Prince Argues for Diplomacy in ‘Ronnie, Talk to Russia': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Generally speaking, Prince’s music was far more focused on the personal than the political — one might argue he was 2 funky 4 current events — but the two arenas overlapped during the Cold War, when generations of kids grew up fearing nuclear armageddon. Those fears, and a faith in the power of diplomacy, were expressed in his 1981 track “Ronnie, Talk to Russia.”
Released as part of Prince’s Controversy LP, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” urges President Ronald Reagan — sworn in for his first term of office less than nine months before the album’s release — to soften decades of aggressive American rhetoric toward the Soviet Union. “Ronnie talk to Russia before it’s too late,” the song begins. “Before they blow up the world.” Warning that “you can go to the zoo” but shouldn’t feed “left-wing guerrillas,” the song goes on to add that if Reagan’s dead before Prince meets him in person, “don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
A quick track, clocking in under two minutes on an album with a pair of songs weighing in at seven minutes plus, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” marked one of Prince’s more overt political moments. Although he’d occasionally dabble in songwriting that clearly addressed sociopolitical concerns, turning to the headlines for a series of compositions that ran the gamut from the Controversy cut “Annie Christian” to later fare like the Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired “Dreamer,” he wasn’t typically vocal about his own ideological leanings.
In fact, there’s reason to believe Prince was just as stubbornly independent politically as he was musically. He made headlines in 1990 when he donated to a Republican senator’s re-election campaign in his home state of Minnesota, and he performed a secret show at the White House in 2015 for Democratic President Barack Obama — a candidate he’d earlier revealed he didn’t vote for because, as he said in a 2009 interview, his faith kept him from casting a ballot.
“I’m one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he explained to Tavis Smiley . “And we’ve never voted. That’s not to say I don’t think … President Obama is a very smart individual and he seems like he means well. Prophecy is what we all have to go by now.”
In the end, “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” probably never made it into heavy rotation at the White House — in fact, Reagan would only escalate his inflammatory stance toward the Soviet Union in the years after Controversy‘s release, infamously referring to the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire” two years later — but the president’s second term found the Cold War entering a thaw, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev leading his nation into a new era that rolled back some of the harshest policies under the Communist regime.
By the end of the ’80s, anti-Russian sentiment and the fear of nuclear annihilation faded, although it never went away completely — and in recent years, it’s flared back up again. If Prince were still with us in 2017 with Donald Trump in the White House, he’d have plenty of material for a “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” sequel — although these days, many voters are more concerned that our government has too much communication with its old rival.
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