I’ve long wondered what moves me in the first line of the chorus of “Little Red Corvette.” I think everyone will agree there’s a hook there; but what is it? On paper there’s just a banal IV-V-I chord progression. IV-V-I means, for example, F-G-C with C as home. Prince uses F#, G#, and C#, the key of C# providing a somewhat fruitier, more Princely-purple sound. The melody goes
Lit-tle red Cor-vette
C# C# D# D# E#
—that is, two whole-step ascents (from C-sharp to D-sharp and from D-sharp to E-sharp) that happen to involve the fifth note of the F-sharp chord (that is, C-sharp) and the fifth note of the G-sharp chord (D-sharp) but then the major third note of the C-sharp chord (E-sharp). Ending on that major third is a mild surprise and gives the figure a chirpy finish. Still more important to the chirpy effect is the tripping-forward syncopation. See where the notes come in relation to the beats:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and
This juxtaposition of the on-the-beat duple of “Lit – tle” with the shifted-forward notes of “red Cor – vette” is a good example of Prince’s knack for finding a simple complexity that endlessly intrigues. “When Doves Cry” and “Sign o’ the Times” are famously built around cunning little riffs like this, too, but the stealthily embedded riff of “Little Red Corvette” has a unique power because it’s delayed till the chorus and we’ve been made to feel a need that it sneaks in to satisfy.
The need is this: we’ve been confused and at least temporarily bummed by an oblique description of a tawdry Saturday night sex scene. The guy is singing to a girl like a girl to a guy. The girl seems to be bullying and using the guy who’s singing. What can we get from such a scenario?
How about a rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia trip to early-60s American Graffiti territory where kids dream of driving ‘Vettes and a girl would want a little red one, or would even, in poetic “Mustang Sally” fashion, be one? But how about we take the trip in an edgy 80s way, with loud electronic percussion claps and worldly-wise R&B-style commentary in each measure following the sweet refrain? 60s/80s, 80s/60s, the boy in the vulnerable girl position, the girl in the aggressive boy position, the red ‘Vette epitomizing them both?
That’s how the chorus of “Little Red Corvette” comes to the rescue, its opening three-chord ascent a ladder on which we climb up out of sexual bewilderment and waste toward the dream image of the thing we want to be. Sad ladder to nowhere, maybe, borrowed from a girl who’s “much too fast,” but a ladder nonetheless. Musically it doesn’t stick out at all, yet we cling to it and it holds us up. We can repeat it forever while disillusion surrounds us.