Purple Rain and the Pop Erotic
Is the water warm enough?
Shall we begin?
When I was 11 years old, at a time when my musical sensibility had been most influenced by Michael Jackson's Thriller and Toto's "Africa", I had one last relationship with a true record album before I entered the age of compact discs and before the reign of gatefold cover art came to an end. For Christmas in 1984, my Grandma (of all people) gave me a final and most lasting artifact of the pre-mixtape era, whose all-encompassing visceral experience changed my life in more ways than I can possibly count, even now.
It had heft, and it took up space. It was shiny and wrapped in plastic. At one corner, the plastic, whether by design or as a result of having been stretched over so much surface area, had a small and perfectly round opening. This was the way in to the album: one only had to hook a finger under the plastic and pull. I pressed my fingertip against the smooth, exposed paperboard and rubbed it in small, gentle circles. For some reason I wanted to prolong this unwrapping, this undressing, for as long as possible. I was barely a pre-teen, and I was having my first truly erotic experience. And it was ineluctably intertwined with the aesthetic.
The album was Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution. U know the 1.
It's a city street at night. Prince straddles his bulging purple chopper. His gaze is direct, intense. Steam spills over and around him. Behind him, half in, half out of a warmly lit and vaguely yonic doorway, Apollonia awaits, poised, breathless, caped, and cleavaged.
I don't remember if I asked for it or if my grandmother had just stuck a divining rod into the zeitgeist. I knew about it, of course, but only because it was popular and because there was a movie. Ah, the movie. I was far too young to watch Purple Rain, and I knew exactly why. My sixth-grade playground companions, some of whom claimed to have somehow seen it, had told me about it in great sixth-grade detail.
There's Wendy and Lisa, and they LOVE each other.
Yeah, they rub up against each other and everything.
This from the same kid who wore, in open and gleeful transgression of an unspoken and self-policed dress code, a shirt that said the following:
Which was technically not obscene, like when a kid would point at a female dog and say, "Look at that bitch!" The direct object 'you' had to complete the puzzle, which meant that the shirt implicated "y-o-U" only if you got it: a double whammie. So yeah, this kid had all the ins.
Prince does it with Apollonia. But not like in a normal way. He puts his...finger...up in there.
Yeah dude. He's SICK.
I wasn't allowed to see the movie. But I was smack in the middle of the album's demographic. There were no warnings, no safety measures. This was long before Tipper Gore's "Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" sticker. The pop world was wide open to me, and I had the allowance to prove it. But the album was linked with an R-rated movie, and it was R-rated not for violence—which mostly every kid everywhere was allowed to gorge on back then—but for sex. Nudity, sex, and, most importantly, sexuality.
I had seen blips and bloops of bare breasts here and there by then. Finger-fucking, on the other hand, was on the level of mythology. It was as resonant and unattainable as super powers or an extraterrestrial. But sexuality was much sneakier. Slippery, silent, and all-pervasive, it flowed from the R-rated film into the G-rated (in terms of accessibility) album the way nudity and sex couldn't.
When I held Grandma's Christmas gift in my hands and gazed upon it, I felt as if I'd just gotten away with something. As if I'd found the gateway in the back of the wardrobe, and it led, not to some chaste Narnia, but to a darker, stickier, naughtier realm. To Paisley Park, as it turned out. I unpeeled the record and tilted the sleeve carefully, to receive the vinyl as it slid from its casing. It settled into my waiting hand, all aching, black solidity and the vibration of promise still hidden inside a paper envelope, crisp and demure like cotton panties. The gatefold sleeve fell open to further provocations. On one panel were a woman's burning eyes, heavily outlined and exotic-looking, capturing some otherness much different from the comparatively harmless zombies of "Thriller". On another panel was a scattering of flowers, like a garden's ejaculation.
And the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics, popping with code and innuendo, with each song printed in a different twisting font. Each title was the key to a new sexual vocabulary of inexperience. In transcribing the words to "Let's Go Crazy", Prince represents coital gasping in text:
She picked up the phone
Dropped it on the floor
(Sex, sex) is all I heard
Long before I first read Barthes on the "Pleasures of the Text", this word and punctuation choice—parenthetical cipher, onomatopoeia in reverse, signifier becoming signified, hypertext before its time—struck a chord straight to my most breathless fantasies... What does (Sex, sex) sound like? Better yet, what does it smell like? Taste like?
There was more to get my 11-year-old mind and body all hot and bothered. What were Wendy and Lisa getting ready for?
Is the water warm enough?
A bath? An enema? A golden shower? I didn't even know what a golden shower was, but my barely pubescent brain went there for me. After all, pee and poo are material for sexual fantasy in the mind of the naïve and inexperienced.
And then there was Nikki. "Darling Nikki".
I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
Who was masturbating? Prince, an anonymous narrator, or Nikki? And how was she doing it? Was she reading the magazine with one hand while the other... Or—and this is the image I couldn't escape—did she ROLL UP THE MAGAZINE and... Up in THERE?
Thanks again, Grandma.
I don't even know how to tell you about the music. For everything Purple Rain was and wasn't, it was definitely a POP album through and through. And pop music is inseparable from the capitalist mediascape no matter the mood of consumers at the time it drops. The genius of Prince was his interdependence of sound, text, and image as a complete artwork and his ability to sell without seeming desperate or inferior. Purple Rain was made up of so many parts: record album, music videos, film, posters, t-shirts, perfumes, jewelry. And, for a time, all were part of the whole, inseparable medium known as Prince.
Today, it's called cross-promoting, and it's one of the things that is most contributing to the snuffing out of our cultural soul. But with Purple Rain, marketing the Prince franchise felt like a form of gnosis: product becomes image becomes energy becomes flesh. But back then, all I knew was that it was the most immersive artistic experience I'd had, and that while it was playing I lost all sense of time and identity and entered it completely. And I can't help but think that all Americans (and South Africans, Brazilians, Chinese, and French, as Eddie Murphy would have me believe) emerged from Purple Rain with a new sense of music, sex, image, and popular culture, too. Probably even my Grandma.
-- Robert Mead, 02/21/2007