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"When Doves Cry" is a weird song, there's no doubt about it. Starting with its shredding, messy, opening guitar solo, you know that this song doesn't really follow the normal rules of pop convention. It's as if the song begins with a guitar solo just because—in fact the guitar solo isn't even in the same key as the rest of the song, and it isn't particularly noteworthy from a technical standpoint. It just sounds cool. Despite being a master songsmith and guitar player, Prince is more interested in where he can go creatively than doing what everybody else is doing; why else would he write "When Doves Cry" as a dance song without a bass line?
The sound engineer who worked with Prince as he recorded "When Doves Cry" later recalled the artist saying, "Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait—they'll be freaking." (Source) Prince's power is in his ability to take his unique, experimental voice and combine it with his keen sense of what people will like. "When Doves Cry," his first worldwide hit, pushed him through the doorway to superstardom.
When it isn't showing Prince & the Revolution performing songs from the soundtrack on stage, the movie Purple Rain is all about that central conflict of needing to trust that one's individual voice won't be compromised by appealing to the needs of others. Prince's character, the rebellious Kid, risks losing his girlfriend, his gig on First Avenue, and his band because of his stubborn refusal to do or accept anything that differs from what he believes is right. He feels that Apollonia's interaction with his rival, Morris Day (of the funk band The Time), in an effort pursue a musical career is betrayal. So he hits her, he misses rehearsals and chooses to perform songs that don't mesh with the club's owner—and he won't play or even listen to music his band-mates have written.
It becomes apparent that the Kid is doing all this in a counterproductive effort to distance himself from the ways of his father. The Kid rebels because his father's strict Christian beliefs and alcoholism have frightened those around him. Ironically, The Kid's need to be different makes him become just like his father in the way that he uses violence and cruelty to maintain his supposed uniqueness. As his world crumbles, the Kid begins to rethink his ways—and over a dramatic montage that later became the basis of the music video for the song, "When Doves Cry" makes its appearance in the movie.
The chorus of the song plays as a frustrating moment of clarity for the Kid. Prince sings, "Maybe I'm just too demanding / Maybe I'm just like my father, 2 bold"—realizing that the accusatory, "How could you just leave me standing / Alone in a world that's so cold" is perhaps too harsh and that he is tragically repeating the ways of his father. But the realization is a painful one; as the song closes we are left with Prince sobbing, "maybe, maybe I'm just like my father," then "why, do we scream, why?" Figuring out "Why do we scream at each other?" may require some further self-evaluation and personal evolution.
That evolution results from witnessing the attempted suicide of his father. His father's isolation has left the Kid a miserable man who, despite his musical talents, is trapped by his need to control his world, regardless of what others may want. Isolating himself from the needs of others is a path of self-destruction. In the resolution of the film the Kid accepts that he can be his father's son, tapping into the musical genius he has inherited, without the fear of becoming his father. Importantly, he beings to trust that he can cede to such necessities as collaborating with his band without abandoning his own voice; the lyrics to "Purple Rain" were inspired by his father's music, even though the composition was undeniably Prince, though and through.
"When Doves Cry" might be seen in precisely that thematic light: the song is audaciously different for a dance song, but Prince is only so daring because he trusts that his music can be successful without selling out. It's got an '80s pop sound because of that Alfing-ready beat and catchy synth hook. But it remains unique in its combination of those pop-friendly elements with the less pop-friendly—might we even say "pop-antagonistic"?—absence of any bass line and presence of gospel-inspired vocal tracks. This is not to say that "When Doves Cry" represents a turning point in Prince's career towards a pop sound; indeed it is more appropriate to say that the song's masterful synthesis of experimental, creative sounds with more standard dance music is a testament to the possibilities that the thematic resolution of Purple Rain promises.