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Purple Rain: 80s "pimpology"?

Purple Rain Pimpology:
The Missing Link Between "The Mack" and the Many Macks of Hip Hop

By Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic

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When the phenomenon known as "Purple Rain" burst onto the screen in 1984, it was still only a stone's throw away from the 1970's. Sure, long mack coats had given way to leather, and the "press and curl" had given way to the jheri curl but there were still many land yachts—old Cadillac Eldorados, Buick LeSabres and Chrysler New Yorkers—on the road. The faux fab aura of the pimp was still part of the pop culture imagination, and was taken to a whole new level in the big pimpin decade of the 1980's, with its junk bonds, savings and loan scandals, obsession with "Dallas"-like materialism and wanton greed.

In the larger context, the pimp aura (and, we should add, the "ho" aura as well) of "Purple Rain" is mild in comparison—but is startling nonetheless. Wardrobe is an easy mark. Minus the wide-brimmed hat, bandleader Morris Day is pimped out in his loud shiny suits, creamy white coat, two-tone wingtips and straightened hair. He is vain and preening, as if accustomed to pampering himself with the proceeds of the pimpish music industry or, we could imagine, hookers on the track.

Day's self-absorption is rendered comically as he runs his hand over his hair like a girl, and checks his appearance in a mirror held aloft by his manservant-sidekick-fellow performer Jerome. Prince is a whole other matter. He does sport the long coat but his shirts with waves of ruffles, tight pants, pointy-toed boots and curly locks make him look more effeminate or androgynous than pimp-like. At some point, Morris Day, his worthy adversary, calls him a "long-haired faggot."

What really gives "Purple Rain" the aura of the pimp-hooker relationship is the inconsiderate and often violent interaction between Prince or Morris Day with Apollonia and the other women in the film. Always couched in humor, albeit a immature type of humor, Day and Prince are, in one moment, abusive to women and, in the next moment, treating them like pet poodles with possible earning power. At a rehearsal for the new girl group he wants to form, Day grows increasingly irritated with two women executing the bump-and-grind dance moves that he has choreographed.

"Let's have some action!" he yells at them, both bent over in tights and high heels. "I want some asses wiggling! I want some perfection!" Pleased with his off-rhyme, Day smacks palms with Jerome before telling him outside, "This just ain't hapnin. The bitches are okay. But we need something more exciting." Just then, someone we assume is one of Morris Day's women, jumps in his face about some slight she has suffered and, with one gesture from Day, Jerome picks up the woman and throws her into a nearby garbage dumpster. The surly woman who dares speak back has, literally, been dumped.

In contrast, the relationship between Prince and Apollonia is more complex, with Apollonia playing more of a "ho" than Prince plays a pimp. Apollonia is a needy and ambitious aspiring performer who hopes Prince can give her the break she needs. On her very first outing with him, she accepts what thinks she is an initiation into the world of popular Minneapolis performers and strips down to her panties before jumping into a dirty lake. Prince laughs at her and pretends that he is going to leave her in the woods naked and wet. She has no money and is staying in a seedy hotel but she pawns a gold ankle chain to buy Prince a new guitar. Minutes later, when she tells him she is joining Morris Day's girl group, Prince slaps (as in pimp slaps) her before she bolts from his basement digs in his parents' house. We are supposed to understand that, as depicted here, Prince has grown up in an abusive household, watching his controlling and domineering father repeatedly hit his mother. So the son has taken on the same behavior, which is the same behavior some pimps use to control the women in their lives.

Apollonia's ultimate decision to "sell" her sexuality as the lead singer for the new group Apollonia 6 is really what cements the pimp-hooker flava of Purple Rain. It is not her fault that men in the story look on her video-ready redbone looks and begin to lust but it is entirely her decision to make that lust work for her career and monetary advantage. For her group's debut, she appears on stage in a cape and then peels it away to reveal only a black lace teddy, a garter, black stockings and high heels—this moment is the cinematic intersection of the strip club, prostitution and good, old-fashioned girl group entertainment. Men throw dollars onto the stage, perhaps they even reach to place one inside Apollonia's garter as she sings:

I'm a sex shooter, shooting out in your direction.
Sex shooter, come and play with my affection.

Apollonia presents herself here as a woman confident of what her looks and sexuality should buy and cost. Appropriately for its superficial decade, "Purple Rain" was a precursor to many girl (and boy) groups that looked good on camera but could not sing. At the time of its release, "Purple Rain" was only the latest to tell young women that looks and sexuality can easily be sold, and to tell young men that maybe, just maybe, pimping is easy after all.

 

— August 3, 2005


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