Track of the Day: 'Purple Rain'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

1984. Syracuse, New York. The Carrier Dome.

Tens of thousands of people are holding up lighters—frighteningly close to enough hairspray and oil-based makeup to level the whole city. The lights have dropped and in the edgy, anticipatory concert buzz, there is an occasional cheer or whistle. Glittering purple light and smoke slowly fill the stadium. The crowd is going bananas. A guitar chord is struck and the screams become even more urgent. It seems like it lasts minutes—glittering purple, the smell of dry ice, a chord, screams. Over and over. But then:

“I never meant to cause you any sorrow…”

At last. It is magical. That little Minnesotan maharajah holds everyone captive to his truth: The color of the rain is purple, people.

And we are better for it.

I was 11, and Prince was my first concert. (My friend’s much-older sister took us with her. It was a real Cinderella-at-the-ball moment for me—if shoulder pads were ball gowns and the prince were Prince, and more of an androgynous oversexed nymph with eyeliner.) I had internalized the album, of course—the straightforward insanity of “Let’s Go Crazy,” the quixotic “When Doves Cry,” the dry-humping cri de coeur of “Darling Nikki”—I knew them all.

Confusing my Prince enthusiasm for an adorable obsession most girls my age might have (like for Menudo), my father rented the movie Purple Rain. Needless to say, Purple Rain, featuring Apollonia and the truly fantastic Morris Day and the Time, was not a cute boy-band musical. My dad fast-forwarded through the sex scenes only to land on a drug scene. He was horrified. I felt worldly.

I tried to keep up with Prince. I bought Around the World in a Day and, later, even Diamonds and Pearls. But nothing will ever be as magical as the Purple Rain album, the Purple Rain concert, or the “Purple Rain” song.

Prince was unique. He challenged expectations about rock music, about gender, about race, about sex, about fashion, about art. His challenge to labels brought the world “the artist formerly known as”—and embedded a meme into the culture without even using the Internet. He was nothing if not aggressive about transcending category. He played the Superbowl. He won an Oscar. He bitch-slapped the music industry. He inspired Dave Chappelle. He rocked a goddamn look.

Tonight, I’m going to play that one-of-a-kind album and imagine Prince—laughing in the purple rain.

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