2020 Music Essays

Formative: Prince ‘Purple Rain’ (1984)

Purple Rain by Prince

“Formative” is a Vague Visages column about music albums that influenced the writer’s teenage experience. 

There was a long gap between when I first became aware of Prince and the first time I listened to his music. He’s one of the musicians that my mum likes the most, a pantheon of the 80s covering everything from Bruce Springsteen to Culture Club. She talked about Prince a lot, about an old vinyl of 1999. There’s a new one in the record case on the living room floor now. The affinity I have for Prince, and the things that I learned from his music — and continue to learn — is different than what my mum took away from it decades earlier; the music, and the connection we share with it, is something I find myself returning to regularly.

The first Prince album I listened to wasn’t 1999, but Purple Rain. It never really could have been anything else. I’d heard about the film a lot, but hadn’t seen it. In my head, the two things were linked, as if one couldn’t exist without the other. In a way, that’s true — after all, jukebox musicals need a source that already exists to  draw on — but it isn’t like musical theatre; the album doesn’t tell the story of the film, it just informs it. The Purple Rain album cover was the thing that first drew me to it: the smoke, the bike and the man. The image is loaded with a classically masculine sexuality, but the colour that defines it (purple) turned that on its head, seeming to exist between the gender binary that so many colours are forced into. And the songs are sexy, and sexual, without being sexually aggressive. Songs like “Take Me with U,” with male and female voices singing in harmony about spending the night together, and the sleazy, lurid eroticism of “Darling Nikki” was something that I hadn’t encountered before, and didn’t understand all that much at the time, listening to albums that my parents liked on an early iPod. It was strange to think of Purple Rain as the kind of thing that my parents listened to. Really, it was just strange.

Then I drifted away from Prince again, and from a lot of other kinds of music. The music of my adolescence was heavier and darker; I pivoted from glam rock to bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse and Emperor — in many ways, the exact opposite of Prince: aggressive, male, masculine. When going to heavy metal shows, then and now, the overwhelming maleness of it is impossible to shake off. And when listening to those albums and going to those shows, it was easy to feel like an outsider, even with this music being seen as a kind of outsider art. Slowly learning more, about art and about myself, that outsider feeling became more clearly defined in my head, and one of the things that I’ve been aware of for a long time now is the difficulty of finding any kind of queer expression in heavy metal music spaces.

This idea was the motivation behind my return to the fold with Prince, the priest at the head of the church of the afterworld in “Let’s Go Crazy.” I didn’t know what was queer about it at the time — a strange thing to admit, especially when the opening of “Computer Blue” is so blatant in its homoeroticism, but I came back to it. I was spending a lot of time online looking for things that might act as a kind of mirror through which I could see myself; the kind of searching that led me to tentatively read things like James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room.

Prince died in 2016, and I have vague memories of talking to my mum about it — about how much she liked his music, and how well he could play the guitar. It’s strange talking about a musician in the past tense when the music still resonates with me now. In 2016, driven by the slightly morbid curiosity that comes from the death of a familiar artist, I dove deep into Prince’s back catalogue, finally listening to 1999, but always coming back to Purple Rain. I knew more then, about it, about myself, about the ways that performance can signpost a kind of queerness. The drifting between being like father and mother made more sense now as I began to think less about binaries; even the iconic image of Prince on the purple bike made more sense to me now, and had become a kind of symbol, representative of queerness; a sexiness that was at once dirty and liberating. The best example of this is”‘Darling Nikki” (which might be the best song on the album), full of lyrics that espouse the power of a sexual connection (“my body will never be the same”), but one that’s defined by a freedom and openness: “thank you for a funky time / call me up, whenever you wanna grind” — the feral cry of “Darling Nikki” over a wailing guitar, the desperate “come back, Nikki, come back” that descends into unintelligible yells, all carried with it a kind of freedom, a willingness to be both sexual and vulnerable, refusing to fall into the box of a single, simple definition.

This refusal is echoed in “When Doves Cry,” one of the songs on Purple Rain that reads as the most openly queer, from the angst that comes through at the end of the chorus (“why do we scream at each other / this is what it sounds like when doves cry”) to the soul-searching that defines the song, moving from father to mother, one end of the binary to the other. This is refuted not only in the constant movement that defines “When Doves Cry,” but also the iconic opening lines of “I Would Die 4 U,” the next song on the album: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.”

Every time I came back to those opening lines, it seemed to echo something else that I was making sense of. Reading it now, seemingly in the most surface level way — a dismissal of gender binaries — has a power that it hasn’t had in the past. I like that I can return to Purple Rain over and over again; that act of still learning and developing is something that’s easy to forget, but should be remembered whenever possible. Now and then, I listen to a podcast where the author Maggie Nelson reads aloud a piece that she wrote about Prince, adolescent and grinding, on the occasion of his passing away. It seemed to echo all the things that I couldn’t understand the first time I listened to Purple Rain, and — in the end — that’s what mattered most, and what I continue to get from the album every time it’s on (I’m listening to it now): the feeling of not being alone, and that the light being cast by the purple rain is something that can wash loneliness away.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.