“Raspberry Beret” might as well be my favorite Prince song. It’s hard for me to say that, because as a Prince fan I know there are plenty of other songs in his catalog just as worthy of my prized adulation, if not more so. But as much as I love more epochal songs like “When Doves Cry” and “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” I don’t play those nearly as much as “Beret.” It’s a song that I could listen to over and over again and never get sick of.
Any diehard Prince fan will tell you that “Beret” is actually part of a trilogy of sorts; around the mid-80’s Prince seemed to have a boner for (among many other things, hehehe) writing cute little pop numbers reminiscent of 60’s AM radio hits, resulting in the Purple Rain ballad “Take Me With U”, the Bangles hit “Manic Monday,” and of course “Raspberry Beret” which ended up on his Rain follow-up Around the World in a Day. Now, I genuinely love all three songs in this trilogy – in fact I love “Take Me With U” so damned much that I almost consider it to be “Beret”‘s equal. And honestly, the two songs are very similar; both are dreamy little pop songs with lavish string arrangements and vocal interplay between Prince and his female backup singers (probably Wendy and Lisa), with hopelessly romantic lyrics and a distinct air of faux-psychedelia. Hell, cynics could go as far as saying that “Beret” is an inferior rip of “Take Me With U.”
So why do I single out “Raspberry Beret” as the choice Prince gem? Well, for one thing, it’s got an adventurous, lighthearted spirit that was lacking from “Take Me With U,” a song that despite its sweet romanticism belied a desperation that permeated throughout the entire Purple Rain album (especially coming before a song like “The Beautiful Ones,” where that desperation just oozes out). I love “Raspberry Beret” because it’s a total sitting-on-clouds type of pop song, and makes no concessions otherwise. Additionally, what really sets “Beret” apart from a song like “Take Me With U” is its lyrics; while Prince has never been regarded as a classic lyricist, I think he’s pretty underrated in that department, as he’s always been capable of funny, clever turns of phrase. “Beret,” more than anything else, might be the best showcase for Prince’s wit and humor; while the song’s narrative is pretty loopy (Prince meets a sweet girl at his dead-end job, she wears aforementioned beret, they screw in a farmhouse), his delivery is spot-on, singing with a fierce passion that brings attention to the sexual underpinnings of the song while at the same time giving a knowing wink at his audience (and himself) through his flat-out funny lyrics. It’s not hard to find charm in lines like “Built like she was, she had the nerve to ask me / If I planned to do her any harm” (which not only reminds me of Dylan’s “One Of Us Must Know” but is probably a wry dig at Prince’s weirdo-sexual public image), or one of Pirnce’s downright best lines in describing the atmosphere of his sexual liason: “Now, overcast days never turned me on / but somethin’ ’bout the clouds and her mixed.” And of course, there’s a pivotal line in the bridge in which Prince declares with utmost pride “They say the first time ‘aint the greatest / But I tell ya, if I had the chance to do it all again / I wouldn’t change a stroke.” Like any great Prince song, “Beret” celebrates the pleasures of a good woman in the most ecstatic way possible, making sex sound like the greatest physical (and spiritual) pleasure known to humanity. And I don’t think it’s done better anywhere else.
“Beret” was a bit anomalous among Prince’s catalog, but I’m certain in only helped to expand his mainstream audience; while there were many people who were flat-out frightened by Prince’s blatant, bizarre sexual nature, songs like “Beret” were so goddamned sweet and enjoyable that nobody in their right mind could deny them. Only exacerbating the greatness of the song was its video – not only is it just as fun as sweet as the song itself, it actually uses an extended cut of the song, with a completely awesome extended opening that both gives “Beret” a shot of funk missing from the original cut and makes the actual meat-and-bones of the song that much more rewarding when it finally breaks through. And while the actual video does smack of dated 80’s editing tricks, such as green screen and super-imposition, it does feature a beautiful animated background that not only cutely illustrates the narrative of the song but blends in with Prince and the Revolution’s Gypsy-like outfits, which is quite a spectacle. And seeing Prince, the Revolution, and a bunch of crazily-dressed backup dancers grooving and clapping along with the song is just great. It’s a goofy little video, but one that only expands the charms of a great, great song – and it also serves as a damned fine reminder of why Prince deserved to be on top of the world back in ’85.
(By the way, catch that moment near the beginning where the drummer mugs at the camera and the video does that little multiple-screen thing. It’s a pure Tim and Eric moment.)