Friday, June 11, 2004

Musings on Prince's When Doves Cry. Several weeks ago, I took my CD player downstairs to the living room so I could listen to CDs while attempting the Herculean labour of washing the dishes. It's been there ever since, so my room has become the Old Skool Den where I listen to my old cassettes.

Anyway, I was listening to The Dance Beat '93, a misleading title as the songs it contains date from approximately 1990 to 1993. I bought it in 1993 because I'd had a brilliant idea for our school's annual lip-synching competition, which I entered every year from year 7 to year 12, with escalating degrees of ridiculousness. (My Lip Sync antics deserve a post to themselves.) My idea was to perform Bobby Brown's "Humping Around" dressed as a camel. It turned out to be a complete farce. But anyway.

So I was poncing about the room to "Pray" by MC Hammer, which as we all know samples "When Doves Cry". So in my head I segued to the latter song, and I got thinking about what a mysterious song it really is. I remember when I was a kid I was a bit freaked out by it because it's not just one of those straightforward pop songs like the "I've got a new love and I'm happy", "I want you", "I'm so sexy I know you want me", "I'm breaking up and I'm sad" genres. It seemed to speak to me of altogether murkier emotional waters. And now I have to concede that I really don't have much more of an idea.

So welcome to Semiotics For Dumb Fucks 101. I thought I'd work through the lyrics, musing as I go. Prepare for crazy stream of consciousness. As you'll recall, Prince begins the song by exhorting us to dig, if we will, a picture...

Of you and I engaged in a kiss
The sweat of your body covers me
Can you my darling
Can you picture this?

Okay, some straightforward eroticism: Prince is talking to his lover. I'm digging this picture, big time. Prince is so the king of sex.

Dream if you can a courtyard
An ocean of violets in bloom
Animals strike curious poses
They feel the heat
The heat between me and you

This is the part that really freaked me out as a kid. I was a strange kid. I was also really freaked out by "Sign Your Name" by Terence Trent D'Arby, and the video to "Losing My Religion" by REM, with the angel with broken wings. But back to Prince. I love his description of the "ocean of violets", which of course plays right into his tendency to associate water with the colour purple. And just imagine the scent of all those violets! I used to love violets when I was a kid. I wrote a freaky short story when I was about 13 about a bride who kills herself rather than marry her gold-digging groom, and then another bride who's also having second thoughts finds the other bride's veil, embroidered with tiny violets, and has visions. I think I'd read Playing Beatie Bow once too often.

But for me the courtyard also conjures up visions of secret gardens, with all their associated imagery of female sexuality. You know, unlocking them with your key (like Ghostbusters, with the female Gatekeeper and the male Keymaster). And the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel The Secret Garden, which for me is an allegory of adolescence and emergent female sexuality. You know, the girl heroine, Mary, is orphaned and taken to live with her uncle in England. Mary's uncle hid the key to his beloved wife's walled garden after she died giving birth to their son, Colin. Colin has grown up this weakly hypochondriac, and with the help of strapping Yorkshire lad Dickon, Mary discovers the key to the garden and begins to cultivate it. She and the two boys end up playing in this Arcadian garden, and the uncle cries when he gets back from a business trip and realises how wonderful everything is.

Ha! Do I sound like a women's studies undergrad or what?! Ai-ya, so earnest! Hey, at least I didn't make any lame analogies between flowers and vaginas! Anyway, so I pictured Prince's "courtyard" as a semi-magical place of awakening desire. But the freakiest part was always the animals striking curious poses. That just blew my mink! It also seems to be a recurring theme in literature and film, etc, the animals that can sense and empathise with human emotions: from witches' familiars to dogs that can sense fear. But even the animals are freaked out by Prince and his lover, you see: the poses they strike are curious.

So far it's still a fairly conventional love/sex song, just really evocatively described. But then he goes into the chorus:

How can you just leave me standing
Alone in a world that's so cold?
Maybe I'm just too demanding
Maybe I'm just like my father, too bold
Maybe you're just like my mother
She's never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like
When doves cry

So we realise that there's something wrong with this relationship, passionate though it is. It looks like Prince's lover is going to break up with him, and he's gloomily wondering whether observing his parents' own dysfunctional relationship was what doomed him to repeat this pattern himself. Now, because I hate psychoanalysis I'm not going into that Freudian nonsense, but let me say that the chorus speaks to me of a desire for peace and security, which is what Prince looked for from his parents but didn't find, and "maybe" the same thing is happening now.

verse 2 follows up on this idea:

Touch if you will my stomach
Feel how it trembles inside
You've got the butterflies all tied up
Don't make me chase you
Even doves have pride

So, Prince is totally in thrall to his lover, and willing to reveal it ("feel how it trembles inside"). But at the same time he's humiliated by this vulnerability. The dove you could read as the symbol of peace, crying because there is no peace. And it's also Prince himself, the desirer of peace ("Even doves have pride").

But ultimately, the couplet at the heart of this song ("This is what it sounds like/When doves cry") is the most mysterious idea, and no amount of bullshit semiosis is going to help me understand why I find the imagery of doves crying so poignant and troubling.

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