In another epoch, kids listened to "Darling Nikki" because they knew they weren't supposed to, because it was too naughty. The song never appeared on any hit chart, and you never heard it on the radio or at a school dance, but almost any adolescent of the 1980s can still sing about a mysterious and lascivious woman named Nikki:
"I guess U could say she was a sex fiend," the song goes. "I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine."
The song was a soulful limerick from the "Purple Rain" days of Prince, whose voraciously fey Jheri-Curl Lothario act worked on even the most suburban set. It was, at the time, the dirtiest song we knew.
And the world might have been a slightly different place if an 11-year-old Karenna Gore could have prevented her mother from listening to her "Purple Rain" cassette: "Darling Nikki" has the near-mythological honor in pop trivia of being the song that compelled Tipper Gore to co-found the Parents Music Resource Center with other congressional wives, who in 1985 successfully pressured big record companies to create a warning-label system for pop records.
Two slutty decades later, "Nikki" is back, faithfully remade by the multi-platinum modern rock band the Foo Fighters.
Meant as a B side to the Foo Fighters' single "Have It All," the new "Nikki" has instead become a breakout radio hit: In Washington, D.C., station WHFS counts it among its most played and most requested songs this month, and on Los Angeles' KROQ-FM (106.7), the taste-making station of mallternative-skateboarding teen chic, the song has been played several times a day since early October.
Same Nikki, same tawdry notions ... only now a different world, so sleazy that Nikki sounds comparatively quaint in retrospect.
The narrator, Prince, sings of going home with her, where she produces a release form, asking him: "Sign your name on the dotted line / The lights went out and Nikki started 2 grind."
"That was the first time I think I ever heard that word," says Bob Waugh, assistant program director at WHFS. When "Nikki" was first released in 1984, it was too hot to play on the radio, and anyhow, "Purple Rain" sold 13 million copies and had four other hit songs on it. ("Nikki" was the last song on Side 1, ending with a spooky sequence of Prince and company singing something backward.)
"It's one of those very visual songs," Waugh explains. "Not only does it rock ... but it's got those trademark Prince screams in it."
In a post-"Nikki" era, everybody grinds. The world is completely ground, and lousy with Nikkis. The Foo Fighters, fronted by the ever-ironic Dave Grohl, seem to have known that "Nikki" could hardly cause a blush amid the latest fare from Limp Bizkit, Jay-Z, Korn and Missy Elliott. (Self-pleasuring girls-gone-wild who hang out in hotel lobbies? Yawn. Happens all the time.) The new version is a note-for-note homage to the old, with the guitars cranked up more. Grohl screams in the same places and in the same way Prince screamed, as if to somehow address how far the world has come -- or sunk.
Last heard from, Prince was going door to door, witnessing for Jehovah. Karenna Gore Schiff is 30, married with two kids. Tipper Gore seems, in hindsight, less like the evil queen of censorship and more like some kind of prophetic genius, even if parents are still helpless to ward off all that Nikki wrought. Porn became a legitimate industry and cultural dialogue, and the people who star in it find legitimacy and social entree into VIP rooms. Stripteases and lap dances are becoming part of the national folklore.
Kids today, when they're not allegedly pirating media online, send instant-message come-ons to one another in the same shorthand that Prince wrote lyrics. (U C it in their homework.) Britney Spears is nothing but a Nikki. The Hilton sisters are Nikkis. Pink is a Nikki.
Recently at WHFS, a young listener called to request "that Foo Fighters song." The DJ asked if he meant the Foo Fighters' remake of the Prince song.
"The listener was totally confused because he had no awareness the song existed years before," Waugh says, "so we decided we had to play both versions."
The only problem was that WHFS long ago lost its copy of "Purple Rain." (They had to go down the hall and borrow it from WPGC, the hip-hop station.) "We then played them both back to back. It was pretty cool."
It was what one might call a teachable moment, in the school of nasty.