The most significant scene in “Purple Rain” — the 1984 blockbuster that introduced Prince to the entirety of America — comes deep in the action when the young maestro finally strolls onstage to unleash the film’s transcendent title track.
As the camera pans across the crowd, we see Jheri-curled funk dudes, Aqua Net glam girls, mulleted wastoids, preps and punks. And that’s exactly who Prince wanted to see when he looked out into this vicious world: a radical congregation of disparate individuals being different, being together, being free.
Whether we’ve gotten any closer to that purple paradise over the past three decades is up for debate, but here’s what isn’t: Modernity has produced no greater pop star than Prince.
The unexpected news of his death on Thursday at age 57 certainly felt cruel to anyone who has ever believed in music as a force of enlightenment. This man was a superhero who summoned humanity onto a new dance floor with an effortlessly utopian swirl of funk, soul and rock-and-roll. He was a visionary songwriter, a top-shelf guitarist, a master-architect of rhythm, a breath-stealing vocalist and an unparalleled tornado of a live performer. Since his auspicious debut in 1978, he projected a mysterious, enduring invincibility. And now he’s gone. The shock is enough to make your brain go blank.
Early on, he told us who he was through his music, and who he wasn’t through his lyrics. On 1981’s “Controversy,” he asked, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” On 1984’s “I Would Die 4 U,” he sang back, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.” He was issuing bold challenges to how our society thought about racial and sexual identity, and he made it feel absolutely ecstatic.
It took unmatched skill, and across his career, Prince’s virtuosity felt like an expression of commitment to his idealism. His musical generosity is the thing that pulled everyone into the same room, and once we were all inside, he kept giving. You can feel this most easily during the outro of “Purple Rain,” perhaps Prince’s best-known song. That guitar solo. That singalong. The music wants to last forever, but it knows it can’t.
Prince was playing it just 10 months ago at one of the most thrilling concerts I’d seen in my life — a relatively intimate gig at Washington’s Warner Theatre that found the 57-year-old peacocking around the stage, leaping off amps like a man half his age. This wasn’t aging-rock-star behavior. It wasn’t mortal behavior.
Halfway through that gig, Prince spoke about how pleased he was to have performed a hush-hush concert at the White House the previous evening. This made me smile. Back in 2011, I had a seven-second opportunity to speak with Michelle Obama, and I used my time to ask if she had considered inviting Prince to sing at the White House. Before I could even spit out the question, the first lady said, “Ooh, I love Prince!”
So it’s easy to imagine that camera from “Purple Rain” on an uninterrupted pan across the great dance floor of time — past the Minneapolis party people of 1984, past the countless musical minds that Prince has blown since, past you, past me, past the leaders of the free world, past everybody, all together.
That’s how Prince wanted us to be. That’s how we are today. That’s how we should try harder to be tomorrow.