative peak. Under Sign O’ the Times in the Hits liner notes, Alan Leeds writes “I’d love to know the date so I could look up the newspapers to see what inspired it”. Thanks to Susannah Melvoin we now know it was 13 July 1986. She recently revealed that Prince was in Los Angeles that month, experiencing their worst earthquake in seven years which, in her words, “scared the shit out of him”. On the day of the aftershock, with his belief in a stable world once again literally shaken, he was handed that day’s LA Times with a front page headline about Reagan’s Star Wars program. Read that paper yourself online and trace the seeds of the song’s lyrics through articles on the surge in teen drug use, the AIDS epidemic (including one about a recent conference in France, and another that likens HIV to someone running around with a machine gun), bomb blasts, and a report on how women and children were the fastest growing poverty group in the country. Not all the Signs came from that Times. There’s no rockets exploding but it was only a few months after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. And Prince would have heard about The Disciples in Minneapolis where a murder trial of a leader from that gang was underway. There’s also no mention of Hurricane Annie. Could the destruction of a church be by the hand of his antichrist Annie Christian? It’s a line possibly inspired by an article that day on white supremacist violence being committed in the name of Christianity. Or could Prince be referencing the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the US coast, sometimes referred to as Hurricane Annie, which left a path of destruction in Florida in 1935. Interestingly, back when he recorded this, the only other category 5 to have hit the mainland was called Hurricane Camille. Coincidence? Could he have even got the name from a Rudy Ray Moore record. Or maybe all of the above. Sign O’ the Times wasn’t the first song he recorded after digesting that day’s current events. The healing redemption of The Cross came first. Only by cleansing his soul could he then turn his direct gaze towards the abyss. And after encapsulating the darkness, giving it form, and proposing love, marriage and the gift of God (the Hebrew meaning behind the name Nate) as the antidote, could he then move forward and play in the sunshine.