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Is it a sign of the times that artists are covering Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times”?

Sign o' the Times single
Sign o' the Times single

Last week, anthemic English rock band Muse spent part of their session on BBC’s Radio 1 paying tribute to Prince with a chugging, guitar-driven cover of “Sign o’ the Times.” Just over 24 hours later, acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard chose to work the same song into his set at First Avenue’s Mainroom here in Minneapolis.

The two interpretations of the song are quite disparate. Muse’s version sounds like a Radiohead fan toggling through the song on Rock Band, with the lyrics all but drowned out by the band’s showmanship, while Hansard’s rendition focuses more on his soulful vocal delivery and stays more faithful to the original instrumentation. “Sign o’ the Times” isn’t typically the go-to song when bands choose to cover the Purple One, so with both versions surfacing in such close proximity to one another, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why this song, and why now?

“Sign o’ the Times” was released in 1987 as the title track on Prince’s album of the same name. Notably, it was his first solo record after years of working with the Revolution, though it still featured some of the same members who were part of his Purple Rain-era band and his 1985 offshoot, the Family; Prince originally intended it to be a triple-album (sound familiar?), but Warner Bros. convinced him to trim it down to a two-disc set prior to release.

On the title track, his then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin contributed some of backing vocals, but the rest of the synth and guitar work in the song handled by Prince himself. It also marked a shift in Prince’s mood, with lyrics that riffed on the news headlines of the day and the dark synth part setting a serious tone.

In france a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same
At home there are 17-year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the Disciples
High on crack, totin’ a machine gun

Many of the passages are specific to the era — the AIDs epidemic, the rise of street drugs, the threat of nuclear war. But there are some lines that sound just as relevant today. “U turn on the telly and every other story / Is tellin’ u somebody died,” he sighs in the second verse, while the last few lines offer the slightest glimmer of light in the darkness: “Sign o’ the times mess with your mind / Hurry before it’s 2 late / Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby.”

Prince’s bleak depiction of the late ’80s was far from a rally cry. In a retrospective written for Rolling Stone, Prince scholar Toure notes that “The direct political address recalls Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ but where Gaye was pleading for change, Prince is mournful, desolate and sadly accepting.”

The Purple One himself still likes this song enough to incorporate it regularly into his shows. According to song tracking site Setlist.fm, it’s the 16th most-performed song of his tour, falling right underneath hits like “When Doves Cry” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

In these highly politicized times, it’d be hard to argue that people aren’t feeling as depressed and distracted by the issues of the day as Prince was when he wrote “Sign o’ the Times.” In many ways, it feels like we are wading through a murky transition period between what was and what is yet to be, and artists from Glen Hansard and Muse’s generation are old enough to feel both a pang of nostalgia for Prince’s career peak (Sign o’ the Times received the highest critical acclaim of any of his works) and an awareness of the sociopolitical aura that surrounded and coursed through his work.

Maybe covering a song like “Sign o’ the Times” is a way to acknowledge the struggles and stratifications of the day without getting overly political. Or maybe they just like the beat, or the fact that it’s a pretty easy song to learn and cover. As with most Prince developments these days, the truth is anybody’s guess.

What do you think? How has “Sign o’ the Times” endured? Does it match the mood of the times we’re in now?

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