Prince’s “Gett Off” was my first sex music. It wasn’t the record I lost my virginity to, though given the song’s hypersexual pulse, I imagine if it was playing the whole thing would have taken even less time. Rather “Gett Off” was the first time I realized the scope of the role sexuality played in music. Yes, it sounds strange to say, when much great pop music is about sex, trying to have sex, and people you want to have sex with having sex with people who aren’t you. But in 1991, at 15, I lacked let’s say, empirical evidence.
I was in the early stages of being a late bloomer and didn’t really notice if a particular song was about sex, even if some of them were. I had no idea about the feelings; I got the mechanics. I knew what goes where and at that point had even viewed scenes from what my local video rental shop delightfully described as “adult training films.” Images are one thing, but music paced my life then. I lived for the local college radio station that played R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and all their left-of-the-dial brothers and sisters. Thinking back on it, and putting records by those bands on, which I still do often, it occurs to me what an unsexual listening experience those songs were.
A lot of the songs I liked then were either earnest love anthems like U2’s “With or Without You” of veiled political tracks such as R.E.M.’s “Flowers of Guatemala.” That song is about the CIA’s involvement in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’etat that deposed a democratically elected leftist government in favor of a U.S.-favored dictator. All very right on, but not exactly “your place or mine.” The most sexual portion of my pop music diet came through misogynistic music videos on MTV. You might remember rubbish such as Warrant’s appalling “Cherry Pie,” in which the boys dressed as firefighters turned a hose on a woman in a bathing suit and blasted her with water. Teenage me watched such glam metal videos, all the while terrified that my parents or sister would catch me thereby triggering guilt, shame and a check of confession times at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.
“Gett Off” changed things. Again, I first heard the song on MTV; it was the lead single from Diamonds and Pearls, Prince’s supposed “comeback” album following tepid response to 1989’s Lovesexy. At the time it came out, in 1991, I liked Prince’s radio hits, but I only owned dubbed cassette copy of “Around The World In A Day” and I would really just listen to “Raspberry Beret.” Unlike that romantic sweet pop song, “Gett Off” is four minutes of drum-heavy sway, thump and raunch, and the video is a Caligulia-style funk-orgy.
After the single’s release, Prince and the New Power Generation gave a famous performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 Music Video Awards remembered by most as the one where the Purple One wore yellow ass-less pants. (That’s the first time I’ve ever written “ass-less” for public consumption. Nice, but underwhelming.) I felt stiff embarrassment while listening to the song and watching the “Gett Off” video. I won’t claim for myself then some eureka about sex nor did it seem like my own gauzy scene in a French film about sexual awakening. In retrospect, the gyrating men and women demonstrated confidence in who they were sexually and I think it appealed on a deeper, more mature level. I felt something beyond the titillation of the swimsuit issue or Tawny Kitaen dancing on the hood of a Jaguar. Plus, the flute riff in the song gave it an exotic quality, announcing that something not part of my daily existence was happening.
To borrow from the song’s opening line, it unnerved me. Thinking back on it, I got caught in a kind of erotic suspension and something very base and raw had happened, but I lacked the experience to really understand my feelings. It frightened me. I think that fear of sex which persisted into my twenties gestated in that dynamic.
Sometime later that year, I attended a high school party at a beach house in Rhode Island and someone put “Gett Off” on the stereo. I remember an attractive female classmate dancing to it and telling me that the song was “hot.” Bashful, with a libidinous jolt, I knew what she meant, though I changed the subject, probably to R.E.M. I can’t remember if catchy left-wing pop songs moved her like they moved me.