“My Computer” – Emancipation (1996)

This is the thirty third track on the Emancipation album. That’s the ninth track on the third CD or the third track on side 6 of the cassette. Officially released by “0(+>” this is Prince’s nineteenth album and his first after the end of his Warner Brothers contract (warn a brutha!). The album was released on 19 November 1996 through NPG Records and EMI, a mere four months after Chaos and Disorder tore it up the charts. He was, at last, able to put out the triple album that he had wanted to release for a decade. A 3-disc, 3-tape, 3-hour, 36-track extravaganza. Each disc coming to a precise running time of 60 minutes. I’ve read that Prince did this because of pyramids or something but I’m pretty sure the three pyramids at Giza aren’t all the same size. This is also the first time that Prince ever put a cover version on one of his albums. Not just one but four of them. One of them was even released as a single (the horror!). This was the album where he felt liberated enough (emancipated if you will) to do whatever he liked. “This is what freedom sounds like.”[1]

Because Prince decided that each disc had to be 60 minutes long and have exactly 12 songs on each disc (pyramids, remember), the song structure on a lot of these tracks is a little weird. Normally, a pop song would last 3 to 4 minutes; totaling 36 to 48 minutes for a 12 song album. If you do the math then that leaves you with 12 to 24 minutes of extra sound per disc that you have to populate. Sure, he could have made each track exactly 5 minutes long and fully squared his circle (or pyramid), but I guess he figured that was more numerology than this album could take. All this means that he had to find an extra 60 minute’s worth (or thereabouts) of music/sound/noise/silence to fill up the space around the actual “songs”. And it has to be exactly 12 tracks so you can’t just make another song to fill the space. This is why some of the tracks just ramble along at the end or repeat pointless loops of music or sound like two songs smashed together or have segues as part of the track, to fulfill the album’s 3 hour time requirement. It’s an ambitious project, to say the least, but not the tightest set of music ever released.

Recorded sometime between late 1995 and early 1996 (along with the rest of the album), “My Computer” features one of the best known voices in pop culture. A distinctive voice that cannot be mistaken. And it’s kind of a coup that Prince was able to score such a unique guest. I’m talking of course about Elwood Edwards, the voice of America Online (AOL). That’s the guest artist that you can hear clearly at the beginning and end of the song. The other guest on the song that you can’t hear quite so clearly and distinctly is Kate Bush. As Playa from the Peach and Black podcast put it, she sounds “like you’ve shoved marbles in her mouth and dunked her head underwater with a microphone to record her vocals.”[2] Kate and Prince first met in 1990 on the Nude Tour. In 1991 Kate sent him the demo for her song “Why Should I Love You?” and asked him to lay down some backing vocals. The stuff she got back wasn’t exactly what she was expecting and it took her two years to turn it back into a Kate Bush song. According to Kate’s engineer, Prince “just smothered 48 tracks with everything you could possibly imagine: Guitars, keyboards, drums, voices… she’d said to him `I want you to sing this bit here and I want you to sing that bit there’, and he’d sung it, but he’d done it over the loop that he made up. So, we had this piece of vocal that she wanted but it was everywhere… and although in a lot of ways it didn’t turn out as we’d hoped–I have to be honest–it’s still very interesting”[3] Kate did get a shout out in the liner notes of the Diamonds and Pearls album from 1991 but the song itself wasn’t released until 1993 on her album The Red Shoes. You can check out the song on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3j4pgqdwNA) and compare it to Kate’s demo to get a sense of what she originally had in mind (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbP-dapt09Q). You can definitely hear Prince’s “influence” on the track as it was released and considering that she ended up keeping it on the album, I imagine that she dug what she heard enough to keep it (or was too embarrassed to cut it).

When it comes to “My Computer” I doubt that Prince had the same problem with Kate’s contribution. Although I wouldn’t discount Kate getting some form of revenge on him. I’d like to imagine that he asked her to record a straight up backing (or duet) vocal and she sent him back a computerised mess that he had to try to make fit into what he’d already recorded. Still, it’s hard to make out that there is anyone else on this track, let alone a voice as distinctive as Kate Bush. Whatever her actual input on this song, what we’re left with is a reasonably interesting song that is superficially about the early days of the internet and the state of the world as Prince sees it. The opening of the song samples a few computer sounds and then we get Elwood welcoming us to the online world. It’s easy to forget how big AOL was in the early days of the internet and how ubiquitous the phrase “you’ve got mail” was in the culture. They even made a movie based on the phrase.[4] Prince is tapping into what was cutting edge at the time. In 1995 only around 10 million people were actively using the internet and about 35 million had access to email.[5] Compare that to the 3 billion odd users today.[6] And AOL was by far the biggest site (41% of people online checked it regularly).[7] For a lot of people AOL was the internet so it makes sense that he would want his commentary on the internet to be relatable to as many listeners as possible. Hence Elwood’s contribution. Prince definitely had his connection and his AOL account sorted. This was the era when Prince was embracing the internet and looking to be an innovator in the new digital world.

The song starts with computer sounds and Elwood welcoming us online. I think (from memory) that the sampled computer noises may be error message sounds, which clearly establishes that there is something not quite right from the outset. After Elwood’s welcome we get the drums come in and then the vocal and the rest of the instrumentation join the party. The music in the verses is pretty sparse but it builds through the bridge and into the choruses until it comes back down to the verse. There’s a keyboard sound in the chorus that I think is supposed to be some type of eastern sounding instrument. The off-key way it’s played makes it sound like a dial-up modem (cutting edge people!). There are a few “computery” type sounds throughout the track and then at the end once the lyrics are done (but not really done) the song switches into one of those song extensions I mentioned earlier. And it’s actually a pretty good ending to the song musically speaking. It gives what is ostensibly a downer of a song something positive to end on.

 

“Welcome, U’ve got mail”

Thanks Elwood! Way to make us all feel at home. The “error” sounds and Elwood’s intro are clearly setting the scene for us. Prince is at his computer and logging into his AOL account. And he has mail. But something’s not right.

 

(Computer)

Is this sample part of Kate’s contribution? I’d like to think so. The robotic “computer” vocal appears all throughout the song during the choruses and in the outro (right speaker only). Reminding us what Prince has his attention focused on. He’s staring at the computer, contemplating the universe.

 

It was Sunday night, instead of doing what I usually do I..

What does Prince usually do on a Sunday night? Watch movies? Pray? Record? Have sex? Read? Visit friends? Have friends come over to his house for ice cream and pillow fights?

 

I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Somebody 2 talk 2, funny and bright
I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Make believe it’s a better world, a better life

The robotic “computer” from earlier starts to repeat and echoes the “computer” in the chorus. It highlights the importance of computers in Prince’s mind and let’s Kate participate in the song (I’m assuming). There are some “oohs” going on in the background that I think are Kate too but it could honestly be either of them. Prince is searching for someone to talk to. Someone beyond his current circle of friends and acquaintances (sorry Kirk). Maybe Mayte wasn’t home on this particular Sunday so he had some free time. But Prince is lonely. That’s why he’s going online. Even his AOL “friends” aren’t sufficient because he’s “looking for a site”, not content with what AOL has to offer. For just one night he wants to try to forget about the outside world and “make believe” there’s something better. In the early days of the internet it would have been easy to see it as  something that’s not really real (or make believe), with the potential to make “a better world, a better life.”

 

Nothing on TV I ain’t seen before
Another murder on the news, I can’t take no more
Evil Incorporated, blowing up bombs and thangs
I have a child, huh, I have a lot 2 explain
I could write a letter, but who would I send it 2?

So TV is what he’s usually doing on a Sunday? Maybe. But it sounds like he’s just eliminating that option. He can’t take the news so he’s tuning out. How does one explain to a child (or anyone for that matter) the televised promotion and exultation of the military industrial complex? Letters are another option eliminated (totally old school bro) but we’ve already established that he’s got nobody. And besides he needs someone now (instant gratification baby!). There’s a background sound at the end of this verse that sounds like it might be Kate again singing some “oohs” that have been processed through something to make them sound like an electronic whistle. Maybe a talk box of some kind? Of course it could just be one of the keyboard’s stock sounds but let’s just say it’s Kate so she can earn her liner note credit. The line about his child is heart breaking in retrospect but it highlights how Prince was thinking about the world at the time and his preparedness for fatherhood.

 

It was Sunday night, instead of doing what I usually do I..

I’m starting to lean towards dinner and hanging with friends.

 

I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Somebody 2 talk 2, funny and bright
I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Make believe it’s a better world, a better life

Still searching. What’s he looking for? This is before the age of cam-girls so it looks like it might be a chat room or message board of some kind he’s on the lookout for. People he can connect with. Searching for some hope in humanity.

 

I called an old friend of mine just the other day
No congratulations, no respect paid
All she did was wonder if the rumors were true
I said – “No, I ain’t dead yet, but uh.. what about U?”
I can count my friends with a peace sign: 1, 2

Who could the old friend be? Wendy? Lisa? Carmen? Kate? Oprah? But sadly Prince can’t get no respect. His friends, old and new have abandoned him. Was there ever a rumour that Prince died? I don’t recall if there was. Maybe a reference to the symbolic death of “Prince” and the birth of “0(+>”. But the line does echo a similar line in “Controversy” where a lady asks him if he’s gay (No, are U?). Implying that being gay for Prince would be a kind of death? And what exactly are we congratulating him for? Breaking from Warners? The new album? His new Friend/Lover/Sister/Mother/Wife? The baby perhaps? Or all of the above? And who are the 2 friends? If we exclude Mayte, who are we left with? I’m guessing the folks in the band and all the other folks around Paisley Park would feel pretty bad that Prince doesn’t consider them to be friends. But then I guess it’s kind of hard to be friends with someone who controls your salary.

 

It was Sunday night, instead of doing what I usually do I..

I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Somebody 2 talk 2, funny and bright (Oh)
I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Make believe it’s a better world, a better life (A better life)

I got no mail, my computer

Elwood’s already told us that Prince has email. But he’s saying he’s got no mail. In 95/96 this was more likely to be physical mail. Prince is reaffirming his lack of a physical connection with the rest of humanity (the “real” world). He doesn’t even get mail. He’s isolated and alone. The computer is his only escape. Even if it’s only “make believe” it’s still a “better life” than he’s having on this particular Sunday night.

 

I told them I don’t wanna see a doctor unless he’s lonely 2
Every Sunday night, instead of doing what I usually do I..

Who’s he telling? His peace sign friends perhaps? Or his staff? It seems Prince ain’t feeling too well and that’s why he’s spending Sunday nights on his computer. But does he need a physician or a psychiatrist? Either way, the dude’s gotta be lonely. The doctor needs to be able understand how Prince is feeling in order to treat him. To empathise. Notice how now he’s telling us that it’s “every Sunday night.” So each verse before was actually a different Sunday on a different week. His Sundays have been taken over by the Internet. He’s become a ‘net junkie of sorts. Instead of doing what he usually does during the week, on Sundays he goes online to chat with people.

 

I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Somebody 2 talk 2, funny and bright
I scan my computer looking 4 a site
Make believe it’s a better world (Make believe it’s a better world)
A better life [x52]

Every Sunday he logs on trying to make a better life. He repeats the line “a better life” through the outro 52 times, representing an entire year of Sundays that he’s been trying make “a better life.” Pretty much the whole time he’s been recording Emancipation and then some.

Emancipation is Prince’s big break out album. From his perspective anyway. This was his statement. This is his song of freedom. His hope in the darkness. Whatever else is going on in the world, he’s always going to be looking for a better world. This album is his attempt to make “a better life.”

 

“Goodbye”

See ya Elwood!

 

 

 

Running time: 4:37

 

 

References:

Emancipation (released 1996)

The Red Shoes (release 1993)

Diamonds and Pearls (released 1991)

The Peach & Black Podcast

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

AZ Lyrics

Prince In Print

Prince.org

 

[1] http://princetext.tripod.com/i_emancipation96.html

[2] “Emancipation Review – Disc 3” – Peach and Black Podcast, 19/11/2011 (http://peachandblack.podbean.com/e/emancipation-review-disc-3/)

[3] http://gaffa.org/reaching/i93_ss.html

[4] http://youvegotmail.warnerbros.com/

[5] http://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-coolest-web-sites-from-1996-2014-4#-1

[6] http://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm

[7] http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2009/02/jurassic_web.html

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