Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure series of books? Aimed at young readers, they offered an opportunity to periodically take the wheel and steer the direction of the book’s story. At some point, while reading, you are asked to make a choice. A choice that could completely change the plot’s direction, the fate of the characters, or a simple, innocuous detour. In these unique books, there’s an overall plot to be unfurled, but how it ends and what path your characters take to get there depends on decisions made by you, the reader. I am attempting to theorize that Prince’s Purple Rain soundtrack from 1984 is an audio example of a choose your own adventure.
Do you listen to the Purple Rain soundtrack as a companion piece to the film? If so, this is a satisfying listening experience considering that all of the songs on the album have visuals, plot points, and dialogue that accompany their placement in the film. Purple Rain’s lead character is The Kid, played by Prince. In the movie, he exudes a stony, cocky persona to his bandmates, love interests, the club manager, and rivals in The Time. Deep inside him, however, he is a cauldron of often negative and potentially violent emotions.
Love? Trust? Jealousy? How exactly is someone that grows up in a dysfunctional family expected to love and trust anyone wholeheartedly? The Kid’s parents frequently engage in fights also seem to be rooted in jealousy and resentment. Considering that these are some of the film’s central themes, we are led to believe that these emotions are difficult for the Kid to overcome. However, there appears to be another force driving Prince throughout Purple Rain’s album tracks. A force that The Kid from the film doesn’t hint at even acknowledging. A spiritual side. The other adventure.
One can point to a couple of clear examples of Prince’s spiritual side peeking out of his bold, sexual, anti-establishment veneer. One would be the citing of the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of his 1981 track, “Controversy,” as well as the coda to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” (“I’m in love with God, ’cause he’s the only way”). I don’t think anyone could be prepared for the sheer number of examples of Prince’s spiritual awakening duking it out with peerless guitar solos, covert and overt sexual references, lighter waving ballads, and synthesizer grooves as memorable as anything he’d created on his previous album, 1999.
The thing is, the general public, myself included at the time, wasn’t even aware of this spiritual awakening unless their hearts and minds were open to hearing it. Prince would provide more conspicuous examples of his embracing of spirituality on the very next album, Around the World in a Day. Still, the seeds were planted in here, in Purple Rain.
Both the album and film are kicked off by the raucous “Let’s Go Crazy.” On the surface, a song appears to be expressing a desire to drop the cares and worries of the modern world and “go crazy.” It is a metaphor that can lead millions of listeners to dance with abandon, play air guitar as if they were Jimi Hendrix reincarnated, and lose their shit throughout the song’s entire run-length. But the clues that this song has a much deeper, alternate meeting are right there for us to hear.
“Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Regardless of whether you get a sermon, a wedding, or a funeral vibe from this spoken word opening, eloquently stated over a droning organ, the vibe is still one that likely takes place in a church, somewhere. That’s not all. The references to “de-elevator” and “going crazy” speak to one’s ability to embrace God and resist the evil temptations that keep us in Satan’s grip. The song is energetic and upbeat because Prince is singing this song as someone who has uncovered an amazing, life-saving secret. If you’re willing to go crazy with Prince, you’re eager to love in a way you’ve never loved before.
Love is precisely where Prince takes us on the next track, “Take Me With U.” Prince invites his film’s co-star, Apollonia (along with Lisa & Wendy), to help him sing a song about how he wants his new lover to join him on this new plane of enlightenment. Is the “U” in the song’s title (or even the “U” in “The Question of U” from the Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge) referring to God? Or are we overthinking this one, and it’s just a song about his burgeoning relationship with someone that excites and intrigues him? Why not both? I like to think that Prince also wanted us to take the song’s lyrics into context with the previous song (sequencing matters, people!), and now he’s genuinely excited about this discovery he’s made in “Let’s Go Crazy.” “Take me away” to “Take me with U.” Yeah, that was no accident.
A crisis of faith. That’s what Prince appears to be dealing with on the album’s next track, “The Beautiful Ones.” On the surface, and thanks to its placement in the film, “The Beautiful Ones” comes across as a mournful ballad full of pain, confusion, and desperation over the loss of a lover (“the beautiful ones you always seem to lose”). If you look at the lyrics from a different, more spiritual angle, you can make the narrative connection of a man of faith trying to make sense of the sudden, befuddling questioning of his faith by someone very close to him. This person, likely the same person he took away on his motorcycle on the previous track, is challenged to make real, tough choices. Is it him, or is it me? Now, a question like this could be perceived as a lot of things. The apparent selection is The Kid vs. Morris Day. However, “him” could also be a stand-in for someone who does not share the same values of faith that Prince does and can be broken down in very primary battles of good vs. evil. God vs. Satan. Spirituality and faith vs. living a secular life. Whatever it is that has Prince all bent out of shape, it makes for a compelling and dramatically performed song with some throat-shredding screams for good measure.
On the album’s next track, “Computer Blue,” Prince takes the common themes of loneliness and relationship struggles. It combines them with his love/distrust of technology and prints off a song that’s primarily a prog-rock funk workout containing a single lyrical verse to its credit. We can parse through “Computer Blue’s” more significant themes (“Poor lonely computer. It’s time someone programmed you.”) more capably with the “Hallway Speech” version included on the Purple Rain deluxe release in 2017. How does this song relate to the narrative of religion and spirituality that I’m proposing here? Quite simply, I think you could look at the song as a metaphor for our technology in our modern lives (in 1984, mind you, imagine this message in 2020!) getting in the way of our faith, or even our ability to gain connections with others. “Where is my love life? Where can it be?” Remember, Prince tells us that God IS love later on in his career. The title of a R.E.M. song that would be released six years later, “Losing My Religion,” would apply perfectly to the secondary religious theme of this song. Finally, one can’t talk about “Computer Blue” without mentioning the infamous Wendy and Lisa intro. There are many interpretations of this intro ranging from the sexual to the confounding to the pseudo-religious. Could this be a reference to baptism? Prince ensured this intro remained vague enough to apply whatever interpretation that your dirty little mind desires.
Side A finishes with the raunchy, rocking “Darling Nikki.” The story of how this song became a target for the fledgling PMRC has been told a million times, so I’m not going to rehash this here. Prince’s faith continues to slip even further at this point. He has been in a dark place since the closing notes of “The Beautiful Ones” and singing a song about a passionate evening with a woman that doesn’t appear (on the surface at least) to be leading a righteous life continues his downward spiral.
Are things looking up for our hero? An entire verse, printed in the liner notes of the Purple Rain album, is not performed on this song that gives us hope. “Sometimes, the world’s a storm. One day soon, the storm will pass.” However, I will mention how “Darling Nikki’s” backmasked coda is more of a prayer, not the devil-worshiping mind-warping message that everyone assumed it was.
“Hello, how are you? I’m Fine. ‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon.”
See what he did there? A song primarily about a one-night stand with either a prostitute or a very sexually liberated woman still manages to sneak in some religious themes and lyrics. It would be best if you were a master of playing records backward to figure that out.
“When Doves Cry,” the massive hit single and #1 overall song of 1984 (based on airplay and sales), kicks off side B. There aren’t many overtly religious metaphors and references that one can glean from this track’s lyrics; however, the dove that is used as the song’s metaphor of domestic pain and abuse, as it pertains to the film’s plot, is a very inherently religious reference. Many religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, use doves as symbols or signs of peace and love or simply as messengers. For example, the Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark mentions that a dove came to Noah with an olive leaf in its mouth, indicating that the waters had receded. The imagery presented in this track, that of a crying dove, could reference the sorrow that The Kid is experiencing while watching his family and relationship with Apollonia fall apart. Or it could be a reference to Prince, or even God’s, pain. How that ties back to the imagery of the dove from the Bible depends on the listener’s interpretation and their spiritual leanings.
The album’s next track, “I Would Die 4 U,” deserves its own blog post to discuss all of the religious references going on here. Thankfully, my podcast episode dedicated to this song touched on many of them. Check it out.
If I wanted to summarize very briefly the most important spiritual takeaways from this track, I would default to Erica Thompson’s (my co-host for the “I Would Die 4 U” podcast episode) breakdown of the verses as coming from the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“I’m not a woman, I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand” – The Father
“I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why.” – The Son
“I’m not a human, I am a dove. I’m your conscience, I am love” – The Holy Spirit
I think what “I Would Die 4 U” is trying to say in the spiritual context is that Prince has healed himself. He is regaining the joy that his spiritual discovery offered him during the album’s first two tracks and the tone of this song, very upbeat, very positive, seems to imply that the tide has finally turned again. Prince has now embraced God and ultimately his fate in the afterworld.
Then we move onto the penultimate track and the final track featured in the film, “Baby I’m a Star.” The subject of the album, be it Prince or The Kid, has come to a realization. The Kid has realized that he needs others in his life and on his side to make his dreams of stardom and success come true. Prince has concluded that choosing God and, thus, salvation is the way to eternal joy. Now it’s time to revel in that knowledge by throwing a big ole celebratory party! “Baby I’m a Star” could even be the “party before the end of the world” event that Prince has promised us since “Partyup” and “1999.”
Of course, “Baby I’m a Star” works perfectly as the film’s closing number, tying a fun, happy bow around all of the open plot points that still seem somewhat unresolved by this point in the movie. However, as a religious allegory for the party before armageddon, it has equal if somewhat darker overtones. Hey, check it all out! We’re all going to die! I don’t care what angle you’re listening to this song from; the idea of celebrating your impending death seems like a morbid choice, regardless of the afterworld promises Prince has embraced.
Eight tracks into “Purple Rain,” and we’ve been treated to a compelling story about the Prince’s discovery of the afterworld and all its glories. Upon this enlightening discovery, he’s had to deal with the ups and downs of living life in a secular society, battling relationships with a woman he wants to come with him in the afterworld, while also dealing with rejection and an array of spiritual stumbling blocks along the way. After some serious soul searching, he finally accepts his fate and embraces it wholeheartedly. So what is left for him to do? Transition to the afterworld.
That’s where the album’s final song, “Purple Rain,” takes us. It leads us into the dark and gloomy precipice of death. Except it’s not nearly as dark and grim as one might think. “Purple Rain” is often looked at as a song about apologies and regret, thanks to its parallel use as a film plot contrivance, but rarely is it looked at as a song about death. If you look closely and know how to apply some of the imagery present in the music, it’s all there.
The color purple-blue sky + red blood = purple rain (aka Armageddon). This was a direct quote by Prince, so there’s some serious weight behind this interpretation.
Rain as a metaphor for a new beginning, e.g. in the afterlife.
The act of reminiscing and wishing someone you loved would come with you if they had only chosen the right side of God. Knowing that they didn’t and that you’d never see them again is bound to elicit a sad musical moment. “Purple Rain” is another song that is so heavily weighted in imagery, symbolism, and allegory that one could also write an entire blog post about all of the various meanings for this song’s lyrics. Even the slow, extended coda has been likened to a death march or funeral procession. If you think about it, it makes complete sense. Prince’s guitar solo towards the song’s latter half, along with the sing-along chorus and call and response sections, can be interpreted as a form of rapture. As I’ve mentioned once before, track sequencing matters. The interpretation of “Purple Rain’s” lyrics for the movie makes it a perfect song to lead into the more celebratory “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” However, by taking the spiritual path in this Choose Your Own Adventure record, “Purple Rain” HAS to be the final song on the album, which it is. Unless the next song was about how amazing Heaven is, “Purple Rain” is the final chapter in the musical story of Prince’s personal growth as a man and his beliefs.