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Rule Breakers Print-ready version

by Jared Gentile
May 2020

In 1984, the rhythm guitarist for Prince's backing band The Revolution, Wendy Melvoin, turned twenty. Prince held a surprise party for her in Minneapolis and at one point during the party he said, "Do me a favor and sit down at this table and wait." So she waited. Then, as she remembers, " comes Prince and Joni Mitchell to sit with me, and she gave me three of her lithographs as a present. It was one of my most profound moments." (Tudahl 229). A love of Joni Mitchell was almost a necessary qualification to play with Prince, and his devotion to her music left indelible traces on many of his own songs (Tudahl 78, 114). He and Joni were both uniquely artistic musicians, stand-outs and loners of their generations, and both pushed against boundaries of musical genre, race and gender in their work and lives. On "Purple Rain" in particular, Joni remarked that she heard her influence, and this essay will draw similarities between it and "A Case of You," a song which Prince covered numerous times (Tudahl 158, 114). Though their mutual affection and respect formed the base of their bond, it was also a relationship colored by power dynamics. But perhaps when two big, brilliant egos come together, some friction is inevitable.

In an interview with Morrissey, Joni Mitchell remembered her favorite compliment she ever received, which was that she made "...genderless, raceless music" (Morrissey). At the time she'd just released Mingus, named after jazz legend Charles Mingus who she collaborated with on the record, and on her previous record she was featured on the cover dressed as Art Nouveau, her black male alter-ego. As she describes it, her music contains "elements that wouldn't be there if I hadn't loved certain pockets of Miles's playing for instance and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross for another. They leaked into it. But I've taken folk structure from Dylan, you know -- so you got a new thing going" (Morrissey). Similarly, Prince combined his love of Miles Davis and James Brown with his love of female vocalists (Joni included) in his persona and music to create a mixed gender, mixed race sound: "Wearing stage outfits that mixed male and female clothing and exposed Prince's body to the audience's gaze, he sang songs - such as "Do Me, Baby," "When Doves Cry," and "Kiss" - that embodied a receptive rather than active sexual role (Woodworth 127). Whereas Joni's crossover lent her entrée into a world of harmonic complexity and musical virtuosity traditionally reserved for male jazz players, in Prince's case, the androgynous quality of his music helped to "[disrupt] the stereotype of black men as violent, hypermasculine brutes, while at the same time [giving him] more mobility in the mainstream marketplace" (Woodworth 127). Breaking down boundaries of race and gender in their public personas, music, and audiences was a shared goal of Prince and Joni Mitchell. In their music, too, are similarities.

Prince stated in a 1985 MTV interview that "Joni Mitchell...taught me a lot about color and sound, and to her, I'm very grateful," and Mitchell herself remarked that "I can hear my influence in 'Purple Rain' in the harmony" (Tudahl 158). The first chord of the song is a suspended one played by Wendy Melvoin, who added the 9, which creates an open, moody tone (Tudahl 99). Joni frequently worked with more open-sounding chords and alternate tunings (Morrissey), which complement her complicated lyrics and narratives. "A Case of You" also begins with strummed, melancholy chords, played on a dulcimer to add a twangy, bright texture. This specious contradiction suits the narrative of the song, wherein Joni describes her faltering relationship with someone whom she clearly still loves. Prince once noted that "['A Case of You'] is one of my favorite songs 2 sing because the melody is so heartbreaking. The lyrics read as tho the writer is extremely enamored with the subject and yet the melody sounds as if they are about 2 break up" (Tudahl 114). "Purple Rain" employs this same tactic as Prince's low, echoing vocals apologize to a former friend and lover that he wants to reclaim, explaining that he only wanted to see this person "laughing in the purple rain." The imagery symbolizes a kind of joyful rapture, as on his song "1999," which adds to the grand, heartbreaking feeling of the ballad. The narrative continues building as the orchestration fills out with strings, loud drumming and high, scratchy vocals from Prince on the third verse. In "A Case of You," the story similarly builds in the chorus when Joni runs up high in her falsetto and wavers, exuding a kind of beautiful fragility and need for her lover, who she declares is like a sweet and bitter wine she could drink a case of and "still be on my feet." She elongates these words when she sings them, mirroring her desire to stay with this person who is slipping away from her. Prince also utilizes his high register on the outro of "Purple Rain," after the song has built into a stadium-rock power-ballad, in what seems like a final call to his ex-lover to rejoin him before the world ends around them. Through comparing these two songs, one can see the shared musical techniques between Joni and Prince, especially within songs that roughly share the same conceit.

But there were limits in their relationship as well. The power dynamic was imbalanced because Joni was the senior artist and Prince was her admirer, but Prince was also more popular than she was at the time. This may have provoked comments from her like this one from 1988, in which she said, "In the 80s there was a lot of good dance music but even Prince, although he's great, he's not an originator like Sly was, so even the greats of this generation aren't in the truly genius status" (Roskrow). On the other hand, Prince's admiration for Joni led him to write a song for her, "Emotional Pump," which he hoped she'd record. The lyrics are overtly sexual, including the chorus: "Emotional pump you are my / Concentrate on you is all I have to do / To make my body jump, emotional pump" (Emotional Pump). The bass line, drums and horn part firmly place the song within the funk genre, and combined with the sexual lyrical content and sultry falsetto, the song is unmistakably Prince's style, not Joni's. She commented on this in an interview, saying: "I called him up and I said, you know, I can't sing this, I'd have to jump around in a black teddy" (Joni Mitchell on Prince and "Emotional Pump").

Prince's choice to give Joni a song that bears little resemblance to her style is puzzling, and raises some questions. Did Prince hope that Joni would record the song in his style, thereby paying him an homage that he paid her? Was he genuinely trying to give Joni a song that he thought she'd have success with, in the hopes of revitalizing her career with a hit? Was it a power play on his end, or was it a sincere desire to collaborate with one of his heroes? The answer isn't clear, but the song points to the tensions in their relationship. They both had big egos, and for Joni that meant she wasn't going to give him a lot of credit when asked, even as she was hanging out with him and attending his opulent parties (Funkenberry podcast). For Prince, it may have meant that combined with his admiration for Joni's talent and music was a desire to get on equal footing with her - perhaps even to exert some control over her, as he did with his many protégés in the Purple Rain Era (Tudahl). Despite these spars, there was clearly a mutual affection as well, as evidenced by Joni's comment during the same interview in which she jokes about "Emotional Pump": "I enjoyed him, he's a strange little duck, but yeah, I like him" (Joni Mitchell on Prince and "Emotional Pump"). Prince deeply cared for Joni as well, and there's a photo included in Afshin Shahidi's book "A Private View" where Prince is pointing a finger at Joni and she has her hands up. As Afshin recalled on a podcast, Prince had caught Joni smoking at his house, which wasn't allowed. Instead of reprimanding her, he said "I want you to be healthy and I'm worried for you" (Funkenberry podcast). But they both smile cheekily in the photo - maybe because on some level, they both broke the rules.


Funkenberry, Dr. "DR. FUNK PODCAST." Audio blog post. #71 Afshin Shahidi PRINCE A Private View. Published November 7, 2017. Web. Accessed 12 May 2020.

"Joni Mitchell Library - Words and Music - Joni Mitchell and Morrissey: Reprise Records PRO- CD-8610, October 18, 1996." Joni Mitchell,

"Joni Mitchell on Prince and "Emotional Pump."" YouTube, 6 June 2019, Accessed 12 May 2020.

Mitchell, Joni. "A Case of You." Blue, Warner Records, 1971, track 9. Spotify,

Prince. "Emotional Pump." Unreleased. Youtube,

Prince, Miles, and Maceo: Horns, Masculinity, and the Anxiety of Influence Author(s): Griffin Woodworth Source: Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Fall 2013), pp. 117-150 Published by: Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press Stable URL: Accessed: 11-04-2020 18:25 UTC

Prince. "Purple Rain." Purple Rain, Warner Records, 1984, track 9. Spotify,

Roskrow, Dominic. "Joni Mitchell Library - City Beat: Auckland Sun, June 9, 1988." Joni Mitchell,

Shahidi, Afshin. Image of Joni Mitchell and Prince taken from Prince: A Private View. 2017. St. Martin's Press,

Tudahl, Duane. Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984. Rowman Et Littlefield, 2018.

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Added to Library on August 6, 2021. (2367)


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