Prince wrote love songs. Some of them were sexy, teeming with carnality and dripping with figurative sweat. Others came straight from the heart – deeply meaningful ballads full of grand proclamations and poetic intimacies. In the ever-expanding R&B songbook, there has never been – nor will there ever be – an artist as capable of consistently and credibly capturing the powerful nexus of lust and devotion as Prince.
Three years after the still-mysterious Minnesotan pop icon’s tragic and untimely death, Prince’s discography continues to serve a vital purpose in the lives of listeners. In contrast with hits like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” that ring as true today as when they first dropped, one of his most commercially successful songs came during an especially contentious period in his career. Now, with a quarter-century’s worth of hindsight, it’s clear that “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” while stylistically sound, hasn’t aged well contextually.
On the surface, the song is a shimmering and downright wholesome bit of poppy R&B balladry, his voice in a high-register to match its lofty lyrical declarations of love. One need not dig much deeper to see a subversive and, in places, downright dark side to the song, his sincerity in the chorus refrain “you're the reason that God made a girl” broaching a line towards objectifying, creepy worship. With this idealised woman up upon his pedestal, Prince evokes literal apocalyptic sentiments, seemingly cribbed from his Seventh-day Adventist faith.
When the day turns into the last day of all time
I can say I hope you are in these arms of mine
And when the night falls before that day I will cry
I will cry tears of joy, ‘cause after you all one can do is die
Though this imagery has precedent elsewhere in his catalog, the contrast of pining love with impending death takes on added gravity with the existential exasperation he’d been experiencing at that stage in his career, suddenly uncertain as to his future prospects for the first time in a very long time. Most surprising of all, the individual who inspired this inherently complicated and layered song was nearly half his age.
By the time of the single’s release in February of 1994, Prince wasn't even Prince anymore. The year before, the entertainment press had largely treated his transition from one of music’s biggest stars to an unpronounceable symbol as tabloid fodder. During his seven-year period of pseudonymous protest, many spoke around it, referring to him as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” or related variants like “TAFKAP,” or simply “The Artist.” If you were paying attention, though, his rationale for making the change couldn’t have been clearer.
His relationship with Warner Bros., his label partner since 1977, had become strained following a contract renewal at the start of the 1990s. By then, of course, Prince had repeatedly proven himself a valuable commercial artist, with multi-platinum certified albums like 1999, Purple Rain, and the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman. With former backing band The Revolution well in his rearview, he entered the decade with a sophisticated-sounding ensemble dubbed the New Power Generation, introduced via an eponymous track on 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. But even as the Warner-distributed Paisley Park Records allowed him to release album-length works by others like George Clinton and Carmen Electra (with Prince as executive producer), his musical prolificness and impatient desire to put more of his work out into the world was reportedly met with resistance from label executives, concerned about oversaturating the market.
Their business disagreement turned into an outright feud, with Prince openly referring to his obligations and restrictions at Warner Bros. as a form of corporate servitude and scrawling the word SLAVE on his cheek during live appearances and performances in a scathing display. Adopting the gender-inclusive glyph that adorned 1992’s Love Symbol Album as a display of righteous dissent against his label, which essentially owned the name Prince, he continued to battle with Warner both publicly and privately. With the Paisley Park imprint regrettably caught in the crossfire, he sought to put out music through a new one dubbed NPG Records. Because he legally needed Warner’s consent, Prince secured the right to release “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” as a single through NPG, as per Jason Draper’s book Prince: Life And Times, essentially in exchange for grudgingly sanctioning a lucrative two-part greatest hits compilation with a third companion volume of B-sides.
In her 2017 memoir, The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince, Mayte Garcia, the subject of said song, provides an enlightening if troubling narrative about her experiences with him up to and through their four-year marriage. Garcia first met Prince during his European tour in 1990, at which time she was still very much a teenager, and her subsequent integration, while still an adolescent, into the equally conceptual and sexual New Power Generation project rightfully raises concerns through a contemporary lens, considering the age difference. However, at the time, the problematic nature of their relationship was obscured by muse mythology, the sort of ingrained narrative that loses its glossy romantic sheen in the disinfecting sunlight of the now.
Rock and Roll history is littered with disturbing stories of older men courting adolescent girls. Elvis Presley had about a decade on 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu when they met in West Germany in 1959. In 1963, after an intercontinental courtship, she moved away from her family and to Memphis, marrying him a few years later. Apparently incapable of waiting for his cousin Myra Gale Brown to grow up, Jerry Lee Lewis made her his third wife when she was just 13, the added public impropriety of incest doing considerable, if temporary, damage to his career. More recent accusations against R. Kelly and Ryan Adams suggest the ethically suspect practice is still pervasive.
While nobody would expect the guy behind “Darling Nikki” to be a boy scout, it requires a suspension of disbelief not to consider that Prince, then a grown man in his thirties, may have very well been grooming an underage Garcia with adult intent. Fans aware of some of the circumstances have no doubt compartmentalised it for the sake of convenience, but it’s hard and, if we’re being honest here, negligent to overlook behaviour like his sending her letters and flying her at 17 from Germany to his Paisley Park estate in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
In 1992, Prince employed Garcia as a dancer on his Diamonds And Pearls tour, at which point Garcia was 18 , already legally of age by U.S. standards, according to her book. Still, the power dynamics were very much at play, a disparity she emphasises in the book, claiming he had her pay docked on the grounds that she was snacking too much and endangering her figure. Even if one could put that aside in their mind or somehow justify it, their 15-year age difference certainly stayed the same through the release that October of his Love Symbol Album, the NPG endeavour that debuted No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Garcia’s presence as credited vocalist and perceived muse fed into the record’s elaborate soap opera gimmick, something reinforced by its cinematic companion 3 Chains o' Gold, a direct-to-video project depicting her as an Egyptian princess in distress. By her own account, their relationship shifted from officially professional to decidedly intimate when she was 19.
“The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” debuted in February of 1994, with Prince aged 35 and Garcia just 20. One week later, it arrived on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart at No. 60; before long, it peaked at No. 3. By then, he had logged 19 top-ten hits there; unbeknownst to him, though the song would give him a commercial boost at a critical time, it would be his last to place there during his lifetime. Whether or not you believe the fatalism lurking behind its verses could have caused superstitious harm to his career, several of the decisions he made in the subsequent years assuredly diminished his selling power.
Rather than give Warner Bros. the satisfaction of immediately capitalising on his new success, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” next appeared as part of The Beautiful Experience, a May 1994 EP for NPG Records. In its stead, a disgruntled Prince provided Warner with Come, which included material from his massive vault of unreleased songs. Warner rejected the first iteration, sending it back to him in the hopes that he might include something on par with his already RIAA gold certified single. Come dropped on Warner that August, but Prince quickly distanced himself from it. As if in retaliation for the album’s relative failure, the label followed it up in November with the release of The Black Album, a shelved 1987 record that he’d once decried as “evil” during a moment of spiritual clarity.
In the end, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” finally found a place on a Warner Bros. album with 1995’s The Gold Experience, which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. Prince proposed to Garcia that same year and they wed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day 1996, at Paisley Park. In her book, she looks back on their time together, which ended after a 1999 separation and 2000 divorce; she says she doesn’t consider herself a victim, even though outsiders might. That distinction remains her right and hers alone. Still, listeners who deified Prince both in life as well as in death may find all the details above a difficult pill to swallow, yet another instance of the world giving an ascribed male genius given a pass for his questionable behaviour.
Knowing what we know now, it would be short-sighted to simply ignore this information surrounding “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World” or otherwise temper it by celebrating the ethnically diverse, body-positive inclusivity present in its Antoine Fuqua directed music video. Some will call any such criticism disrespect for the dead, even as the Prince discography remains very much alive, with the digital age prompting posthumous releases like the unearthed solo recording Piano and a Microphone 1983. But twenty-five years after its release, this song and its painful provenance are still very much here.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.