Study Guide

When Doves Cry Technique

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  • Music

    "When Doves Cry" might be called an eccentric song, in the way that it combines and rejects different musical conventions to create a sound that is totally accessible and catchy but also very stripped down and elemental.

    For starters, the song doesn't even have a bass line (which is usually a key element of dance music). Prince actually did create a bass line (which he performed—along with all the other instruments on the track) but decided to erase it from the song's final mix. According to the engineer who worked with Prince to perfect the track's sound, the artist seemingly ripped out the bass just to prove that he could; "Nobody," Prince reportedly said, "would have the balls to do this."

    With no bass, the song depends even more than usual upon the strength of its dance drumbeat; at times, the song seems to boil down to nothing more than Prince's vocals and the drums. The beat is interesting in that it's not your normal pop beat. (Your standard pop song has four beats per measure. If you've ever rocked out or simply tapped your foot along to music, chances are that you're tapping on the second and fourth beats of each measure—which is where the hits on the bass drum usually are.) The syncopated beat of "When Doves Cry," however, hits on the first and halfway between the second and third. That unsteady, unexpected rhythm, combined with the heavy use of toms and other unfamiliar percussive sounds, gives the beat an almost tribal feeling.

    On top of that distinctive beat, "When Doves Cry" offers up a spiritual sound, full of the ad libbing and call-and-response shouting that defines the African American gospel tradition. The layering of vocals—which intensifies near the end of the song—makes the song more an a cappella with a dance beat than anything else. The chorus features at least three vocal tracks layered on top of each other; an emotive, melodic voice in the lead, backed by two separate lower voices creating a chord effect, with the lowest serving a "bass" function. As the song moves along, both the layering and the gospel ad libbing intensify as if they are competing each other; you end up with a swelling wave of voices belting out "When doves cry."

    Particularly in '80s music, the synth was an important lead instrument, and "When Doves Cry" was no exception. For many listeners, the song's defining feature will be the synth hook that leads into the first verse and ends all the verses.

    Critics have often said that Prince doesn't write instrumental parts to play together so much as compete with one another—after all, since Prince typically plays all of his instruments, there isn't really an opportunity for the parts to play together. Somehow it all just works, though, and that may be the ultimate testament to Prince's creative genius.
  • Setting

    "When Doves Cry" was hugely successful as a single, but it was also written for a movie, so in that sense it is set inside the movie world of Purple Rain. Purple Rain is a quasi-autobiographical representation of Prince's initial struggles as an artist coping with fears that he is repeating the mistakes of his abusive father in his relationship with the female lead Apollonia. The movie is interesting in that nearly all of the actors are real people playing themselves as they actually interacted with Prince when he was just getting his start at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis. (This probably explains the inconsistent quality of the performances.)

    Purple Rain is unique film; perhaps half the movie's length consists of live performances of Prince playing the songs from the soundtrack. And even when Prince isn't shown performing on stage, much of the rest of the movie is filled up with extended musical montages that are cut like music videos. In a sense, the film plays like a series of music videos, just strung together into a story. Despite (or because of) its experimental nature, Purple Rain proved to be popular with audiences, raking in almost ten times as much in box office sales ($67 million) as it had cost to produce ($7 million). It was the eleventh highest-grossing film of 1984 in the United States. Its soundtrack album (which included not only "When Doves Cry" but the additional hits "Let's Go Crazy," "Purple Rain," and "I Would Die 4 U") sold an additional 14 million copies and is regularly ranked among the greatest pop albums of all time. Purple Rain (the movie and the album) cemented Prince's reputation as one of the dominant pop-cultural forces of his generation.

    "When Doves Cry" was written for a particular sequence in the movie, illustrating a moment when the Kid (the character played by Prince) has to choose which path his life will follow. Will his relationship with Apollonia be one of pure love and playful sex, or will his jealousy of her own musical career lead to uncontrollable anger and the nightmare of domestic abuse? Will he follow the tragic path laid out by his violent father, or will he find his own way? Will he find a way to reconcile with his band, allowing him to succeed as a musician, or will his pride lead to a breakup?

    You'll have to watch the movie to find out.
  • Songwriting

    In "When Doves Cry," Prince uses several metaphors for purity to justify his anguish over his troubled relationship. Amusingly and controversially, he evokes both Christian ideas of purity and less sanctified cultural tropes of sexual carnality. In Christianity, the dove is a symbol of The Holy Ghost—and of the pure human soul in general. Prince sings of doves rather than people—"This is what it sounds like / When doves cry"; "Even doves have pride"—giving the impression that he and his lover share a pure and true romance. Psalm 123:7 describes the concept behind the symbolism: the soul is a free, pure thing caged by the body and bodily desires. Their romance is "meant-to-be." This idea builds off the Edenic quality of "Dream if u can a courtyard / An ocean of violets in bloom" and the gospel sound of the vocals.

    But then Prince juxtaposes the Christian idea of purity with the naturalistic, primal nature of sex:

    Animals strike curious poses
    They feel the heat
    The heat between me and u

    Prince couldn't just stick to the one or the other, could he?

    In addition, the child-like teasing of the line "Don't make me chase u" evokes young love. The fun of this, which is apparent in both the way that it is sung and in the playful chromatic xylophone run that turns up in the background, is another form of simplistic purity. Prince has all his bases covered in the romance—childhood innocence meets elemental sexual power meets spiritual unity. Sounds like true love to us.

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