One night at the Hot Broth Comedy Open Mic in Arlington Virginia (probably 2010; let’s go with that), Ahmed Vallejos asked me and Valerie Paschall what we thought the greatest ‘mainstream’ album of all time was. Val and I both had our opinions about what constituted the legitimate greatest albums of all time, but Ahmed challenged us both to come up with the categorically best album that music nerds like us had an excuse to get mad at people for not knowing. As in, a record that, if you grew up within the purview of Western popular culture, you would know. We struggled for a bit, combing through the catalog of hit records that baby boomers had shoved down everyone’s throats since founding Rolling Stone (for that exact purpose) and settled on Pet Sounds. We went back in and probably bombed in front of the 7 people there (I don’t remember anything else from that night).
I do believe that Pet Sounds is in the conversation about great records that nobody (at least in Generation Y and backward) has any excuse to not know, but it wasn’t until late that night when I was getting into bed that it struck me: the greatest mainstream, pop success album ever made wasn’t made in the 1960’s or even the 1970’s*; it was Purple Rain. I saw Ahmed later that week and rather than saying “hi” like a normal person, I said “Purple Rain.”
In 1984, Prince made something as artistically challenging and brilliant as it was universal. Almost every one of those 9 songs made its way into the popular vernacular over the course of the following years and decades. You can put almost any song on Purple Rain on in a bar or club and the place lights up. Even the shittiest of snarky critics (since the internet made that into the baseline in the 00’s) continue to give that record its due to this day.
While I will continue to defer to Xers for their experiences with Prince (whose music legitimately shaped their generation), Purple Rain have brought generations, races, and other worlds together. One of my brightest DC memories was singing along to “I Would Die 4 U” backstage at Hexagon rehearsals with my friend Joel and whoever else was on board.
The best part about Prince was that he didn’t rest on his laurels (at least not metaphorically; I imagine Prince slept on a literal levitating bed made of laurels). He kept on recording prolifically and challenging himself and his listeners. The results weren’t always amazing, but he was one of the few artists alive who could have gotten away with putting out a slew of garbage (which he didn’t do; but he could have and we’d still carry this monument into the clouds with him).
On track 7 of Purple Rain, Prince sang “I would die for you,” and 22 years later, he followed through on that promise. He let the music speak for him, he managed to fight back against the internet’s trivialization of music (despite being an early adopter of the internet-as-conduit), and he went out at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in the world.