When it comes to the flamboyant 80’s music scene in America, one of the first artists that came to my mind was Prince. A music virtuoso that possessed an expansive vocal range and could also confidently handle the piano, guitar, and drums, Prince Rogers Nelson – known by the mononym Prince – was undoubtedly one of the greatest musicians of his time.
One can hardly write about Prince without referring to “When Doves Cry”. This track was Prince’s first No.1 hit single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and with good reason too. When I first listened to “When Doves Cry”, I could not help but think that this song was talking about a sexual relationship and I was not wrong. Yet, what I wasn’t prepared to find out was that like Prince himself, this song was mysterious. The more I listened to it, the more layers of hidden meaning I discovered. But before we look at the meaning of “When Doves Cry”, let’s first take a look at how the track was composed.
Prince had written “When Doves Cry” to be featured in his debut film Purple Rain and the album bearing the same name. Director Albert Magnoli had wanted Prince to create a track that would convey the difficulties of a relationship with parents but also that of a love affair. Prince had come up with two songs the next day, of which “When Doves Cry” was one. He had never explicitly mentioned how the song came to be, but biographer Per Nielsen believed that the song was inspired by Prince’s relationship with Susan Moonsie of the vocal trio Vanity 6.
“When Doves Cry” was one of the final tracks to be composed for ‘Purple Rain’ in March 1984. One reason why this song stood apart from the rest was the absence of a bass line. Prince commented on this unique trait of “When Doves Cry”;
“It was just sounding too conventional, like every other song with drums and bass and keyboards. So I said, ‘If I could have it my way it would sound like this,’ and I pulled the bass out of the mix… ‘When Doves Cry’ does have bass in it – the bass is in the kick drum.”
Of course, that was not all Prince had to contribute to this great song. During the recording, he had played all the instruments in the track, attesting to his musical genius. One could definitely say that “When Doves Cry” carries the true spirit of Prince – ambiguous but artistic – just like the man. Prince was convinced that the song was going to be one-of-a-kind, and while recording had said to his sound engineer;
“Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait – they’ll be freaking.”
Prince certainly knew what he was doing with “When Doves Cry” and his experimental tendencies paid off in a big way. The song peaked #1 on Billboard Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and Dance Club Songs charts, spending multiple weeks at the top. “When Doves Cry” made a reappearance on Billboard in 2016 when the singer passed away, peaking at #2 on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs, #5 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and #8 on Hot 100 charts. The song is ranked #37 on the Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list and received RIAA Platinum certification on August 21, 1984, for selling over a million copies in the same year as it was released.
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Prince “When Doves Cry” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
It is hardly surprising that the song was as well-received as it was. The song had all the elements of the psychedelic vibes that were the hallmark of the 80s dance music. Coupled with Prince’s indescribable persona, the song became one that thrilled and tantalized the listener. As mentioned earlier, the song will initially give the impression that it describes a sexual relationship. The continuous synth riff alongside Prince’s sensuous voice only convinces listeners of the fact. But when you look at the lyrics, there appears to be more to “When Doves Cry”. First of all, for a song that seems to be about sex, the title of the song is a bit confusing. And this is only the starting point of the journey that attempts to discover the hidden meaning of this track.
“Dig, if you will, the picture
Of you and I engaged in a kiss”
One can hardly blame anyone for misinterpreting these lyrics. The song starts off with the intimate act of kissing, and not just innocently. The picture that Prince wants us to imagine is of two lovers intertwined together, the sensuousness of this image is intensified through Prince’s teasing voice. This is hardly anything new for Prince and his scandalous repertoire. So what makes “When Doves Cry” different? You definitely have to look beyond that initial judgment and listen to the rest of the song very carefully.
“Dream, if you can, a courtyard
An ocean of violets in bloom”
These lines stand in stark contrast to the earlier ones. Notice how Prince appeals not just to your auditory senses but also to your visual senses – picture this, dream that – he says. So you can’t help but conjure this fantastical imagery. Violets blooming in a courtyard, surrounded by animals in weird positions. A possible interpretation of these lines can be found in symbolism. Dreaming of a courtyard for example is generally implicated as a need for communication and openness. Likewise, violets are flowers that stand for truth, loyalty, and everlasting love.
Taken together, these two short verses describe a relationship that’s on the rocks. First, we have the two lovers in the honeymoon phase of the relationship – hearts and bodies connected. Then the song immediately moves to the courtyard and violets where Prince says for this love to be lasting, there needs to be communication, openness, and honesty between the two lovers. The animals could be a reference to other people who are observing the two as they sense the ‘heat’ – sexual tension or anger. Prince, through his fondness for symbolism, makes us look at two stages of a relationship – lovers together at first and then fighting with each other.
“Maybe I’m just like my father: too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother”
The chorus takes us right into the middle of the fight between the two lovers. Prince questions how can someone be so cruel as to walk away, while the other is left in the cold alone? He answers this question through brilliant insight into human nature. As previously mentioned, the song that Purple Rain director Magnoli wanted from Prince had to depict an uneasy parental relationship, as well as that of lovers. And it is through the chorus of “When Doves Cry” that Prince delivers this. In a truly fascinating manner, Prince compares his current relationship with that of his parents. He claims that he could be bold and demanding like his dad. But on the other hand, his lover is never satisfied – just like his mother. In a single stroke, Prince had brought together the two contrasting relationships and it was his way of saying that we get attracted to what we’re familiar with. In his case, it was a relationship that was similar to one his parents had, which ultimately ended up in a divorce.
Now we come to the point that digs deeper into the meaning of this song. If “When Doves Cry” was merely a song about a failing relationship, why is it titled so? Again we can attribute it to Prince’s prolific use of symbolism. Doves are notably a symbol of peace, but when doves cry out, it is taken to symbolize a change for the better or as a sign of hope. Perhaps what Prince wanted to convey here was that, unlike his parent’s turbulent relationship, his own was not destined for doom. Even if they were to scream at each other, maybe that could lead to openness and communication, and will eventually turn back to love.
“Don’t make me chase you
Even doves have pride”
What a rollercoaster ride of a song this is! When it comes to this verse, the meaning has changed again. Here, Prince seems to talk about reconciliation. It’s how the lover attempts to approach his beloved for forgiveness or understanding, and how he feels nervous about doing so. His stomach is trembling with butterflies, as he doesn’t know whether he would be accepted or rejected by his beloved. And then comes the warning, Prince says clearly that he would not chase behind someone who would reject him again and again. He says that even doves, as innocent as they are, have pride. It is interesting to see how the dove – a bird that is rarely featured in pop songs – is used extensively by Prince. It may have had something to do with the fact that Prince raised two doves named Majesty and Divinity, and incorporated the birds into the song.
“When Doves Cry” was titled because it’s not just a song about a perfect relationship. It goes beyond a mere sexual connection into a spiritual union. Prince is of the opinion that even if a relationship seems perfect at the beginning, it can become less perfect over time. It is up to those involved to recognize these flaws. And while sometimes there could be reconciliation, other times there is only one path – to let the doves cry. That implies that either you find yourself renewing your love or you end up letting go. And whichever path that love takes, Prince seems to believe that just as doves cry, it will lead to something better.
As Prince’s falsetto fades with the repetition of “When Doves Cry” and high-pitched vocalizations. This song truly defies direct interpretation – on the surface, the lyrics are a confusing collection of words that seem to be talking about a sexual relationship. But in-depth it talks of the different phases of a relationship, reconciliation, and letting go. So, the complexity of “When Doves Cry” lives on, as generations of music lovers try to make sense of it in their own ways.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.