Wednesday, June 25th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain. In honor of this, Deadshirt presents an entire week of art and essays that explore and celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Dig, if you will.
Three tracks into Purple Rain, The Purple One, as an accidental byproduct of crafting one of the most passionate ballads of all time, draws the basic blueprint for shattering the firmament of the “The Friend Zone” concept, somewhat dandily providing some unsolicited advice hidden between the lines of the song.
Let me (man)splain.
The loose narrative to be found in the lyrics of “The Beautiful Ones” is simple enough. Prince Likes Girl. Girl Likes Prince. Girl Likes Other Guy Who Is Not Prince, Too? Qué??? In this scenario, Prince isn’t quite the unconsummated platonic sidekick the song’s unrequited paramour would require to balance the improper “Friend Zone” equation, but the implication of his position, the low desperation of his stance, is rather hard to deny.
What sets The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince apart from the questionably hatted denizens of MRA forums who mythologize “The Friend Zone” is a clever little thing called “courage.”
Sonically, “The Beautiful Ones” paints a lush, cinematic portrait of a man conflicted. The foreboding burble of the song’s opening synth dirge lurches, temporarily replicating the butterfly tummy nausea of Making A Stand. How doomed and full of regret these Beautiful Ones must be? Then, a shining beacon pierces through the storm clouds, the triumphant, reassuring epiphany of those fluorescent piano twinkles. He speaks.
You see, above all else “The Beautiful Ones” is an impassioned plea for clarity. Yes, it is also sexy and dulcet and hot and soaring, but at its core, it is one individual respectfully and charmingly asking for an answer to a pretty straightforward question:
Do you want him? Or do you want me? Cause I want YOU!
Because if one thing is for certain, He Knows What He Wants. Taken at face value, there’s something disgusting and shameful about this assertion, the nagging feeling that it’s Prince’s will here that is being put first. It’s the next chapter in that couplet that cinches it, though, isn’t it?
Cause if it pleases you, baby, pleases you baby…
IF IT PLEASES HER! (Or him. The gender bending undertones of Prince’s entire aesthetic make this unclear, but based off the film and this whole thesis, let’s run with “her.”) He’s on his knees, begging her to choose and emphatically presenting himself as tribute. There’s something magical and freeing in this. There’s no presumption, no falsely held belief that what he wants is all that matters. Slavish supplicants to the overreaching assumption that wanting someone is enough to warrant them wanting you back would do well to learn a thing or two from His Princeliness.
He doesn’t ball up his emotions and feelings like rumpled taffeta tucked into the sleeve of a leather jacket. He lets it all hang out. He puts the fucking title on the line, makes his intentions clear and COME WHAT THE FUCK MAY at least he tried. What makes Prince so powerful in this moment isn’t whether or not the mysterious she (or Appolonia, or The Little Red-Headed Girl) chooses him. It’s that he tries.
I’d like to make it clear that I am not wholesale advocating dramatic and exuberant displays of potentially unwanted affection in the direction of the not-quite-betrothed. Just because you like someone doesn’t mean you have a right to burden them with your feelings. I’m just saying if the choice is between telling someone how you feel or stewing in the dark to your own devices and letting cannibalistic, dark forces rule the very halls of your heart, you could do worse than follow in Prince’s footsteps.
There’s a forcefulness in the timber of his demands, but the intonation is far from authoritarian. He tempers the fire in his belly with the soft, sly coo of a confident, giving companion.
If we got married, would that be cool?
I mean, Prince was Cooler Than Being Cool long before Andre 3000 starting calling himself Ice Cold, but it’s more than cocksure posturing at play here. Being a rock star makes it a little easier to settle on Center Stage Romantic Détente as a means of conflict resolution, but it’s the sounds behind the words, the harmonious momentum of his own emotional inertia, that pushes “The Beautiful Ones” hard into the paint, transcending its very “Yes, No, Maybe?” love letter leanings into cosmically grand balladry. One can feel the crimson shackles of Doubt, Confusion and Self Degradation wither to the consistency of wet rope as the soaring guitar riffs set them ablaze, and Prince bursts into the night sky as a being of blinding light, exploding into a *prince symbol*-shaped constellation of pure love.
While “The Beautiful Ones” is titled like an ode to objects of affection who shatter us with their gaze, it’s less about them and more about how they make us feel.
The Beautiful Ones always smash the picture. Always, every time.
In one interpretation, the “picture” in question is the image we develop in our minds when we’re first attracted to someone. With a look or a nod, that person destroys our imaginations with the harsh reminder of reality. Here, however, Prince is presenting a sullen, tragic observation about this person. The burden they have to bare simply for attracting attention. The heartfelt lilt in the track that accompanies this supposition presents a somber B-Plot to mirror its prime arc, that of a cursed beauty predetermined to bull through someone’s psychological china shop merely by existing. “The Beautiful Ones” operates dually and sympathetically from two completely different perspectives, while never sounding disjointed or contradictory.
Ultimately, “escaping The Friend Zone” isn’t about getting someone to fuck you or even choose you over another suitor. It’s about escaping the toxic, preconceived notion of self you carry around like a cursed dreamcatcher. It’s not about loving someone else and getting to love you in return. It’s about loving yourself enough to be honest with yourself and those around you.
It’s also a little bit about wearing ridiculously tight pants and contorting the frequency of your startlingly malleable voice to simultaneously reach entities of multiple planes of reality.
What Would Prince Do, indeed?
Read more from our week-long celebration of Prince’s Purple Rain!