Prince and the Revolution

Purple Rain

(Warner Bros.; 1984)

By Calum Marsh | 5 June 2009

It’s the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain. I wasn’t alive when Prince unleashed this piece of pop perfection on an unsuspecting American public, so I can’t sit here reminiscing about my memories of its release or the decades I’ve spent adoring it. Being that Purple Rain is what I generally cite as my favorite album of all time, I’m often tasked, or at least assume I am, with defending this bizarre little thing against a mass of curious and skeptical acquaintances who consequently assume that I’m joking or unhinged or both, particularly given my continued (and vocal) distaste for and hostility toward all forms of camp, kitsch, and irony, in which most music fans of my generation seem to assume this album and Prince in general are thoroughly steeped.

Prince occupies an odd space between Rolling Stone’s canon and ours; Purple Rain finds its place in Best Of lists most anywhere, but Prince represents something different for both generations: for them, Prince is an idiosyncratic guitar hero pushing boundaries—racial, sexual, and aesthetic—in a landscape largely dominated by straight white rock gods; for us, Prince is a schlocky vestige of a decade defined by frivolous and improbably cheesy mainstream music, better remembered as a Chappelle’s Show skit than as a serious influence on what we currently enjoy.

Today Prince may evokes ridiculous contextual banalities in the vein of Michael Jackson; I know of few people who seriously consider Purple Rain to be a bad album, it’s just that even fewer seriously consider it to be good in the way that doesn’t herald all things ironic, and people by and large tend to love loving Prince like that. I consider Purple Rain’s camp appeal dubious and ill-considered, but I can definitely understand where people are coming from: his image, one he’s cultivated over three decades and which pervades the public conception of him as an artist and popular culture figure, exudes pop kitsch. The New Yorker’s Sascha Frere-Jones recently ran a series of humor pieces imagining letters to Prince from the graphic designers in charge of his album covers, poking fun at the uniformly bad design decisions and adherence to his trademark purple aesthetic, and this is fairly indicative of how the world sees this guy—with a look like this we can’t possibly take him seriously.

Can Prince really expect us to? His appeal, mystique, and ambiguity, so much of what he does, seem deliberately hammed-up and trite, but then he treats his material with a straight-faced seriousness—like, really, is Prince in on his own joke? Are people laughing with him, or at him? It’s never made clear, and the evidence is often contradictory: Prince is the man responsible for “Sign O’ The Times,” a pretty serious number about the decay of American society and the dangers black youth face, but on the same album—the terrific two-LP Sign O The Times (1987)—we’re given preposterous candy jams like “Housequake,” fronted by Prince’s silly alter-ego Camille, and the deliciously over-the-top “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which occupies a confusing space between steamy sexuality and face-palming goofiness. It’s telling that the album was recorded over four years and was the abridged version of three different projects, its paranoid lack of focus so captivating; point being: it’s next to impossible to identify Prince’s intended tone, how serious the artist is about his own work, how diligently he expects or hopes we’ll consume this stuff.

Complicating the situation further is the accompanying film of the same name (Purple Rain the album is technically an original motion picture soundtrack, and was produced and marketed as such), which seems, too, to oscillate between melodrama and deliberate, cut-up glee. But the content of the movie is atypical of vacuous ’80s fluff, focusing on the waning club career of The Kid and his struggles with an abusive father (who, by the way, commits suicide by the film’s end), in turn making its duality overt and much easier to make fun of and call vacuous. I can’t much defend the merits of the movie and am willing to sacrifice it to the kitsch-hungry masses, but it’s a sad fact that its continued appeal fucks with its soundtrack’s reputation. It’s surprisingly difficult to take “When Doves Cry” as seriously as one might when it’s scoring a flashback second-act montage.

There are plenty of reasons to respect and revere Purple Rain in a totally non-ironic way, but so many of them are lost in the haze of his continued misreading. Defiantly confident and a somewhat androgynous figure, Prince is often lumped in with glam-era Bowie and effeminate icons like Boy George, but the Purple One blurs lines of gender and sexuality in a more ambiguous, and, in my mind, more sophisticated, way. Where others had subverted notions of masculinity by subordinating more typically “male” characteristics with conspicuously feminine ones, Prince retains such markers—extravagance in dress and makeup—playing up his effete daintiness while asserting himself as the archetypal bad-ass male. Even on Purple Rain’s cover, contrast that frilly shirt and perm with the giant fucking motorcycle_—game: blouses. _Purple Rain sees Prince showering in synth-decadence and glamorous production, but his guitar parts shred like some wild-eyed, testosterone-fueled freak and at least half the songs are about fucking. Dude’s not ridiculous; he’s a sex symbol.

I could go on like this. There’s a grand discussion buried in here on the deconstruction of racial boundaries, or on gender-bending, or on the confusion of high and low art, or on Judith Butler and gender performativity in “Darling Nikki,” but the fact of the matter is that in my heart of hearts, I just love Purple Rain because of the very existence of those things, vital and pulsing each in its own right, within its fey folds at all; I love that I made it this far. I love every second, from the opening squeals of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the closing rush of the title track. I love this album like one loves the very best works of art, in some abstract and difficult to define way, one that just feels right at the gut level. Which is mighty close to my crotch.