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.
Christian rock is neutered from Lyric One. What’s rock n roll without sex and drugs? When tasked with writing a song condemning these risky behaviors, but also sounds cool, most songwriters chicken out and end up with limp devotionals to the healing power of The Lord, or how Jesus is always there for you like a dude you had a crush on in high school but never nailed so now you’re both caught in this stalemate of emotional support without penetration. If there’s one man who can put the Passion back in Christ, In Prince We Trust. It’s an avenue of critical thought that only needs to be pointed out for one to completely map, but “I Would Die 4 U” is the greatest Christian Rock song ever recorded.
G’head and look at just these brief lines.
I’ll never beat u
I’ll never lie
And if u r evil I’ll forgive u by and by
I would die 4 U
The mistake of most Christian rock is the excessive humility or bland allusions. People are always being humbled by visions of heaven or saved from their vices, or else they find a nondescript strength in some kinda extrapersonal love. Compare that absolute love and fervor versus some lines from Creed’s seminal release, “Higher”:
It helps me to appreciate
Those nights and those dreams
But, my friend, I’d sacrifice all those nights
If I could make the Earth and my dreams the same
In attempting to smooth out a message for mass consumption, Scott Stapp accidentally made Jesus oatmeal for your ears. Not only is the protagonist of the song an impotent putz who had a dream about a heaven he’s unable to grab, but the vague language about what heaven is like smells chemically calculated to appeal to Secular Sensibilities. No mention of sacrifice and forgiveness, central concepts when it comes to Jesus. As “Higher” meanders and hunger-dunger-doo voices its way through five Aerosmith-ballads-for-the-painfully-dadlike minutes, we learn that Heaven is Cool and Scott Stapp would take you there if he could but like his car is totally busted and if you had like any cash on you then he would totally get you back later.
Even comparatively edgy fare like Christian hair metal band/caution tape enthusiasts Stryper’s “To Hell With The Devil” fall flat and become curios, too obsessed with acting like they’re totally cool guys who happen to like Jesus to actually cover the important points of Christianity. Check out some Stryper:
Just a liar and a thief
The word tells us so
We like to let him know
Where he can go
Sure, that’s a little more overt than “Higher,” but reducing the tenets of Christianity to “Don’t Do Bad” is false advertising. Bringing people to your faith just for the cool hair metal fights with the devil is like going to church on Sunday just because there’s cake. These are songs that are ashamed of their subject matter and have to use schlock and shock value (“Hell in a song title? Fetch me a new monocle, I’ve cracked this one!”) in attempts to beat a scenic route around the bush. Plus sending the devil to hell is a dumb idea because that’s like sending a kid to his room and Lucifers nowadays have iPhones and TV’s in their hells anyway.
Prince takes the opposite tack, starting with obliterating humility and leaving no question as to the agenda being espoused. This is a song from the point of view of Jesus that does not even pretend otherwise- “I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why.”
With characteristic audacity and boasts of his ultimate love, Prince plays the role of Jesus as a man constantly in a state of sexless ecstasy. With no overt lyrics about sexual prowess and a downright denial of his place as a lover, it’s the desperate eruptions of whimpers and squeals that convey the way that the singer’s ultimate pleasure only comes from his sacrifice. Organs and chimes herald the second coming of His Royal Badness with ecclesiastical flair, spare drum beat augmented with the constant hummingbird synth line and gospel harmonies.
“I Would Die 4 U” is sweet, joyful and dolorous at the same time and so honest and unaffected that you’re willing to let Prince pretend to be Jesus, though it’s possible he’s the only one who could get away with it.
Joe Hunter draws comics and stuff. He lives in Ohio and is the artist on the upcoming comic books Paradoxicals with Andrew Ihla and Radical Guardian Skater X with Chris Sims. His crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity and you can find him on Twitter and Tumblr. He finds writing about himself in the third person really uncomfortable.
Read more from 30 Purple Years, our tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain!
5 thoughts on “30 Purple Years: 7. I Would Die 4 U”
I always thought the song was meant to parallel The Kid’s father’s emotionally manipulative attitude toward his mom. His dad says “I would die for you” right after beating the snot out of her.
It gets even creepier when the kid sings “I’d never beat you, I’d never lie”, which is more or less what he ends up actually doing to appolonia.
So yeah, I know there’s some Jesus symbolism in there too, but I feel the big thing with this song is that it’s meant to represent how the kid is gradually becoming more and more like his dad
I definitely think that’s a legitimate read in the context of the film and I forgot that The Kid’s dad drops that line, good call. You’re right that in the Purple Rainiverse it’s a personal redemption song, but the story of the movie was figured around existing songs and not the other way around. Prince has a history of religious songs and themes, and I’m prone to think that the screenwriters shaped the narrative to change the perceived meaning of the song when placed in the movie. There’s a piece on Purple Rain The Movie later in the week by two of my favorite writers for the site, I’m sure they’ll address the deft foreshadowing and supportive structure of the story around the songs. Thanks for reading!
Also in the context of The Kid’s character arc I think “When Doves Cry” is the moment when he starts to understand the cycle of abuse he’s become a part of while “I Would Die 4 U” is an authentic promise, considering the points at which they appear and the way that denoument and emotional growth abruptly gives way to a full-blown concert film at the climax of the final concert.
Awesome! can’t wait to read it!
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