Earlier today, I got around to listening that new U2 album, but right now I’ll be talking about an old Prince album instead. However, there is one thing I’ve been able to take away from the unexpected release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in contrast to Prince’s newer music. And it’s that no one gives a shit about Prince’s newer music. I don’t know if it’s because the guy has diluted himself too much, since he sure has released a lot of albums over the years, four of which have come out since 2004’s Musicology (the last Prince album I remember anyone giving a shit about). But apparently he has two albums coming out in 2014, which I also kind of doubt anyone will give a shit about.
And it’s weird right? Because whenever U2 or Springsteen or Madonna or even a posthumous Michael Jackson album comes out, there’s at least a little bit of hubbub. Though despite being one of the most beloved pop artists of the last 30 years (in terms of both respect and popularity) Prince oddly enough has had more trouble than his contemporaries in escaping the looming shadow of his glory days. And yet, I will probably not be doing the man any favors by talking about the album that looms largest in his legacy. But to quote George Costanza, this is what I do.
Album: Purple Rain
Artist: Prince And The Revolution
Release Date: June 25, 1984
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 13 Million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves A Lone Genius
I could also probably point to the fact that “sex sells” as another huge reason for Prince’s inescapable popularity in the early-to-mid ‘80s. Since there had certainly been a lot of musical artists (namely most musical artists ever) that had indulged the idea of sex in music ever since Elvis started wagglin’ his hips all over the place. But I’m not sure anyone had quite oozed sex the way Prince had — whether it was him frankly singing about getting head, reaching towards you while naked in the “When Doves Cry” video, or getting Tipper Gore all hot and bothered about the kinky lyrics in “Darling Nikki” — put simply, Prince liked to get down, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
But for me, what has cemented Prince’s iconic place in pop culture is his standing as one of the rarest of archetypes in American music — that of the lone genius. Whether it’s Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, or Kanye West, there is something distinctly American about an artist who seems to be able to do it all, and with five times the clarity and precision of any of his peers. Prince might be one of the more extreme examples of this archetype, since even more so than any of the people I just mentioned, Prince rarely had to rely on collaboration in order to do his best work. Hell, by the time of Purple Rain, Prince had already released a pair of classics (1980’s Dirty Mind and 1982’s 1999), both of which saw Prince singing and playing literally every instrument on both of those albums.
Which I guess makes it somewhat interesting that Prince’s biggest smash hit, Purple Rain, was his first to actually feature other people than Prince playing on it, and even featured a song that (gasp) wasn’t entirely credited to Prince as a songwriter. And perhaps the fact that Prince had The Revolution backing him up gave the music a looser (and ultimately better) vibe, since I’d say the “live band” atmosphere on the song “Purple Rain” helps elevate it beyond any of Prince’s earlier ballads. And yet, history has still made it a little hard to think of this as anything less than a Prince album, since I’m taken by surprise every time I’m forced to remember that The Revolution are actually given credit on Purple Rain’s album cover.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
This is one of those albums where I don’t even feel like answering this question. Because of course Purple Rain deserved to be popular. It’s great. It’s a classic. So much so that in 2007, Entertainment Weekly named it #1 on their top 100 “New Classics” list (not that that list makes any sense at all). So instead I’ll talk about another thing that often gets overlooked about Purple Rain, and that’s the simple fact that it’s a soundtrack album. It’s a distinction that puts Purple Rain in rarefied air alongside soundtrack albums like The Harder They Come or Superfly whose popularity and reverence has far exceeded the film it was supposed to serve as the soundtrack to.
I also feel compelled to talk about Purple Rain (the movie) because I just watched it in its entirety for the first time this week, and can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a movie so much that featured so many questionable decisions. The most prominent being that apart from being set against the vibrant Minneapolis music scene of the early eighties, we get a lot of a Prince (playing a pre-fame version of himself) having to deal with the marital drama tearing up his home life. Which is not an angle that I have any problems with in theory, but Prince (despite his immense talent) is not a master thespian, and neither are the actors who play his parents, which makes for a number of cringe-inducing “dramatic” scenes. Granted, I wouldn’t say Prince, or anyone else in this film (except maybe Apollonia) are bad actors, it’s just the material here is so melodramatic that only the best actors in the world would be able to do it justice.
Yet even despite its actorly shortcomings, I’m still impressed by how intermittently dark this movie goes, since it was after all supposed to be a vehicle for Prince’s most upbeat and accessible songs yet. But instead we get a film that not only features spousal abuse as a key plot component, but also remains surprisingly artsy on a technical level. And by that I mean that director Albert Magnoli must’ve watched Blade Runner at least a couple times before filming this movie. Now, I’m not gonna say Purple Rain is the closest anyone got to making a Blade Runner sequel (because it’s not). But due to it’s neon-tinged cinematography and atmospheric synth soundtrack, Purple Rain might be the closest any movie ever got to recapturing the tone and feel of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece. I know, I know. It doesn’t make any sense, but just trust me on this one.
But more than anything, I probably enjoyed Purple Rain (the movie) because the music in it is just so god damn good. And the movie makes pretty good use of these songs too — be it the rabble-rousing opening of “Let’s Go Crazy” at Minneapolis’s 7th Avenue theater, the sounds of “Take Me With U” accompanying Prince motoring down the highway, or him taking things too far with his confrontational performance of “Darling Nikki”. And best of all, the way the movie let’s us in on the creation of the song “Purple Rain”, though full of cliche’s, makes me love that song even more, which I did not think was possible. So in some sort of weird reversal, it’s almost like the movie serves as the soundtrack to the album, as it’s a nice companion piece that helps deepen one’s appreciation for a great piece of pop entertainment.
Would I Pay Money For This?
I bought this album at a Best Buy when I was 17. True story.
(Unfortunately none of the songs on this album are on YouTube because of copyrights and whatnot. Sorry.)
Next Time On The People’s Albums: OOooohhhooohhh AAaaahhhaaayyahh’m still alive for another installment of The People’s Albums where I’ll be talking about Pearl Jam’s Ten.