Prince’s Purple Rain Remembered 30 Years Later (Food For Thought)
It has been 30 years ago this week (June 25 to be exact) that Prince released his magnum opus sixth album, Purple Rain. Twenty million copies sold later, the greatest selling soundtrack of all-time is both a time capsule, and—if we look at it in terms of substance, theme, and approach—timeless. Even for Heads who never saw the film of the same name, this Warner Bros. Records release plays like audio cinema, with plot-points, crescendos, and plenty of conflict. Just nine songs deep, this effort solidified Prince as an icon—and yet was seemingly the sole time that the mainstream completely harmonized with the Twin Cities visionary.
So much can be said about an album like Purple Rain. The musical backbone to a film, the first of four Prince starred in between 1984 and 1990, it remains the most enduring feature of the display. Following Prince’s Top 10 flirtation in 1982’s 1999, which produced 3 Top 20 singles, Purple Rain was the next vehicle to bring the Minneapolis late ’70s alum into the households of middle Americans. Glamorous, sexual, and often over the top, the perfect envelope for the soundtrack (and The Artist) was “When Doves Cry.” The complex song weaved family, intimacy, and multiple picturesque settings—almost all relevant to the film, and used it to fit snugly at the intersection of New Wave, Pop, R&B, Rock & Roll, and Dance. At a time when record store sections were expanding into new categories, Prince challenged conventions. Just as The Artist spoke softly and challenged gender roles while flaunting his heterosexuality, he also refused to be reduced to an R&B artist simply based on race or previous hits, and he refused to sing about the same things as Rock stars simply because he dragged around a guitar. The first single went to #1, and reached multiple continents, generations, races, and types of fans, simply based on its originality. While Purple Rain lived in its own world, in the first week of Summer 1984, Prince seemingly grasped the zeitgeist of the planet.
Part of Prince’s mastery at connecting with audiences, especially in a Second Cold War-era America was angst. “Let’s Go Crazy,” is a Tim Burton-style microcosm of release. The same way Bruce Springsteen sardonically made “Born In The U.S.A.” earlier in June, ’84, Prince knew people were dissatisfied with the changing of the guards, and disenfranchised, period. Economies were crashing, cocaine was booming, and Baby-Boomers were turning into Young Urban Professionals on the Wall Streets of screen and reality. The second single from Purple Rain played with the depth of apocalypse, synthetic living, the joys of sex, and made a song worthy of yanking every wallflower to floor at prom season. Just as he’d successfully done with “1999,” Prince threw purple Power Pop sugar on a deep idea. This time, he flipped the universe on its head, and with The Revolution, refused to ever go the easy route. “Let’s Go Crazy” endures because it’s other-wordly. Thirty years later, there are still shrinks in Beverly Hills like there are still angst, unhappiness, and ticking clocks to all of our lives. The album opener was the perfect foreplay for Prince’s mainstream masterpiece.
With over half of Purple Rain going to radio as singles, the album lives up to its sales figures in familiarity. While “Let’s Go Crazy” was an open invitation party for all, “Darling Nikki” certainly wasn’t. The Apollonia Kotera-inspired song (as in the film) prominently described a tryst with a female nymphomaniac with an assortment of toys, and the experience’s Holy ties. The song’s lyrics prompted Tipper Gore to establish the Parents Music Resource Center that same year, which—over a decade before Eazy-E released Str8 Off Tha Streetz Of Muthaphuckin’ Compton to awaiting charts—is responsible for parental advisory stickers on albums. Prince’s music did that, changing the release landscape for artists in Hip-Hop, Metal, Rock & Roll, Punk, etc. to come.
The Grammy Award-winning album paralleled its film in the over-arching love story. “I Would Die 4 You” took the sweet style used by the Phil Spector-produced groups of the ’60s like The Crystals, Ronnettes, and The Righteous Brothers, and used an expression too jarring for previous decades. Altruism got real, when Prince laid it out that his love was so strong that his life meant less—a powerful thought, but one that again, made sense to the people in an age when love was a hard-trading commodity. “Purple Rain,” the title song, remains one the most complex ballads in Pop music. Part love-song, part break-up song, the record–as designed in the film—plays the heart-strings. The drama that Prince has been associated with throughout his 35-plus-year-career is arguably its best at that nine-minute breakdown. The synesthesia of the song holds up to its title, and it’s the jarring exit from the world the artist created, begging for the record to be flipped over, and the journey to renew. Fifteen years before 808’s & Heartbreak, Prince was maximizing his artistic license, and the masses followed. The song showed just how much Prince & The Revolution could challenge format—whether genre, radio, songwriting, etc. Whether Kanye West or Rage Against The Machine, Prince’s fearlessness inspired legions of contemporary artists, who plausibly were introduced by this moment.
Thirty years later, artists of all mediums are still trying to get on Prince’s level. Purple Rain is grandiose, and abstract, and lives in its own world—no matter how applicable it might still be to Ours. However, this is the album—the stone in the sand—that everybody wants to make. Moreover, Prince refuses to bow, pander or call back to that glory—he just lets it live as he wished and wishes. Like The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop concert or 2Pac and Biggie’s alleged verbal exchange at the MTV Music Awards, this moment lives in a vacuum. It’s forever there for Heads to wonder, to rediscover, to analyze, and to come back to when we want to feel a glamorized moment in time and life.