Last week I was driving around and flipped the dial to my local Oldies station. Prince‘s “1999” was getting underway. That’s one of the few Prince songs I kind of like (although I don’t like it as much as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which always sounds to me like a better version of the same song). I decided to stop flipping and listen to the entire song, anticipating the “I’m a bigger man” character building side benefits to come.
The more I tried to throw myself into the mild enjoyment I get from “1999” the more I felt myself getting perplexed by the song’s rhythm track. People like to dance to that song, don’t they? “It’s got a lousy beat, and you can dance to it!” I imagine some kid telling Dick Clark.
I don’t dance, but I was trying to imagine what elements of the song I might let flow through my hips, if my body ever worked that way in the presence of music. The electronic drums are nothing to write home about. There’s a repeating electronic tom-tom fill that’s especially annoying. The song has very little in the way of bass. What’s at the bottom end may be some kind of synth-bass that’s triggered by the artificial, never-varying drum beat. What in “1999” makes people feel like dancing? Is the rhythmic interplay of the funk guitars and the vocals enough? Is this how people dance to forms of folk music completely lacking drums and bass?
Following “1999” was a song that I can easily imagine dancing to, The Rolling Stones‘ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I focused on the drum-and-bass parts. Charlie Watts barely varies his simple kick-snare pattern. The bass is cool, moving all around that simple drum part. The maracas are outstanding. If I were capable of dancing, this is the kind of song that would draw me to the dance floor. Is it because the drums, however invariable, are real? Is it because the bass adds variety? Is it because the maracas are so outstanding?