February 4th, 2007 is one of those few dates from the past where I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. Usually those dates are reserved for tragic events. But not this one. This one was associated with something magnificent.
It’s the date of Super Bowl XLI.
Now, the game itself is pretty forgettable. There were no last minute heroics. The most memorable thing about the game itself was probably the intense South Florida rain that persisted through much of the night.
Rain doesn’t make for very exciting football. But it does make for one helluva halftime show. That is, if your name is Prince.
The Prince Super Bowl performance is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time. The man put on an absolute rock and roll clinic. It was just perfection—the music, the environment, the rain, it was like it was all meant to be.
If you’re trying to describe Prince to someone who had never heard of him (first: what is your life?), it’s hard to describe the unique style and flair he possessed. Plenty of musicians have talent, but few have the style that Prince had. It was an aura that was evident in his music, but also extended to how he dressed, carried himself, and—for lack of a better word—branded himself.
And central to that style was the color purple.
Prince owned purple, but it’s a bit of an interesting choice. A majority of brands opt for blue or red. Lots of musicians dress in all black. But purple? Now that’s unique.
Yo Prince: Why Purple?
If you’re looking for a definitive answer from the man himself as to why he made the branding choice he did, I’ve got bad news for you: there isn’t one.
Mystery was part of Prince’s eclectic style. He wouldn’t just come out in an interview and offer some clear cut explanation as to why he was so enamored with the color purple.
But you can string together some bits and pieces, combine those with a bit of conjecture, and draw up some conclusions.
Let’s start with some color theory.
Purple has, for thousands of years, been associated with royalty. Back in the days of the Byzantine and Roman empires, purple dye was produced through a laborious process that involved harvesting snails and extracting a certain secretion from their bodies (yum). Since each snail only yields a very small amount of this secretion, thousands of snails had to be harvested to make the dye, thus making it an expensive endeavour. Due to the cost, the dye was used on fine clothes reserved for the wealthy—perhaps even a prince.
In more modern times, purple has been associated with femininity and sexuality—both frequent themes in Prince’s performance. He certainly wasn’t vague when it came to sexuality in both his music and performances, but he also challenged and pushed how a man “should” act and dress.
Prince’s first album, 1978’s For You was light on the purple imagery. The album cover was a pretty subdued blurred portrait of Prince—primarily shades of black, brown, and gold. Standard issue stuff of the late 70s. But a year later, Prince’s visual style really starts to shine through with his self-titled album.
If that’s not the epitome of Prince, I don’t know what is. Besides the awkward partial nudity that was his calling card, we see for the first time some purple in the text at the top. Two of his next three albums (Controversy and 1999) featured even more purple on the cover art, serving as the primary theme.
And then we get Purple Rain.
Purple Rain cemented the man to the color for obvious reasons, but the meaning of “Purple Rain” as a phrase is a bit confusing. The lyrics of the song don’t exactly clarify what purple rain is supposed to represent, other than something sad (based on the lyrical content). In the Purple Rain film, Prince’s character dedicates the song to his father, who takes his own life earlier in the movie, but it also serves as a tool for him to reconcile with his love interest. The lyrics themselves sound like an apology of sorts, except for the chorus which invokes the song’s title.
Prince shed a little light—albeit vague—on this subject, saying in an interview that “purple rain” is when there’s blood in the sky (red + blue = purple), and that the song deals with the “end of the world.” That answer clears things up a bit, but stills paints the term in an allegorical light.
You can get even deeper with the hidden meaning. In an article from the Los Angeles Times shortly after his death, Carolina A. Miranda interviews a color theorist who points out that purple, as the last color in the visible spectrum, could be seen as symbolic of the border between the seen and the unseen—a sort of bridge between two worlds.
But while you could chase symbolism all day, the answer could be as simple as the man just loved purple. As a lifelong resident of Minnesota, Prince would have seen his fair share of purple around the city, being the primary color of Minneapolis’s NFL team, the Vikings. Maybe his affection was driven purely by exposure.
That raises yet another question: did the affection for purple come from the meaning it carries, or did Prince assign meaning to a color he was just naturally drawn to?
Ultimately, he might be the only one who could answer that one. But either way, it’s hard to remember him any other way.
Cover photo by Scott Penner (CC BY-SA 3.0)