Culture | Stuck on Shuffle: Prince and the Pavlovian response

Rummaging through the musical formative years

I grew up in a suburb on a hill called Waialae Nui ridge in Honolulu, Hawaii. There weren’t a lot of male children in my neighbourhood, so I spent a lot of time as a kid playing with girls or video games (though never simultaneously), and sometimes looking around for interesting shit in my house. My family had a big storage room where my parents kept relics from days past: some outdated scuba gear, big books about the mind, dusty old couches, and other things that made my allergies go haywire. They also kept old boxes full of cassette tapes, and when I was about eight-years-old, I dug through and picked out a few that I thought looked particularly amazing. I chose them for their eye-catching cover art, and then carried them like fossils to my bedroom, where I listened to them intently and pretended to understand their historical relevance.

I remember three very clearly: Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Genesis’s creatively-titled 1983 album Genesis, and Prince’s Purple Rain. The latter probably made the biggest impression on my tiny mind, and I spent many a Saturday afternoon running around with my portable cassette deck set to fast playback, tickled that I could made Prince sound even smaller and freakier than he already was.

(Tangential side-note: two of the last three Super Bowl half-time shows have featured two of the three aforementioned artists. Either I was blessed with some kind of prodigious foresight when I was eight, or the Super Bowl is keenly marketed to the musical tastes of people in my parents’ demographic. I’ll let you be the judge, but I think it’s the first one – and if a Phil Collins-led Genesis plays next year, we’ll know for sure.)

Purple Rain was – and is – an extremely popular album. I presume it was something of a requisite purchase for couples who were young in 1984. It’s also really sexual, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, and since I had only the vaguest notion of what sex was when I was eight (kissing naked, right?!?), I probably had a difficult time putting its racier moments in proper context. Specifically, “Darling Nikki” might as well have been in Navajo, and the sexy dialogue before “Computer Blue” where Lisa asks Wendy if she’s ready for her bath was simply understood as a cooperative variant of my own (then obligatory) nightly cleansing ritual.

Nevertheless, I got the impression that something was going on between the lines, and for that reason I can retrospectively credit Purple Rain for providing me with the first contact I ever had with both critical listening, and the “freakier” side of life – a realm where men wore high-heels and women publicly pleasured themselves with periodicals. I like to imagine my parents sitting around, concerned and wondering if they’d made the right choice by letting me pilfer through the storage room (Dad: “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.” Mom: “Are you crazy, the eighties are in there!”) They might then have decided that certain forms of exploration were important for my development, but I suspect that they’d simply forgotten what Purple Rain was about after owning it for 11 years.

All this to illustrate the boring and obvious point that, whether in the case of cassette tapes exiled to the shed or the more timeless fare that’s actually allowed in the house, our parents’ musical tastes are more influential than we might be comfortable admitting. You’ve probably had the distressingly Pavlovian experience of hearing a song or album that your parents played all the time when you were young and beginning to salivate (what, just me?) – or at least you might have been swept up in the sort of musical appreciation that stems from nothing more than boring old conditioning.

Do you ever wonder how much of the stuff you like you actually discovered on your own, and how much of your musical appreciation simply refers to those early years of conscious listening? I’m personally helpless in my adoration of Harvest Moon by Neil Young, Rubber Soul by The Beatles, and most James Taylor. If pressed, I would admit that most of Rod Stewart’s music inspires feelings of warm nostalgia rather than blind ire, though I would never admit this to my mother, whose affinity for Hot Rod I have derided for most of my young adult life. The point is, I can’t separate my nostalgic feelings of home from my capacity to critically engage with any of the music I’ve mentioned in this article. What if all of our personal tastes in music are formed during these crucial early years, and we evaluate new music by simply comparing it to an immutable template of appreciation developed in childhood? And what if, despite my most honourable intentions, I love Rod Stewart on a much deeper, much more primal level than I’ll ever love The Roots? Frightening.

In summation, Purple Rain is a great album, and an ideal gift for the 8-year-old in your life.

Check out future installments of Zachary’s column, Stuck on Shuffle, every second Monday in the Culture section.