Pop icon Prince had many hits during his career, but Purple Rain is one of his most iconic. It was composed for the soundtrack of the 1984 movie of the same name, a musical film intended to let the singer combine his acting and musical talents. Like all great art, the meaning of the song changed over time; though the musician ascribed his own meaning to the track, it has gone through many interpretations.
So, What Does The Song Mean?
The track’s deep and abiding lyrics are built on a deceptive simplicity. As the singer himself told it, the overarching theme of the song is being with your beloved at the end of the world, holding on to faith or God through the “purple rain.”
The first part of the track—and many of the following verses—seems to start as an apology to an ex-lover. But things get a little more complicated as the chorus drops.
The song is a depiction of Armageddon or the end of the world. But fascinatingly, it isn’t meant to inspire fear or depression in listeners. In a fascinating twist, the track depicts a feeling of joy and fearlessness during this hypothetical apocalypse because you are facing it with the one that you love.
The purple rain signifies blood in the sky—the red blood and blue sky coming together into purple. Few images so shocking and awe-inspiring have been so powerfully conveyed in such simple lyrics. Perhaps the most notable and potent lyric is, “I only wanted to see you, Laughing in the purple rain” just before the chorus.
The Symbolism of Purple
Though Prince used purple as a literal description of blood and sky, the color also has a deeper meaning. It is a significant spiritual color in many religions.
In Judaism, for example, the color signifies finding redemption through God. In Christianity, it is a liturgical color associated with Advent and Lent, which are seasons of penance and expectation. Buddhists see purple as a symbol of mysticism and purity, while Hindus call it the color of peace.
All of these meanings seem significant when you apply them to the description of a world-ending event. The musician continued to take up this theme of purple and the end of the world in future works. His famous album, 1999, also includes references to purple skies on Judgment Day.
These themes of love and faith seeing humanity through dark, consequential times were central to his spiritual and personal life. It is an attempt to convey an experience of the hope that keeps human beings determined—even joyful—in the face of steep adversity.
Themes of Armageddon
The idea of Armageddon was one that fascinated Prince, influencing much of his work at the end of the century. In some ways, it makes sense; the end of the 20th century, the rapid change of the world, and later, the Y2K panic, all led to a social attitude that the end was nigh.
He also had another reason to take an interest in the apocalypse: he was a Jehovah’s Witness. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe—though the singer himself never shared whether he ascribed to the belief—that a literal war will end the world but deserving people will survive and make a new life in paradise.
But the pop star had an interesting view of the end of the world, one that imbued him with hope rather than terror. His later hit, 1999, was also about the apocalypse; the song was intended to bring people together and encourage them to love one another during a hypothetical world-ending event.
Of course, Prince was not the only musician who contributed to the composition of Purple Rain. His keyboardist, Lisa Coleman, who composed the string arrangement of the track, had a slightly different idea of what the song meant.
While the singer saw purple as symbolic of an ending, Coleman had the opposite idea—that it signified renewal or rebirth. She likened the image to the lighting of the sky at dawn, symbolizing a new day about to break.
She also saw this idea of renewal as particularly significant when applied to Prince’s own life and career. While he had always worked as a solo composer, this was his first collaborative effort. The keyboardist, who was only one contributor to the album, said she saw the idea of rebirth as highly applicable to the singer’s new career direction as a member of a team.
Purple Rain: The Movie
Purple Rain, the film, was released as a rock musical drama starring Prince in his acting debut. Directed by Albert Magnoli, the singer’s eventual manager, the film grossed $72 million at the box office.
The titular track is the main plot point in the film. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin and Coleman confront Prince for ignoring their songs—including Purple Rain. Melvoin argues that the singer acts paranoid and refuses to use their tracks even when he says he will.
The movie’s climax centers on his band performing in competition with their rivals, The Time. Prince takes the stage and introduces Purple Rain by Melvoin and Coleman, with his group going on to blow the roof off the place.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. In 2019, it was added to the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It has sold more than 25 million copies globally and is certified 13x platinum.
Recording the Masterpiece
Prince recorded Purple Rain on August 3 the year before its debut. He premiered it at his home base venue, the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, during a Minnesota Dance Theatre benefit concert. Melvoin also debuted live with The Revolution at just age 19.
Bobby Z., their drummer, said it was one of the best concerts the group ever performed. It was recorded live for the explicit purpose of critical review by the band members. Yet even at the first performance, it was evident that the song was something special. It has even been reported that, in the midst of the performance, Prince turned to the members of his band and said, “We’re making history here.”
The B-side single accompanying Purple Rain was a song called God, an explicitly religious track. He drew on his religious faith in contemplation of the Book of Genesis. For the pop star, the tie-in between those topics was a deeply relevant and personal one.
Between Journey and Stevie Nicks
At the conception of Purple Rain, it was reported that Prince intended it to be a country song collaboration with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. He sent her a 10-minute country instrumental, asking her to write lyrics for it. She felt it was too much for her at the time and had to decline. She later said she was glad that she was too intimidated to write the lyrics because her refusal led to the final work of art.
Eventually, Prince would ask The Revolution to try the song and discover its appeal in a new genre. Melvoin began to play guitar chords, and the band practiced for about six hours, having mostly finished the track by the end.
Prince had hardly recorded the song, however, before he reached out to Journey’s Jonathan Cain. The artist was seriously concerned that the songwriter and his band might think Purple Rain was too similar to Journey’s hit track, Faithfully. Cain told him that they didn’t think the two were very close at all, merely sharing the same chords. He loved the track and thought it would be a hit, so he encouraged Prince to perform it.
The Song’s Reception And Legacy
The central track’s power ballad not only set itself apart at the time but defined Prince as The Man In Purple. Its combination of gospel, R&B, and rock influences cemented it as one of the decade’s great musical gems. He dedicated the song to his late father, with whom he had hoped to reconcile.
It would become a track that served as a constant thread in his life and career, ultimately becoming the cornerstone of his great legacy. Not only was it his first sky-high success, but it was the last song he ever performed.
It met with immense commercial and critical success upon release. It reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, only outperformed by Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
It became a staple for his concerts and performances, and he performed it on nearly every tour. The sole exception is the few years after his infamous name change to (“Love Symbol #2) when he avoided his previous hits.
It is listed among the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. He played it with Beyoncé in 2004 for that year’s Grammy Awards, along with a number of his other hits.
The Super Bowl Halftime Show
In 2007, Prince famously performed the song at the Super Bowl XCI halftime show. The performance has earned a reputation as one of the best shows of all time. It was the final track of the show set.
In a coincidence that seemed almost magical, actual rain began to fall as the band played, lit by the purple lights filling the stadium. It was undoubtedly one of his most dynamic performances of the song and has gone down in history—if for nothing else, then for its sheer hypnotism.
The End of Purple Rain
As one of his concert staples, it was the last song Prince performed. He played it live at his final concert on April 14, 2016, in Atlanta. Just a week later, he died at 57 years old. His catalog, including this track, was immediately resurgent in the charts. To this day, many critics and fans argue that it is his greatest song.
Though the track has gone through many other interpretations, one thing can’t be denied: it has a mesmerizing quality, only amplified by the late singer’s amazing talent. It is almost impossible not to hang on to the words and wonder what they are all about.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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