Personal Essays

Credit: Thierry Ehrmann

I Would Die 4 U

Hazing makes for hot courtship, and how better to love your woman than by hitting her in the face? Lessons learned from rewatching Purple Rain.

When I was little, a short man humping the ground in frilly shirts and tight, high-waisted pants bejeweled with metal studs was apparently too much for me. Prince made me feel dirty. So when Purple Rain hit in 1984, I didn’t ask my parents to take me to the theater. I was six at the time, perhaps too young, yet the movie soon shot to number one at the box office, eventually grossing $68,392,977 during its U.S. theatrical release, and despite the R rating, many of the people in the seats were kids my age. Of everyone I know in my generation, I’m one of the few who didn’t see Purple Rain during our formative years.

I’ve now lived in New York City for nearly a decade. Blatant and angry displays of sexuality are part of my morning commute. On a whim, I recently Netflixed Purple Rain, and man, what a shame I didn’t see it as a kid. In just under two hours, it taught me three very important life lessons:

  1. Shaming and hazing is hot courtship.
  2. For a man to succeed, his woman must not. She really just wants a boyfriend and isn’t that talented anyway, so it’s cool.
  3. It’s OK to abuse a woman if you write redemptive music afterwards.

Before I elaborate, let me give you a basic plot rundown in case it’s been a while since you experienced the Hollywood debut of the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

TAFKATAFKAP plays “the Kid,” a Minneapolis-based musician who performs nightly with his band, the Revolution, at a local club before going home to defend his mother against his father’s 100-mph fists. Things get worse for the Kid when Morris, a member of competing band, the Time, plots to develop a girl group that will take over the Kid’s slot at the club. Enter Apollonia (IMDB her for images of an astonishing post-Purple Rain boob job), an aspiring singer/dancer. She and the Kid start doing the horizontal hokey-pokey after he promises to help her, provided she literally jumps in a lake, which she does sans clothes. Their relationship gets hotter despite the Kid’s basement bedroom full of masks and porcelain clown dolls.

Morris conscripts Apollonia for his girl group, and when she tells the Kid about this recent success, he hits her, then remorsefully explains he doesn’t want her in his life “this way.” I don’t know what that means. Apollonia storms out. Things suck for the Kid as his music suffers and his father becomes increasingly abusive. After watching the debut of Morris’s girl group (whose members perform in nothing but lingerie), the Kid knocks Morris, who is on the brink of scoring with a drunk Apollonia, into a pile of garbage and orders Apollonia onto his purple motorcycle. He takes her to the railroad tracks, kisses her, then palms her face and pushes her down.

(Just like Cary Grant palmed and shoved Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story—how romantic, how cute!)

The Kid gets home just in time for his father to shoot himself. After his dad is raced to the hospital, the Kid struggles with suicidal ideation and apoplexy. He destroys the basement and in the process discovers the sheet music to all of his dad’s compositions. The Kid weeps, and becomes visibly driven to kick so much ass at the club that no one will ever, ever, ever be able to take his slot away from him. He turns to a song written by his band members, Lisa and Wendy—the Kid had resisted using the song because he’s control-obsessed and wouldn’t let the girls get in on the writing action—but the next night he even gives Lisa and Wendy credit before performing a cathartic rendition of the song: “Purple Rain.” The audience goes crazy (pun intended), Apollonia weeps and forgives him, the owner of the club is clearly moved, and the Kid performs an encore of “I Would Die 4 U” to a montage of his father’s recovery with Mom at his side and future happy days with Apollonia.

Now, is your memory refreshed? Are you of my generation, feeling your psychological roots dug out and laid bare? Hold on, we haven’t even gotten to the wisdom part:

1. Shaming and hazing is hot courtship.

Traditional courtship is rote. Now it’s all flowers and a dinner out, maybe a movie, and with women frequently paying for their portion, men have little opportunity to claim all the power in any burgeoning relationship. Deep down, a woman wants to know that her man is powerful, that he can protect her, and the best way for a man to prove this is to show his woman that he can stand up—even to her. So if she submits to him, she’s actually signing up for his protection. That way she can let loose in the bedroom. This is a win-win, as they say.

In Purple Rain, the Kid receives his first kiss from Apollonia immediately after leaving her naked, wet, and alone in the woods. Nicely done, Kid. Here’s how it happens: He agrees to help her with her career if she’ll “purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.” She puts up weak resistance, and then removes all her clothes (except for black undies) in a faux innocent strip tease. After she dives in, the Kid tells her the lake she jumped into isn’t Lake Minnetonka. That’s when he rides off, leaving her there, alone and naked. She runs flailingly after him while making helpless animal noises and yanking on her leather clothes, which you may know don’t slide on very well if you’re wet. The Kid rides back to meet her, smirks, then fakes her out twice as she tries to climb on the back of his bike. For all this, he gets not a kidney punch but a suggestive kiss on the cheek. She’s visibly turned on. The Kid’s domination has proven to Apollonia—and rightfully so—that he deserves her.

2. For a man to succeed, his woman must not. She really just wants a boyfriend and isn’t that talented anyway, so it’s cool.

Purple Rain sets up the Kid and Apollonia as classic lovers as well as rivals—the original Petruchio and Kate, or perhaps an early Marc Anthony and J-Lo. But rather than having them both succeed and still stay together, the Kid shines and Apollonia is left without a career but nonetheless elated because she kept her man. This ending is all the more fitting since Apollonia’s performance of the girl group’s song, “Sex Shooter,” reveals a lack of talent that not even lingerie costumes can conceal. In fact, in real life “Sex Shooter” won a Razzie award for Worst Original Song. The contrast between Apollonia’s abilities and Prince’s would make doves cry. So really, she should be glad she still has the Kid in the end—even if he hits her.

3. It’s OK to abuse a woman if you write redemptive music afterwards.

Violence expert Gavin de Becker writes in The Gift of Fear, “The first time a woman is hit, she is a victim, and the second time she is a volunteer.” It’s a tough statement, and one that drives home the fact that abuse escalates. But—according to Purple Rain—not if you’re a musician who brings catharsis to the masses. In the movie, the cause of the Kid’s violence is the same as that of his father’s: artistic frustration. It doesn’t require intense therapy to fix. In fact, the abused woman doesn’t even need to leave. She just needs to stay out of the way of her abuser’s career and support his music. As the Kid’s dad says to his wife after battering her, “If you just believed in me.” In 2001, more than half a million American women were victims of nonfatal violence at the hands of their lovers. In 2005, 31 percent of all female homicides were committed by an intimate partner; apparently these women didn’t take their Purple Rain lessons to heart. That is, they didn’t help their men succeed: The Kid’s artistic fulfillment obliterates his need to hit Apollonia and so all is well. That’s why the encore after his masterful performance of the song “Purple Rain” includes the line, “I’ll never beat u.”

After this careful consideration, I’ve finally come around to cursing my parents for not forcing me to see Purple Rain. Couldn’t they see no six-year-old should be in charge of her own moral training? Pursuing a career as though I compete on equal footing with men (even without wearing lingerie), leaving a relationship that showed promise of escalating toward abuse (even though the guy was gifted and successful), and counting my artistic abilities as valid on their own terms—dumb, dumb, dumb. But after watching Purple Rain, that’s thankfully all in the past. The only question that dogs me now is: Where, oh, where will I find my Prince?