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

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.

“When Doves Cry” as a strong thematic deforming and recasting of “Synchronicity II”

Against the overwhelming emotional and sonic power of “Synchronicity II” Prince offers “When Doves Cry”, which serves as a strong thematic deforming and recasting of “Synchronicity II”. “When Doves Cry” tells a story of personal crisis and frustration. In the song, the narrative is told in the first person (unlike “Synchronicity II”, which is narrated in the third person voice), with the narrator renouncing the influence of his parents and, at the same time, recognizing his own intrinsic connection to them. As he undergoes this brief process of self-analysis he suddenly asks, “Why do you leave me standing alone in a world that’s so called?” This can be fairly interpreted as a cry to God, with the narrator questioning the reasons his own separation from such, a question which never appears to cross the mind of the subject of “Synchronicity II” who is too caught up in his own anger and loathing to consider the actual reasons for his plight. The narrator of “When Doves Cry” asks whether his spiritual separation is owed to the arrogance he shares with his father (“Maybe I’m just like my father 2 bold”) or the sense of discontent he shares with his mother (“Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied”).

With this, the narrator of “When Doves Cry” shows a level of self-awareness that is entirely absent from the subject of “Synchronicity II”. He does not blame the world for his troubles, but instead looks within himself for an answer and possible salvation from such. Furthermore, the seemingly empty and undefined symbol of the monster in “Synchronicity II” is countered in “When Doves Cry” with the symbol of the dove, which appears to represent the potent symbol of the Holy Spirit. While Sting pairs his subject with the undefined figure of a monster rising out of a lake (or his own consciousness) at the moment of his greatest frustration, Prince’s narrator reaches out to the Holy Spirit in his moment of desperation. Nevertheless, both songs have, at their core, a particular measure of ambiguity that remains unresolved.

In “Synchronicity II”, the ultimate connection between the subject and the figure emerging from the lake is never made clear. There’s also a sharp disconnect between the opening of “When Doves Cry,” in which the narrator an undefined “darling” whom he seems to connect, in some fashion, to the Holy Spirit, an act which seems to either sexualize God or suggest that holiness is found within femininity. Interestingly, both songs are also highlighted with desperate screams of frustration. Stings agonized howl opens “Synchronicity II” while Prince’s desperate, heartfelt cry concludes “When Doves Cry”. However, these screams of frustration are placed at opposite ends of their respective songs. Sting’s desperate cry in “Synchronicity II,” sets the song’s tone and theme of frustration and anger. Prince’s cry of frustration — owed, perhaps, to the self awareness he reaches at the end of the song — concludes “When Doves Cry,” in effect leaving us with a strong sense of frustration and anger in the wake of the narrator’s self-realization. In effect, then, Prince deforms and recasts the themes of “Synchronicity II” in “When Doves Cry” by offering a narrative of self-awareness and self-realization which, despite the narrator’s concluding frustration, suggests a possibility of redemption absent from “Synchronicity II.”

Prince’s “Darling Nikki” can be understood as a strong misreading of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. In Jackson’s song, the narrator sings of how an obsessed fan insists that he’s the father of her child, to which he insists, by now rather famously, that “the kid is not my son”. The song, supposedly, was based off of Jackson’s own experience with a fan who claimed he had fathered her twin children. As the story goes, the crazed fan even went so far as to send Jackson a gun and ask him to kill himself with it. Jackson allegedly was disturbed by the allegations to such an extent that he had nightmares about it. Jackson, in likely response, composed “Billie Jean”, in which he vehemently denies fathering the child, with his own anxiety apparently focusing not on the suicide suggestion but on the allegation of having actually fathered a child. Given Jackson’s own ambiguous sexuality, this song is ripe for a strong psychoanalytic reading beyond the scope of this piece. However, Jackson’s vehement insistence on denying the possibility of fathering a child might be viewed as an attempt on his part to repress any sort of public consideration of his sexuality. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, the drama tied to this song, “Billie Jean” became Jackson’s biggest popular and critical success to date. Coupled with its elaborate and revolutionary music video, as well as the song’s unique vocal and sonic arrangements, “Billie Jean” cemented Jackson’s position in both public consciousness and critical regard.

If Prince was indeed attempting to at least partly overcome the influence of Jackson with Purple Rain, “Billie Jean” was the strongest work of Jackson’s that he had to contend with. Prince’s strong act of artistic resistance to “Billie Jean” was “Darling Nikki”. With “Darling Nikki”, Prince effectively composes a song that challenges “Billie Jean” for pure vocal and sonic invention. What’s most interesting, though, is the manner in which Prince attempts to overcome the influence of “Billie Jean” on a thematic and narrative level with “Darling Nikki”. While Billie Jean herself is figured as an antagonist in Jackson’s song who threatens to publically sexualize Jackson, Nikki, in Prince’s song, seduces the narrator toward terrific sexual pleasure which, through his resulting narrative, he then exposes to the public. In “Darling Nikki” the story itself is simple and infamous: the narrator meets Nikki in a hotel lobby while she is masturbating to a magazine. She then brings him to her “castle” and exposes him to such a variety of sexual acts and “devices” that he “couldn’t believe [his] mind.” He later awakens to find Nikki gone, but nevertheless with her phone number left behind and an invitation to call her “whenever you want to grind”. In essence, the narrative of “Darling Nikki” is quite the opposite of “Billie Jean”.

While “Billie Jean” is about an obsessive stalker threatening the narrator with false sexual accusations, “Darling Nikki” is about the narrator’s encounter (and possible future encounters) with a woman who, to his pleasure, sexualizes him. Prince, then, overcomes the influence or burden of “Billie Jean” by reversing the entire thematic concept of the song. While “Billie Jean” is certainly the darkest and most cynical song on Thriller, “Darling Nikki” is perhaps the lightest song on Purple Rain, not to mention perhaps the most holy, given what Draper argues to be the “backward message” in the song that “God is coming”. In Bloomian terms, it can be argued that Prince deforms and recasts “Billie Jean” with “Darling Nikki” on a thematic level, countering Jackson’s darkest and most personal song with his own lightest and most blunt song.

Given Prince’s need for Purple Rain to be accepted by mainstream audiences, “Darling Nikki” is a surprising contribution to the album, given its open and, for some, obscene depiction of sexuality. One would expect that Prince would have resisted including a track that might generate controversy and serve to isolate the album from a large segment of his listeners. However, given the heavy burden of influence that “Billie Jean” might have placed Prince was under, and the mainstream success of the song (I remember my grandparents listening to the song), the overt sexuality of “Darling Nikki” can be understood as an attempt, in yet another respect, to strongly counter the influence of Jackson. The song’s highly sexualized content generated a great deal of public attention. Tipper Gore’s outrage over finding her daughter listening to the song lead to the establishment of the Parental Music Resource Center, which was dedicated to cleaning up popular music and establishing the requirement of parental advisory stickers on albums. The organization created a list of the fifteen most offensive contemporary songs, with “Darling Nikki” at the top of the list. While Prince could not have anticipated this reaction to the song, releasing it on an album intended for mainstream listeners might have subconsciously served the purpose of helping Prince to distance himself further from Jackson and establish himself, in popular consciousness, as being anything but similar in attitude and sensibility to Michael Jackson.

A number of other songs on Purple Rain can also be viewed, in the spirit of Bloom, as strong deforming and recastings of various Thriller and Synchronicity tracks. The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” offers a somber tale of the narrator’s seduction by a dark and possible evil and Satanic woman and his inability to escape her clutch. Prince counters this with “I Would Die 4 U” in which he celebrates his affections for the woman who enraptures him and presents himself, instead, as the mysterious and perhaps holy figure. The apocalyptic overtones of The Police’s “Walking in Your Footsteps”, “Synchronicity II”, “King of Pain”, and “Murder By Numbers” is countered by such celebratory Purple Rain tracks as “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Would Die 4 U”, and such deeply passionate pieces as “The Beautiful Ones”. The sweet innocence of Jackson’s “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)” — which sounds as if it’s being sung by a prepubescent boy on a school yard — is countered by the highly sexualized “Computer Blue.” Furthermore, the heartbreak and longing of “The Beautiful Ones” serves to make tracks such as Jackson’s “The Girl is Mine” and “The Lady in My Life” seem downright childish and empty.

If we conceptualize Purple Rain as a battle in which Prince went on the offense in order to restrain the influence of Michael Jackson and The Police in order to canonize himself amongst critics and listeners, we can safely crown Prince the victor over both The Police and Michael Jackson. Despite the success of both Synchronicity and Thriller, neither Sting (nor, for that matter, the other members of The Police) nor Michael Jackson ever achieved the same level of popular or critical success that they achieved with those albums despite their best efforts to do so.

Ultimately, however, Prince seems to be in greatest conflict with himself as an artist. While Michael Jackson and The Police were predecessors whom he had to reconcile himself with as he sought to establish himself as a popular artist, Prince also had to overcome the strong influence of himself. Prince’s earlier albums, Dirty Mind and 1999, were particularly experimental, if not somewhat avant-garde in theme. While he gathered an impressive measure of critical success through these albums, their decidedly experimental nature and sexualized themes prevented Prince from achieving the particular measure of popular success that he desired. In that respect, Purple Rain can also be understood as an attempt, by Prince, to free himself of the shackles of his own influence, as well as his own desire to challenge musical and cultural norms and establish himself as a musical force firmly amongst mainstream audiences by developing a sound and persona that would allow him the same accessibility and popular success as Michael Jackson and The Police. For Prince, as is the case with any great creative artist, true artistic achievements arise out of conflict with not only his strong contemporaries and predecessors, but also out of conflict with himself. Purple Rain, then, was the product of a desperate attempt not to simply achieve artistic mastery and musical success but, also, a desire for Prince to establish himself firmly within public consciousness.

One might attempt to argue that Prince himself never achieved the same level of success that he did with Purple Rain. However, such an argument casts Prince as something of a weak poet, in Bloomian terms, who is unable to escape the burden of self-influence. Such, as we have seen, is simply not the case for Prince. If anything, Prince typifies Bloom’s very notion of a strong poet. Since his self-fashioned sonic makeover with Purple Rain, Prince has not stopped re-conceptualizing and re-inventing his own sound and persona. Prince has indeed not achieved the same level of notoriety and fame that he achieved with Purple Rain. To do so would involve self-imitation and force Prince to act as something he essentially is not: a weak poet. Instead, Prince has continued to experiment, to cut across genres and produce music that serves to deform and recast not only his predecessors and contemporaries but himself as well.