Anatomy of a Song: “Little Red Corvette”

“Little Red Corvette” was my first music video.

In 1983, I was seven years old and already addicted to music and crushes in a way that would define and distract me forever. My parents didn’t have cable, but my grandmother did. When we went to visit her, I’d sneak off to her chenille-and-brocade bedroom to put a little of her Shalimar perfume on my wrists and watch TV, specifically new and exciting MTV, featuring videos of the songs I taped off the radio.

“Little Red Corvette” was my introduction to this medium, and nothing would ever really top it. I already knew the song, with its slinky opening that reminded me of heartbeats and whispers. I had seen photos of Prince, but this was the first time I saw him in action. Prince sang the first line in the dark—“I guess I should’ve known”—and up came the lights to reveal him, all shiny purple and lace, a jacket that was also sort of a cape (I wanted one immediately), that dip of curly hair over his forehead, and kitten heeled-boots that looked like the ones my favorite teenage babysitter wore and let me try on occasionally.

Prince confused and fascinated me—as he himself later sang in another song, he was not a woman, he was not a man, he was something that I’d never understand. I was mesmerized by the red lights, his arm and hand moves (the pointing, the drawing-two-fingers-across-his eyes, the open-palmed smoothing back of his glorious hair, the claps and snaps, the fists clenched with passion and sincerity, all of which I saw as similar to the motions I did when I secretly sang and danced in front of my mirror), the fact that his guitarist, Dez Dickerson, had the same Japanese flag bandana as my crush, an older neighborhood metalhead who worked on his car in his mom’s driveway shirtless, taking little notice when I rode by slowly on my own little red…ten-speed bike.

Of course, there’s the dance break, the greatest dance break of all time. Aside from the coy cocking of one foot up onto an aforementioned kitten heel, Prince’s lower half was motionless for the first half of the video before he suddenly broke out into a fancy sideways kick and skip combo into a spin, kick, and DROP into a split, recovery, another DROP onto his knees into a SCRAMBLE, lower spin, standing spin, an almost casual backwards skipping return to the microphone, ending with a final spin and a swinging bit of air guitar. Prince is one of the greatest guitarists to have ever lived, the greatest according to Eric Clapton, according to the internet, but for “Little Red Corvette” he let Dez Dickerson take over because he had to be free to dance.

When those 12 seconds were up, I felt like I was going to levitate directly off my grandmother’s bedspread, through her condo’s roof, and into the sky. There was no rewind, so I couldn’t watch that dance break again and again, the way I wanted. From then on, every time I watched MTV I hoped with all of my heart that they would play “Little Red Corvette”, and I could finally see that dance break again. That dance break summed up everything I wanted to be. I wanted to be cool and aloof but glamorous, like Prince was for most of the video, and then bust out with something intricate, breathtaking, and most importantly, surprising. I’ve never been able to be aloof and I’ve always been bad at surprises; if I can do something, I’m going to show you what I can do and it’s never going to be as good as I think it will be. I’ll never pull off anything like the dance break in “Little Red Corvette”, but that’s actually okay with me, because just the fact that those 12 seconds exist is enough. When Prince died, I watched those twelve seconds again and again, finally living in a world where I can rewind as much as I want. I cried, but I still felt that old, soaring joy.

Karen Corday lives in Northampton, MA. Her essays have appeared in The Toast, Paste, Brooklyn Magazine, Luna Luna, Quail Bell Magazine, Femsplain, andThe Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at

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