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Let’s Go Crazy: Celebrating 25 Years of Purple Rain

Some 25 years after it was released, PopMatters proudly celebrates Purple Rain in its entirety, looking at the album and film from every angle.

Edited by Evan Sawdey and Produced by Sarah Zupko


*cue church organ*

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life ...

... and thus begins one of the greatest pop culture phenomena of our time.

Back in the summer of 1984, Purple Rain was more than just a movie: it was a genuine experience, a transcendent multi-media event that celebrated commercialism and creativity in equal measure, turning a mid-level R&B singer into an overnight superstar and international sex symbol.  At one point during that year, Prince had not only the Number One movie in America, but also the Number One album and the Number One single.  In fact, when Purple Rain entered the album chart at peak position on August 4th of 1984 (displacing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., of all things), it wouldn’t vacate that spot until January 19th of the following year.

Yet all these accomplishments wind up leading us to one very simple question: why?

The truth of the matter is simple: Prince picked the perfect time to perfect his art.  Though unfairly relegated as a straight-up R&B singer for his first few years, a few people could already pick out the fact that the barely 20-years-old Prince Rogers Nelson had talent that wasn’t exactly easy to classify: aside from the fact that he played every instrument on every album he ever produced, his mixture of genres was remarkably unconventional.  1979’s Prince had numerous hard-rock overtones, and the genre-busting 1980 disc Dirty Mind was a lo-fi explosion of new wave, classic rock, and synth-based soul experiments.  With 1982’s 1999, however, Prince had finally found a way to meld his experimental pop tendencies with more “commercial” song structures, resulting in the first two major mainstream hits of his career (the title track and “Little Red Corvette”). Each become substantial radio staples at the expense of absolutely nothing: Prince’s sexually-charged lyrics—always a point of controversy—were still kept front and center, pushing the envelope of what was considered “acceptable” radio play without compromising Prince’s increasingly-insular artistic vision.

During 1999‘s subsequent tour, however, Prince—in the midst of also writing and producing acts like Vanity 6 and Morris Day & the Time—had finally assembled a backing band that could keep up with his own incredible abilities: the Revolution.  With drummer Bobby Z., bassist Mark Brown, keyboardist Matt Fink, and guitar/keys duo Wendy Melovin & Lisa Coleman, Prince was finally able to stop worrying about playing everything himself. He had a found a group of creative individuals who were able to open his mind to new sounds and styles.  During this time, he also expressed interest in starting a movie project based on his life.  After numerous financial hurdles and personnel mishaps (protégé starlet Vanity very famously left the project just prior to filming, leaving Prince to cast the unknown Apollonia Kotero as his own love interest), filming went underway for Prince’s own faux-biopic, starring himself in the lead role and featuring nothing but brand new, completely unheard songs.  Even with 1999‘s relative chart success, Warner Bros. was predictably nervous about how the film would fare.

As the multiple hit singles, Grammy wins, and Best Original Song Score Oscar later proved, this was one of those rare gambles that paid off in droves. 

Purple Rain is more than just a movie, however, and far more than just an album.  The track “When Doves Cry” was a revolutionary, avant-garde single that rewrote the playbook on what pop songs were supposed to sound like. “Darling Nikki” was the track that set Tipper Gore on a personal vendetta to clean up pop music (ultimately resulting in the Parental Advisory stickers that pepper albums to this very day). And that’s not even counting the contributions that Purple Rain made to fashion, the rock-film genre, and sales of purple motorcycles the world over.

Some 25 years after it was released, PopMatters proudly celebrates Purple Rain in its entirety, looking at it from every angle. Over this week, you’ll see a track-by-track dissection of the album, a look at Purple Rain in the context of Prince’s short filmography, analysis of the movie’s effects on the fashion world, that so-called “Minneapolis sound” that the film helped popularize, a deep psychological examination at the supposed rivalry between Prince and Morris Day, the way that Prince was able to transcend genre and move even a crowd of metalheads during one writer’s live performance experience, how his music was able to band together some Florida skinheads in a shared love of his genre-busting funk, a look at how Prince created his masterwork out of an anxiety of influence, and—to top it all off—we interview Prince’s long-time manager Alan Leeds and Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink about their experiences during the peak of Purple Rain‘s popularity.

So strap yourself in, and—as The Kid himself would say—let’s go crazy ...

Evan Sawdey

Thursday, June 4 2009

Inside the Revolution

Hundreds have books have been written about Prince and the Revolution, looking for hints and clues about his life and motivations within his lyrics, his images, and film scripts. Yet there are two people who know Prince better than anyone else, and those are the people who were there when it all happened. Speaking exclusively to PopMatters, longtime prince manager Alan Leeds and Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink speak candidly about their experiences recording, filming, and making Purple Rain, and what it was truly like being inside the Revolution.

Wednesday, June 3 2009

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

Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence notes how that we often attribute artistic success to being able to reconstruct our influences to create something unique, yet, as we all know, it's much more complex than that. Analyzing similar conceptual ground covered by the Police and Michael Jackson prior to Purple Rain, James Fleming dissects Prince's reaction to these other artists landmark songs, and how he was able to manifest these other pop monoliths into his own, reactionary style.

“The Minneapolis Sound”

Purple Rain showed "The Kid" and Morris Day fighting for control of the same club in Minneapolis, with artists like Dez Dickerson and Apollonia 6 trying to get their own share of stage time as well. The film perpetuated the notion of "the Minneapolis sound", synth-based funk workouts that featured artists like Vanity 6, The Family, The Time, and several more -- the irony, of course, being that all of their songs were written, performed, and produced by Prince.

Tuesday, June 2 2009

The Importance of Being Morris: Fop vs. Fop and Duality in Purple Rain

In both Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge, "The Kid" is pitted against Morris Day in a battle for artistic and commercial supremacy in the Minneapolis club scene. Lana Cooper digs deeper than that, though, showing that the characters are not too dissimilar, examining the psychological implications of both leads actions in these films, rife with business-minded headgames and personal attacks through pop music.

Punk’s Purple Passion

Bill Gibron was a true-blooded punk-rocker, him and a group of friends scoring gigs at the WFSU radio station and blowing the minds of the squares who didn't know their Sex Pistols from their U2. Yet somehow, the music of a small soul artist from Minneapolis wound up not only changing their lives, but wound up being championed by them as well, climaxing in a fiery performance during the 1999 tour, when, in two swift hours, racial divides were completely eradicated by the all-knowing power of modern funk.

Monday, June 1 2009

Baby, He’s a Star: Prince’s Life in Film

Prince's films struggled with several issues, yet the most prominent theme with most of his work was walking that line between credibility and commercialism, turning away from greed in order to embrace his inner artist (which, in Purple Rain's case, is all the more ironic, given that it made him a commercial blockbuster).

The Beautiful One: Prince and the Fashion of Purple Rain

Some people say that Purple Rain cemented Prince's image because of its music. Christel Loar argues it was that ruffled white shirt. In a personal tale, Loar shows us just how the influential fashion of Purple Rain defined herself and her friends, and what lessons a piece of big mainstream entertainment can teach us all.

Sunday, May 31 2009

A Track-by-Track Rundown of ‘Purple Rain’

Looking at Purple Rain one song at a time, we uncover a lot of what made this album tick, an expertly paced pop-music masterpiece about love, relationships, and voyeuristic women waiting in hotel lobbies ...

Something Wrong with the Machinery: Prince’s Pop Paradox

When Jason Buel was in a rock-band called the Royals, he played some shows to metalheads and was met with indifference. When the band broke out a cover of "Computer Blue", however, everyone noticed. Here, Buel takes us on a journey into what precisely made Prince a figure that could transcend genres so easily, and why his songs are just so ripe for covering.

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