“If I Was Your Girlfriend” – Sign O’ The Times (1987)

The eleventh song on the Sign O’ The Times album; that’s the second track on the second CD or the second track on side three if you have the vinyl. This song was recorded at Sunset Studios in late 1986 through to early 1987 and was one of the songs originally included on the unreleased Camille album; a planned release by one of Prince’s alter egos – Camille. Camille is the high-pitched, fuzzy voice on songs like “Housequake”, “Shockadelica” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. The Camille album unfortunately was canned though some of the songs eventually made their way onto Sign O’ The Times (via the Crystal Ball project). I think if the record company had allowed it, Prince would have put out a new record every six months during the 80s. As it is, he had to settle for about an album a year.

If you take a look at the lyric book that came with the album, this song is credited with “Lead Vocal by Camille”. “U Got the Look” is also credited to Camille (along with Sheena Easton) but strangely was recorded after the Camille project had already been scrapped. “Strange Relationship” is also credited to Camille. The opening three tracks to the second disc (side three on the vinyl) are all credited to Camille. I can understand wanting to retain some of the history of that lost project, but why add a completely new song under the same moniker to open the second half of the album? It’s as though Prince is trying to unite these three songs as part of one story. “The Sad Story of Camille”, perhaps.

Musically, the song feels melancholic and sad; slightly pathetic even. The drum programming and rhythm section sound pretty sparse throughout and it reminds me a little of “We Can Funk” from Graffiti Bridge, especially towards the end before it transitions into “Joy in Repetition”, albeit at a slower tempo. There’s some keyboard in there too filling in the background and coming in during the chorus to play a handful of notes that make up the hook which you can’t help but hum along to. A one-man band affair though the real focus of this song is the vocal. The high pitched Camille vocal as the lead, with the back-up vocals on the low end complementing the rhythm section. A large portion of the lyrics are spoken word really (Prince’s proto-rap) which makes this song feel more like a conversation than a song. A late night, drunken (or drug-induced) phone call to his object of desire. Thematically this song is almost “Bambi – part II”. But now Prince is a little more mature in his expression of frustration (but only a little). And he’s not necessarily trying to convince her that it’s “better with a man” but rather that he can be the person that she needs him to be (male or female). Lisa Coleman has described Prince in an interview as a “fancy lesbian”[1] and in this song he’s trying convince his lady friend of exactly that. He wants her to fall in love with him, the way she fell in love with her girlfriend and if there was anyone that could do it then it would be Prince. Wendy Melvoin (in the same interview as Lisa) describes meeting Prince and how “we looked at each other for the first time and I thought “Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy”… He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman”. [2] Prince’s attitude, sexuality and perceived androgyny might have been enough to turn Wendy’s head (or at least get her looking in his direction) but Camille and the object of his desire are a different story.

 

“Look at the bargains over here, ladies…”

Why would you open a song like this? The opening ten seconds have seemingly nothing to do whatsoever with the rest of the song. I don’t know if this was put in specifically for the Sign O’ The Times version or whether it appears on the Camille album as well. It’s obviously quite deliberate and is meant to convey some sort of meaning; it’s here to tell us a story. The intro to this song sounds like a smash-cut short film. Cut to orchestra tuning up. Cut to hawker yelling in the street. Cut to wedding march. Cut to black. End. Then the song proper fades in. Now imagine the orchestra sound is playing over a shot of a couple breaking up. Cut to the girl, now with another girl shopping hand in hand at the local market and finally our two ladies are getting married (lesbian wedding!). The sound of the orchestra is Prince’s relationship with the subject of the song struggling to stay “in tune”. The hawker is calling out to the lady and her new girlfriend/lover. And they are keen to find as many bargains as possible for their lesbian wedding (yay!) The opening 10 seconds is the entire back story to this song and the reason why Prince/Camille is so sad. He was with this girl who broke up with him because she finally found the strength to come out and be who she really is; falling in love with the person that she wanted, not the person society told her she should be with.

 

If I was your girlfriend
Would U remember 2 tell me all the things U forgot
When I was your man?

Hey, when I was your man

If I was your best friend
Would U let me take care of U and do all the things
That only a best friend can
Only best friends can

It appears that he’s been dumped because his lady friend digs girls too. Unfortunately, Camille can’t really understand this (similar to Bambi) so the whole song is him trying to convince her to come back to him. I say back to him, but the overall vibe of the song feels like she was never really his to begin with. His talk about him being her man feels almost forced and untrue. As though he’s trying to convince himself that he was more than just a friend or acquaintance to her; that now he’s trying to convince her he would make a great lesbian too. Maybe she touched his hand once and he assumed that they were going steady. The reason she didn’t tell him everything when they were together was because she never did feel for him like he does for her. They were never best friends; he just wishes they were. All great couples are best friends; but Camille and his “ex” are not. The two girls are, and that is just killing Camille. She didn’t tell him everything because she knew that their relationship would go nowhere. She was always struggling with coming out and finding the strength to confront her fears. She tells her girlfriend everything because she really, truly loves her. They’re best friends and lovers. She doesn’t need to be taken care of, at least not by Camille. She can take care of herself now. She has someone. She has a best friend that can do all the things the way only a best friend can.


If I was your girlfriend
If I was your girlfriend

Translation: If I was your lesbian lover.

 

If I was your girlfriend
Would U let me dress U
I mean, help U pick out your clothes
Before we go out
Not that you’re helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein’ in love’s about

Be honest buddy, you didn’t mean that you’d help her pick out clothes. There is definitely a silent “un” after “let me”. You want to see her naked, you want to undress her. The pause after “dress U” just highlights the hidden meaning here. It’s that kind of half-joke where  he’s hoping that she just might say yes. I can picture him with his arms raised, palms pushing up against the invisible wall between them, Marcel Marceu style, and doing his best Woody Allen impersonation “I mean, help u pick out your clothes”. Camille is imagining what it’s like for his ex in her new relationship and the things she’s doing with her new girlfriend. They going shopping together (“Look at the bargains over here, ladies”) and picking out clothes together. He starts to back pedal a little here too. In the first verse he wants to “take care” of her but now he’s starting to understand that she’s not “helpless” but he still wants to do stuff for her; because love or something.

 

If I was your one and only friend
Would U run 2 me if somebody hurt U
Even if that somebody was me?
Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be
Please

You mean how happy YOU could be. She’s already happy. Without you. No amount of begging and pleading will change that. She won’t be running to you for anything anymore. And if a she had only one friend then of course she would run to that friend for emotional support. It’s like he’s phrasing his questions so that she can only answer them in a way that makes him feel better. But it’s a hypothetical. In real life she likely has a multitude of people she’d rather run to ahead of him. I will say that the “please” at the end of this verse sounds like every ounce of emotion has been poured into it. If you ever wanted an audio sample of what desperation sounded like, then this “please” would be it. As deluded as Camille might be, his emotions are still quite real.

 

If I was your girlfriend
If I was your girlfriend

 Translation: If I was your lesbian lover.

 

Would U let me wash your hair
Could I make U breakfast sometime
Or then, could we just hang out, I mean
Could we go 2 a movie and cry together
Cuz 2 me baby that would be so fine

The music changes coming out of the chorus. He’s starting to get a little more frantic now. Frustrated and desperate he stops singing for a moment. He’s just begging to be near her. All on the small hope that she might turn back to him. The activity that he’s describing here is all romantic and suggestive. There’s something more behind each line that implies what Camille really has on his mind. Washing the lady’s hair (in the shower, before going to bed), making breakfast in the morning (after spending the night together), going to the movies (sitting in the dark and making out or copping a feel). All the things that a couple in love would do together.

 

If I was your girlfriend
Baby can I dress U
I mean, help U pick out your clothes
Before we go out
(If I was your girlfriend)
Listen girl, I ain’t sayin you’re helpless
But sometimes, sometimes
Those are the things that bein’ in love’s about (sugar)

Sugar do U know what I’m saying 2 U this evening? (sugar)
Maybe U think I’m being
a little self-centered (if I was your girlfriend)
But I, I said I want 2 be (sugar)
all of the things U are 2 me (sugar)
Surely, surely U can see (if I was your girlfriend)

 A “little” self-centered the way the sun might be called a “little” ball of gas. Finally a small taste of self-awareness though not enough to change anything. The entire focus of the song has been you Mr Camille. If you were any more self-centered you would collapse under the weight of your own vanity and form a singularity of ego. From which no empathy can escape. This verse is the part in Camille’s drunken phone call confession where he confesses that he wants her to think of him the way he thinks of her. She was once his girlfriend (maybe) and he wants to be her girlfriend now because that is the only way he’s gonna get what he desires.

 

Is it really necessary 4 me 2 go out of the room
just because U wanna undress?

 Yeah dude, it is. Stop being a creep.

 

I mean, we don’t have 2 make children 2 make love
And then, we don’t have 2 make love 2 have an orgasm
Your body’s what I’m all about

Two girlfriends having sex generally can’t have children. But they can make love together and they can orgasm together. Camille is trying to convince her that he can do everything her girlfriend can do (so what’s the problem lady?). But she doesn’t want to do any of those things with you buddy. So just chill. She wants someone who wants her for more than just her body. He’s basically admitting that all he wants to do is fuck her (or her body to be specific). Forget about the fact that there’s a person there.

 

Can I see U?
I’ll show U
Why not?
U can think it’s because I’m your friend I’ll do it 4 U
Of course I’ll undress in front of U!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make U see that it’s cool?
Can’t U just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend U could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, 4 U naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get U off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would U tell me?
Would U let me see U naked then?
Would U let me give U a bath?
Would U let me tickle U so hard U’d laugh and laugh
And would U, would U let me kiss U there
You know down there where it counts
I’ll do it so good I swear I’ll drink every ounce
And then I’ll hold U tight and hold U long
And together we’ll stare into silence
And we’ll try 2 imagine what it looks like
Yeah, we’ll try 2 imagine what, what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll try 2 imagine what silence looks like
Yeah, we’ll try…

The last verse is the culmination of Camille’s drunken, late night phone call to his ex-girlfriend. As he starts to talk faster, I get the distinct impression that on Camille’s end of the phone this has turned into phone sex. The end of the song and the drifting off into silence just reinforces that he’s now “spent”. Camille spends the whole song trying to convince his ex that he’s just as much of a lesbian as her new love. Throughout the song, none of his sexual innuendo and graphic descriptions are penetrative. He’s trying to get her to not remember that he has a penis. The imagery that he uses and the acts that he describes are all “feminine” (or at least that’s how Camille sees them) because he wants her to believe that he is a “fancy lesbian” and that he can be the girlfriend in her life. But when he stares into the silence all it does is stare back and remind him that he’s alone.

The title of the song is “If I Was Your Girlfriend” but what he’s really saying is “What Can I Do To Get In Your Pants?” Imagine you’re the girl in this song. You’ve finally found the strength to break up with your boyfriend (as wonderful as he may or may not be) and you’ve found love and a new life with your new girlfriend (lesbian wedding!). Then Camille comes along and calls you up at 3am one night, telling you all the things he would do to you, with you, for you if he was in her place. Even if you were still single (and still into guys), having your ex profess his desires like that in the middle of the night is creepy. She’s not a human being in any real sense. She’s become a means to an end. A way for him to feel joy or pleasure. When they broke up he told her he wanted to “be friends” but now he’s pretty much confessing that he still wants to get in her pants. He even shows some self-awareness when he calls himself out as self-centered. But it’s not enough to actually change his behaviour.

It’s not love. He doesn’t love her, he wants her, he wants her body. If he truly loved her then he would want her to be happy. Even if that happiness meant she loved someone else. But this isn’t about her happiness. It’s about him and his desires. Just like Bambi, the message is the same. It’s just the delivery that has changed. Now he’s just older and sadder and more pathetic. Pleading for her to come back to him. But all his pleading will come to naught.

I may be drawing a long bow here but I get the sense that this song is about Wendy and Lisa. I’ve read about it being written for/about Prince’s former fiancé and Wendy’s sister Susannah (which may still be partly true) but I think that what this song is really expressing is Prince’s jealousy of Wendy and Lisa’s relationship and his desire for the type of relationship that these two “girlfriends” had at the time (Wendy and Susannah being twins probably has a bit to do with it too). Yes, the song is titillating in the way that a lesbian relationship can be to a heterosexual male, but behind that you can hear the aching in his voice and the desire to be part of something beautiful. Prince wanting him and Susannah to have what Wendy and Lisa have (if he was her girlfriend they might have a chance at happiness). Outwardly, Camille may be crass and slightly indifferent about the subject of this song (focusing more on his own needs) but I think that Prince is using the character Camille to express something about his own desire for the type of relationship that he saw on display by the girls in the band. Deep love, full of trust in one another and an understanding of who they are and what they mean to each other. This song may not have done too well when it was released as a single but amongst Prince fams, this is usually cited as one of the greatest songs in his discography (sorry Captain). The emotion of the vocal, balanced against the sparseness of the backing track creates something that really lets you feel the artist’s emotions at every level. Whether the song is about Susannah or Wendy and Lisa or the girl he had a crush on in high school or all of the above, the way the song makes you feel when you listen to it is really the point. Like all great art, it’s a catharsis.

 

Running time: 4:59

 

References:

Sign O’ The Times (released 1987)

Prince (released 1979)

Graffiti Bridge (released 1990)

The Peach & Black Podcast

Sign ‘O’ The Times, Michaelangelo Matos, Continuum International Publishing, 2004.

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

AZ Lyrics

The Hits – Songbook

out.com

 

[1] http://www.out.com/entertainment/2009/04/16/revolution-will-be-harmonized

[2] ibid.

 

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One thought on ““If I Was Your Girlfriend” – Sign O’ The Times (1987)

  1. one my favourite songs of him, it’s without a doubt a tale of desire gone to frustration and sadness, his vocal performance is greatness in the making. I agree with you the please part is pain in itself

    Like

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