I’m sure those enterprising Germans or Finns have a word for this in their languages, but I can’t find one in ours that encapsulates that nascent feeling that this song is going to be your favourite or change your life. For me, it’s almost like lucid dreaming and often quite quick: I could be occupied with anything else but it’s almost always hearing the first few bars that lures my unconscious in and like a military order, all parts of my body are at attention. My ears perk up, and before the age of Shazam, would have the dual duty to follow the melody to later feel it out on my piano or sing to someone in hopes of deciphering a purely instrumental song, or if the song has words, no matter how muffled, the lyrics to later Google. Though what a knack I have for mishearing lyrics! During this age of Shazam, my fingers would rummage through my bag, open my phone – please, please, please just sing the chorus again – and clandestinely guide the Shazam app to the loudest speaker. Like some dreams, some music slip through my fingers, the frustration of knowing it was vivid, but its ethereal compactness evades my iTunes library. For the ones I do acquire, they are usually indivisible from the place or context of which I first heard or broke the repeat button listening. Walking from the Skytrain station to school, contemplating whether to skip class, Tegan and Sara’s “My Number”, “Downtown”, and “You Wouldn’t Like Me” got me through high school. “Tiny Dancer” as I myself came of age in Toronto, alone, crying to Almost Famous. “Little Wing”, Jeff Beck’s cover, has imprinted the dark streets of Buenos Aires in me. Norah Jones, Matchbox 20, Dido, Train, Faith Hill, really, anyone regularly playing on 98.5 KFOX or 98.1 The Breeze, comprised the soundtrack of my childhood in the Bay Area.
I don’t know where “Purple Rain” came from. I think a similar thing can be said for Prince: when our race has vanished and extraterrestrials, completing archaeological digs and their version of academic study of who we were, would equally be perplexed by the absolute singularity that is Prince. I think it may have been my last years of high school or first year of university when “Purple Rain” entered my playlist, but I don’t remember a definitive moment where I heard this for the first time. It’s also hard to pinpoint when I first got to know Prince, which I feel is understandable when you factor in how much Prince has written for and inspired others within and outside of the music industry (not to mention his own covers that reinterpret and transcend the originals, “A Case of You”, “Crimson and Clover”). Was it the cyclical run of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in the late 1990s radio stations? My family, not yet accustomed to English lyrics to popular music at the time, asked me if the she was constipated. Was it that fashion magazine spread I tore and taped to my bedroom with vigour, whose caption “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size” I mistook for the genius of a copywriter? I’m an unworthy fan. I mean who else could write such bangers:
“He told me several times that he didn’t like my kind,
‘Cause I was a bit too leisurely”
“You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride
Well, maybe not the ride”
I do know that “Purple Rain” is a revelation and one of the few instances I was acquainted with the sublime. I do know that Prince was our only realization of a true Platonic form. I do know that Mozart was the Prince of his generation.
Let’s name the merits of “Purple Rain”. The best guitar solo I have ever heard. An undisputable Oscar for Best Original Song Score at the 57th Academy Awards. I had never wanted to be kicked so bad until I saw Prince kick the mic stand during the climax of performing at the American Music Awards in 1985. Those opening chords reflect what bandmate Lisa Coleman told Spin Magazine: “You know how [Prince] is. It wasn’t about coming out with the next record. The next record had to be a whole environment.” Let’s be honest, this record didn’t just create an environment, Prince probably caused the Big Bang leading to our creation. Look how beautifully the universe cooperated during the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, when Mother Nature wept as Prince’s guitar wailed.
The wonderful thing about “Purple Rain” is that for so many years I had no idea what it meant or referred to. I like that about songs, poetic, yet specific enough that every line bleeds into my own life and experience. Last week, VIFF screened Purple Rain, and just what is it about films you know you would love before even watching and it instills a devastating ache in you nonetheless? As I read the lyrics, I understand now. Each verse, a relationship for Prince as The Kid, summarized so tenderly: a son and a father, two lovers, and musicians. And these lyrics reflect as much of me as they do of Prince. I may still not truly know what that holy water is – Lake Minnetonka? the downpours in Vancouver? these tears I shed for such unbearable beauty, this indescribable ecstasy? – and that is okay.
Besides the piano and guitar chords teasing the pièce de resistance that is “Purple Rain” in the film, there was another song where I felt that wordless feeling again. I was tethered to the screen, as if some kind of mystical umbilical cord directly connected me to Prince, as my neurons fired, fiercely, in my body. What is this song? That scene which cuts to Apollonia staring back at The Kid, every fibre of his being ripping apart, that slow zoom held my own body together. I wanted to savour that moment. Another song, another beginning, before my full-throttled obsession. I haven’t been able to stop listening to The Beautiful Ones since.
Is it enough to have been alive at the same time as Prince? I set the bar low because I have nothing myself to offer. I truly believe that Prince, while having physically graced the same Earth as me, has operated on a plane that we cannot experience but can recognize. May that be enough for us.
— Sarah Wang, Programming Coordinator