Prince's Anxiety of Influence and 'Purple Rain' in the Context of '80s Pop Music

by James Fleming

3 June 2009


During the summer of 1984, Prince accomplished a fete only one other musical act—The Beatles—had accomplished before: he was at the top of the charts with an album (Purple Rain), a film (Purple Rain) and a single (“When Doves Cry”). Prince’s success during the last half of 1984, however, was hardly the result of mere chance, shifting popular musical taste, or a calculated corporate market scheme. Instead, the sudden popular and critical success of Purple Rain was owed to a conscious and, perhaps, subconscious desire on Prince’s part to firmly establish himself as a canonical popular musical artist who could rival and even surpass the popular and critical success of the two most prominent popular musical acts of the time: Michael Jackson and The Police.

Over the course of the last half of 1983 and the first half of 1984, Prince had undergone a process of radical self-reinvention, transforming himself from an experimental R &B musician standing on the verge of relative fame to one of the most popular personas in popular culture, with a sound that was both familiar and unique, leading Prince to appear and sound like someone from an alternate reality: strangely familiar yet remarkably new.

As with all particularly strong and original artists, Prince did not construct himself or his work out of thin air. While Prince’s most direct musical influences are clear—Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Sly Stone and David Bowie to name a few—a close “reading” of Prince’s Purple Rain reveals the extent to which the creation of Prince’s sound and persona at the time was deeply indebted to both Michael Jackson and The Police. However, that’s not to say that Prince modeled himself or his music directly upon either that of Jackson or The Police. Prince’s invention of his Purple Rain persona and sound, rather, was the result of a powerful desire on Prince’s part to not simply emulate these artists but to overshadow and, in essence, rewrite them in order to carve out his own unique position in popular consciousness. While Michael Jackson and The Police were not the only popular musical acts at the time—this was, after all, the era of The Footloose soundtrack, the Go-Gos, Devo and Van Halen—Jackson and The Police were the acts held in the highest critical and popular esteem.

In order to properly conceptualize the process by which Prince developed his persona and sound both with and against Michael Jackson and The Police, I will adopt Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence in order to speculate as to how Prince both consciously and subconsciously attempted to resist the burden of both acts by a process of artistic rejection, deformation and recasting. While Prince’s musical influences are countless, my claim is that Prince—over the course of developing, recording and then filming Purple Rain—was resisting the influence of Michael Jackson and The Police, both of who had released two highly popular albums (Thriller and Synchronicity, respectively) over the previous year and a half and established themselves, firmly, in popular consciousness and the music charts. While Jackson and The Police were, indeed, Prince’s main rivals at the time, it is possible, also, to conclude that Prince was resisting and countering the influence of his earlier self as well, a point I’ll examine toward the end of this piece. My focus here will be in particular on two songs from Purple Rain: “When Doves Cry” and “Darling Nikki,” which when paired, respectively, with The Police’s “Synchronicity II” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” reveals the extent to which Prince attempted, whether consciously or not, to overcome the influence of The Police and Jackson by radically re-casting and reformulating two of their strongest songs in order to overcome their burdensome influence and set a firm position for himself in popular and critical musical consciousness.

In his book The Anxiety of Influence, literary critic Harold Bloom proposes a theory of how artists are influenced by other earlier, highly influential artists. According to Bloom, artistic influence is a psychological and artistic struggle, and often a relatively violent one at that. In Bloom’s theory, a “strong poet” (which can be understood as a strong artist of virtually any sort) seeks to clear a space for him or herself and his or her creations through a process of what Bloom refers to as “misprision,” which can be understood as a way by the new, strong poet of “misreading” certain earlier, canonical predecessors. For Bloom, every strong piece of art is itself a misreading of another earlier, powerful work. Through this process of misprision, the new “strong poet” seeks to overcome his or her influences in order to present new and original works.

Bloom conceptualizes this process in decidedly Freudian terms. He views the “canonical” poet as a Freudian father figure who must be psychologically overcome by being, in effect, rewritten by the new, strong poet. In essence, the earlier artist is considered a father figure by the younger artist who must be surpassed. According to Bloom’s theory, a strong poet subconsciously misreads his or her rivals in order to invent his or her own work against such. However, the influence of the earlier artist can’t be entirely purged by the younger, new poet. Through this process, the predecessor’s influences isn’t dismissed but is instead curtailed and reformulated into a fragmented and chaotic understanding of the predecessor’s work. The disorder of the new, strong poet’s view of his or her sources of influence render his or her attempts to create new and original work an attempt to structure his or her own work, at least in part, by piecing together the fragments of what remains of his or her own predecessors. Artistic mastery, then, is achieved only when the poet is able to produce a work which radically restructures the sources of influence through a process of deformation and recasting, in effect allowing the new, strong poet to present a piece of art that is for all purposes original and new.

In terms of his public persona, Prince rejected Michael Jackson’s clean-cut, sanitized, and decidedly non-sexualized and boyish weirdness and, instead, cultivated a decidedly sexualized self image that was itself deconstructive. Unlike Jackson, Prince’s self-image was packed full of pronounced gender ambiguity. His style was relatively feminine, yet his self-presentation was also decidedly heterosexual. Furthermore, Prince did not present himself in the same manner that Sting did, namely as a politically aware, tortured intellectual composing music of social relevance. In fact, Prince rarely displayed any sort of overt political or social stance in terms of Purple Rain, and instead offered himself as being rather divorced from the contemporary world, with a sound that harkened more to the future than the present or past. 

However, the ultimate battleground for Prince’s battle of resistance against Michael Jackson and Sting was in the music itself. In many respects, Purple Rain, as an album, can be understood as a strong act of resistance against the mutually strong forces of Thriller and Synchronicity. Thriller came out of Michael Jackson’s desire not to offer a thematic album, but to instead offer an album that sounded like it consisted entirely of hit singles. In essence, the concept of Thriller was decidedly capitalistic at heart: to create a record that would be a guaranteed mainstream hit. As inventive as Thriller is in terms of its sounds, the album’s tracks lack much in the way of emotional weight. The Police’s Synchronicity marked something of a departure for the band. The heavy reggae and new wave influence of the band’s earlier work was mostly gone. While there’s certainly a world-music influence on the album, the band’s sound was now rather synthesizer heavy, lending much of the album something of a perfectly polished and effectively manufactured sound. Synchronicity is also a decidedly intellectual album, though also with a few exceptions, a relatively unemotional one. With the exception of “Synchronicity II” and “Every Breath You Take”, most of the tracks have a decidedly cold tone that is short on emotional depth yet heavy on intellectual exploration. The same, however, cannot be said of Purple Rain, given its raw emotional weight and mix of studio and live recordings, as well as its thematic focus on personal passion, loss and desire and relative disconnect from more worldly and cultural contexts.

While Purple Rain was structured and recorded in a much different fashion than either Thriller or Synchronicity, Prince’s strongest engagement with both albums occurs within the songs themselves. In many respects, “When Doves Cry” can be understood as a strong Bloomian misreading of The Police’s “Synchronicity II”. While “Synchronicity II” is sonically layered, with blaring synthesizes, an aggressive drum beat, tearing guitar and strong bass line, “When Doves Cry” is sonically quite stark and simple (unlike a majority of the other tracks on Purple Rain). The song features no bass line, simple keyboards and an electronic, echoing drum beat. Thematically, however, both songs are focused on personal turmoil though each explores such from a radically different perspective. “Synchronicity II” tells the story of a harried man caught in suburban misery, harassed at home by his family and at work by his superiors, all the while knowing that “somewhere something has to break” within his own psyche. At the same time, something monstrous yet unrelated is described as emerging “many miles away” from the bottom of a Scottish lake.

The song serves to illustrate the concept of synchronicity itself, in particular the occurrence of two synchronic events that are connected symbolically but not causally or logically. While “Every Breath You Take” is the most popular song off the album, “Synchronicity II” is certainly the strongest track, and the one in which Sting reaches his deepest and darkest emotional depths as a lyricist. The song is one of turmoil and misery, telling the story of a man at his breaking point, living in a world of frustration and humiliation that offers no hope or possibility for release or redemption. The song concludes with Sting singing of the man driving home “with a pain upstairs that makes his eyeballs ache” while at the same time, “many, many miles away,” a monstrous form emerges from a lake and approaches the door of a cottage. And with those final images, the song fades out. There’s no sudden intersection of these events and nothing is presented that could possibly save anyone from the horror that his arisen, both from the lake (which seems symbolic of the man’s subconscious) or within the world itself. God or any other spiritual force is entirely absent from the narrative. All that’s presented is hopeless, personal torment and ultimately meaningless coincidences. No knowledge is gained and no resolution is offered within the narrative. At the end, all that remains is frustration and the sense of looming apocalypse.

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