I’m a big Prince fan. Recently, someone asked what “Purple Rain” means, and I scoffed.
And then I thought to myself: I guess I don’t really know.
Now, I’ve seen the film “Purple Rain” more than plenty of times. I’ve spent hours pouring through demos, bootlegs and live recordings. I’m excited to find Prince cassettes, fan magazines and mentions in US Weekly. I have about 500 songs by him, memorized maybe a hundred and consistently listen to at least 20 per week.
But “Purple Rain?” I don’t listen to it much. I never second-guess it. It’s popular, it’s fun — untouchable. I can’t think of the last time I listened to it all the way through. I don’t need to. And the lyrics?
Well, when it comes down to it, I don’t really care. Thinking about it, I’ve come to realize that on the large part, with most pop music I listen to, lyrics are maybe the least important element to me.
Some people claim to be “all about the lyrics,” and I can’t relate. That caveat usually follows rap fans, which is understandable. But thinking about some of my favorite rap artists and albums, the lyrics are never the draw for me; it’s usually the whole production. Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb is one my favorite albums, but I probably couldn’t rap more than a stanza of it. P.M. Dawn’s The Bliss Album…?, Nas’s Illmatic and De La Soul is Dead are others I love from start to finish, but the lyrics are only a part of the package.
I’m not arguing that lyrics aren’t important. They have to be taken on their own terms. You don’t listen to pop music to hear poetry, you listen to hear pop music. But quantifying that satisfaction you get from listening to lyrics, hearing words and music and “feeling” something is a bit harder to explain.
I’ll admit to having those embarrassing moments of communion when a singer seems to be writing out your fantastic teenage romantic angst just for you. A song comes along, some words come out and it feels like somebody’s playing some cruel or wonderful joke on your heart.
Over the last year, I’ve become a huge disco fan. Disco’s not exactly a genre built on lyrics, but lyrics are a huge part of what makes so many classic disco songs work. For the genre’s early days as the music of an oppressed black, Hispanic and gay youth, it was all about escape. Lyrics in disco tunes can range from a single word to anthemic, wailing declarations of independence, romantic visions of paradise and an aching, endless nostalgia for pleasure in the midst of incredible pain.
They’re another instrument, and often, the most important one of all. In Donald Byrd’s “Love Has Come Around” (one of my favorites), Byrd repeats the title phrase so many times and reverbed so coldly, you’d think he’s never been in love before. But on top of icy, massive piano and handclaps that sound like doors being slammed, those words get my blood, feet and heart pumping.
But maybe that’s me investing things into the music that aren’t really there. And why should that be a problem?
If we measure pop music’s success on its ability to attract and compel a wide array of people with some simple melodies, rhythms and words, then lyrics should invite interpretations rather than shun them. When people pour over Beatles lyrics, with an ah-but-what-do-they-mean complex, then they’d probably end up pretty bored. Drugs. Money. Sex. Nothing.
Whether it’s Leonard Cohen or Ke$ha, pop lyrics are more (and less) than words. They can play a role, tell a story or just rock the fuck out. In metaphor and obscenity, I can find it all if I want to; no matter how poetic or contrived. Lyrics can be as “important” as I want them to be, but I don’t need nice n’ dry, satisfying conclusions telling me how to think about a song.
I have at least four separate, logical explanations for what “Purple Rain” “means.” But in the end, I don’t feel the need to waste my time with them. I knew what it was all about the first time I heard it. I felt it. How could the words mean anything else?