“Remember when we was young, everybody used to have those arguments about who’s better, Michael Jackson or Prince? Prince won!”
With this quote, the great Chris Rock comes down firmly on the side of Prince Rogers Nelson in the battle of pop icons. But in 1983, the answer wasn’t so obvious. Michael Jackson was in the midst of Thriller-induced megastardom. Then, the summer of 1984 came along and with it, the pop culture ubiquity of Prince. He even captured two titles Michael Jackson never could: Movie Star and Rock Star. And no other song cemented his mythical status like that of the title track to a movie, an album and an era—“Purple Rain”.
Recorded live at First Avenue, the Minneapolis club that hosted the Revolution vs. Time throwdowns in the movie, “Purple Rain” starts off simply enough. Technically an exploration of harmony in ballad format, it’s really just a man and his guitar, sounding lonely on purpose. The song has places to go—and go, it does. From resignation to urgency over an epic eight minutes and forty-five seconds—like gospel on rock & roll steroids. Prince builds emotion with his classic vocal take and busts the song in half with a ringing guitar solo, from which “Rain” intensifies with organs, cymbals and pleading. Finally, the song settles as piano and strings linger like sparks trailing the fireworks.
Lyrically, the question that endures 25 years later can be summed up thusly: what the hell is he talking about? Is it an allusion to the “Purple Haze” of his idol Jimi Hendrix? A lyrical rip from America’s “Ventura Highway”? Is he just really into purple? Regardless, Prince deduced the great secret of mass acceptance by keeping the lyrics decidedly elliptical. He never explains this fantastical “purple rain” or why it’s got him so morose at the start. On one listening level, ignorance is bliss so just sing along. But if you delve deeper, more questions arrive than answers.
In Thailand, the color purple represents mourning and Prince is certainly lamenting the end of a relationship through the first half of the song (“It’s such a shame our friendship had 2 end”). He seems the Prince of the Purple Heart, wounded in battle. As the song structure opens skyward, the lyrics reflect the change by discussing a larger relationship, that of a “leader” that will “guide” his prospects. Purple seems to take on the connotation of ultimate royalty—the King of Kings. Does Prince have a God complex? In one sense, he could be setting himself up as the Creator of this relationship. He “only wants to see you underneath the purple rain.” Kind of a poetic way of saying, “my way or the highway”. Or perhaps he’s contemplating his relationship with his Maker. Rain falls from the heavens after all. This reading seems a better fit for the spiritual transcendence reflected in the music.
The definitive answer never comes though, and the song is all the better for it. In the end, that sense of mystery keeps the track universal. There’s something bigger at work within “Purple Rain”, the holiest of rock anthems.