The Apocalyptic Meaning Behind Prince’s “1999”

What do you consider a groundbreaking song? Is it one that stands out from its peers and helps establish a new sound or genre? How about a tune that first launches an eventual legend into the popular consciousness? 

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No matter how you define “groundbreaking,” it’s hard to argue that few songs have had as much impact as Prince’s “1999.” The 1982 chart-topper catapulted the Purple One onto the global stage—all while representing an entire genre and somehow simultaneously capturing the mood of the present and the future. 

Defining the Minneapolis sound and giving Prince his first taste of mainstream success, “1999” almost didn’t happen. Prince’s record label, Warner Bros. Records, insisted that the increasingly popular guitarist create a final piece to bring cohesion to his fifth studio album, 1999, released on October 27, 1982. 

The result was an ambitious—and ironically celebratory—anthem that embodied Prince’s view of a world that was at the time filled with fear, paranoia, and turmoil. With the Reagan administration in full swing, the U.S. was stockpiling nuclear weapons in a hawkish attempt to intimidate the Soviet Union, ominously dubbed by Reagan the “Evil Empire.” 

And while Prince’s “1999” certainly tapped into that fear, it also provided listeners with an exhilarating form of escapism—one that would cement the song as a rousing party staple. 

The Meaning Behind the Song

As the early 1980s progressed, Prince began evolving as an artist in both style and substance. Albums such as Dirty Mind and Controversy introduced Prince’s growing awareness of political issues and weighty social matters. 1999, however, demonstrated Prince’s willingness to dive headlong into apocalyptic predictions caused by the Cold War anxieties of the time. 

The song “1999” found its genesis in a hotel room in which Prince and his bandmates were staying while on tour. One evening Prince and each member of his Revolution were watching The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a somber HBO documentary on future-teller Nostradamus and his not-so-pleasant predictions for the forthcoming decades. Everyone in the room—except for Prince—was justifiably overcome with a sense of dread at the harrowing events heading their way. 

Call it optimism—or call it arrogance—but Prince saw things differently than his bandmates: He was confident that he would be quite alright as the world around him melted into nuclear nothingness. The tension between the intense negativity felt in the room that evening and Prince’s longing for one last soiree inspired Prince to begin crafting the foundations of “1999.” 

While the fun and funky “1999” is often identified as a cornerstone tune of the Minneapolis sound (thanks to its funk guitars, synth-pop melodies, and drum-machine rhythms), the song’s genius lay in its carefree, carpe diem approach to life.

Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you
I only want you to have some fun
I was dreamin’ when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin’
Could’ve sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple
There were people runnin’ everywhere
Tryin’ to run from the destruction
You know I didn’t even care
Say, say, 2000-zero zero, party over
Oops, out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

Impact of the Song

The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Black Singles and No. 1 on the Dance/Disco Top 80 charts. “1999” peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and soon became an anthem of immortality. “1999” also influenced several dance, hip-hop, and electro-pop artists, including H.E.R., Beyoncé, and The Weeknd. Prince took advantage of the new millennium by revisiting his magnum opus, breathing new life into it with 1999: The New Master EP.

Final Thoughts

Written during the height of the Cold War, Prince’s “1999” is a poignant party jam that addresses fears of a nuclear Armageddon. His optimism wins out, though, and he demands we enjoy the time we have left. In Prince’s purple-shaded future, life is one big party. The catch? Parties aren’t meant to last.

.Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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