Tag Archives: Prince

Dispatches from the Frozen Land: Prince and Making a Cultural Crossroads


One could make an argument that three of the top ten albums of the 1980’s are Prince records (1999, The Purple Rain Soundtrack, Sign o’ the Times).  No small feat.  Today, on the first anniversary of his death, much ink will be spilled (or pixels generated) on the impact of his life and music.  Interestingly enough, my thoughts today turn not to this legend of popular art, but to the city and state that he loved.

Minneapolis, and to a lesser extent the state of Minnesota as a whole, exists at a cultural crossroads.  For someone who’s understanding of this part of the country comes mostly from watching Fargo (1996), that might seem like an odd statement.  After all, we typically equate terms like “cultural crossroads” to more diverse, global cities like New York and London.  

Sure, the state of Minnesota is at once western, midwestern, and northern. That would be something, except the “we’re in three regions” argument falls flat when you consider that the same thing can be said of Texas and California.  The cultural cache of those states needs no long explanation: its engrained in the American psyche. 

So what am I talking about and what does this have to do with Prince? After all, can one artist make such an impact that we can change the entire categorization of a city or state in the cultural mindset of America? Why not?

The Coen Brothers once lovingly described The Twin Cities as “Siberia with family restaurants.” Due respect to Joel and Ethan, groundbreaking artists in their own right, maybe that describes the St. Louis Park of their childhood, but it doesn’t describe where I’ve lived for two years.  Here there are thriving theater, music, art, and brewery scenes, not just quirky folks with flappy hats.

I’ll admit, there is a tension here that shouldn’t be ignored. The old Minnesota is still with us, and sometimes it doesn’t really get along with the new Minnesota, Prince’s Minnesota. That’s a shame, since he was a figure that could unite the old and the new and bring out the best in both. 

The question remains, do we build on that legacy, or do we retreat into comfortable nostalgia? That’s up to us. But for today, let’s just listen to the music and see where it takes us.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe 

Author’s note: I’ve been toying with the idea of this column for a long time, but I don’t want to jinx it with my “first in a series” kiss of death. Still, I like the idea and will return to it from time to time.

Purple Rain (Classic Film)

Directed by Albert Magnoli, US, 1984

Yesterday, I attended an outdoor showing of Purple Rain (1984)  in downtown Minneapolis with about ten thousand other people.  Towards of end of the title track, during one of Prince’s guitar solos, I heard the familiar “woah-oh-oh-oh” refrain, but it was out of sync with the movie.  I quickly realized that it was coming from the crowd, which made it all the more powerful when the refrain from the soundtrack joined in.

In his introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), the great Dziga Vertov asks us to imagine film as an art-form with a language entirely separate from the languages of theater and literature.  This is a critical concept to understanding why Purple Rain is so popular.  When judged against the standards set forth in theatrical or literary criticism – yikes.  However, when the conventions of page and stage are disregarded, what remains is a masterpiece of post-modern art.

The rather thin, melodramatic plot only exists to call the audience’s attention to concepts that are embodied within Prince’s music.  When he wrote the songs on the classic album that shares the movie’s title, he was certainly thinking about domestic violence, sexism, and despair.  But he was also thinking about the feeling of the wind flowing through your hair during a motorcycle ride and the pure catharsis of hearing a great musical performance.  Purple Rain shows us these ideas through images, but the images exist only to emphasize how the ideas are embodied in the music.

Film is a story told through images and, with due respect to Vertov, usually contains many of the same elements that exist in theatrical and literary storytelling.  Even the very best movie music tends to play a secondary, supporting role in that, storytelling.  Purple Rain flips that paradigm – the music is central and everything else exists to support the music.  The result is a powerful work of art, which, last night, moved a grieving crowd to joy and tears and back again.

You might like Purple Rain if: You love music, and would like to see a film where music is the primary narrative force rather than playing the usual supporting role.

You might not like Purple Rain if: You view it through the lens of a traditional understanding of what makes a good narrative film.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Reflections on a Thursday in Minneapolis When Prince Left the Stage for the Last Time

Earlier today I was running behind schedule.  I had to visit three different parking garages to find a place to beach my car, navigate the Minneapolis skyway in order to avoid the rain falling outside, and find the location of my meeting in a non-descript office building.  So when I heard that Prince Rogers Nelson had passed away suddenly in his studio at the age of 57, I had just finished cursing the city that he loved so well.

It would be disingenuous to say that I’m a fan of Prince’s music.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly appreciate his personality, style, artistry, and influence, and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t.  I was busy with such mundane tasks as learning how to walk, feed, and dress myself during the peak of his popularity in the 80’s, and I didn’t grow up in Minnesota.  In fact, I have trouble recalling any of his songs from memory save the chorus from “1999.”

There are two ways to appreciate creativity.  The first is to appreciate the art itself.  It pains me to admit that really appreciating Prince’s music remains on my to-do list.  Fortunately, there is a second way to appreciate art, and that’s by appreciating the footprint of the art – the impact that the art and the artist’s very existence make upon their peers, their community, and their chosen craft.

“They” might tell you a couple of things.  The Twin Cities are a boring Midwestern way-station.  The genres of American popular music can’t be fused together without sounding incoherent.  You can’t fight city hall.  You can’t transcend traditional definitions of masculine style without making people uncomfortable.

“They” are wrong.  The Twin Cities are a vibrant and exciting community, home to the “Minneapolis Sound” and the most theaters per capita outside of New York City.  The genres of American popular music can be deconstructed and reconstructed at will.  One artist can stand up to the stuffed suits of his industry and win.  Traditional gender roles are false barriers.  Do you know why I know this?  Because I lived in a time when a man in purple made us see this for the truth that it is.

It’s been raining all day, but the sun is starting to break through the clouds.  And so, too soon, ends a story that parents should teach their children.  That one man can make a difference.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe