An Investigation Into Purple, Synesthesia & Pop Music

From Prince to Olivia Rodrigo, there’s a long history of musicians using purple to solidify their identity and sound. Why is that?

by Margaret Farrell

I recently came to notice that pop music is flush with the color purple.

It began with the pair of crossed lilac bandaids that announced Olivia Rodrigo’s latest Guts era. The color scheme was a clear nod to the artificial grape-colored background from her debut album Sour, and was only the beginning of the pop star's forthcoming violet campaign. It reminded me that there’s a long history of artists using purple to solidify their identity and sound, and now Rodrigo was writing her own chapter in purple.

You might consider Charli XCX as one of those precedents. She once coined the term “purple pop” during the press cycle for her debut album, True Romance, as a way to describe the music she makes. “The way that I describe it is purple pop music,” she said. “It’s moody, emotional and rich.” In a world of highly specific mood-inspired Spotify playlists, the phrase “purple pop” feels like a universe exploding before me, unlocking new ways to understand the music I’ve cherished for the past decade.

You also can’t talk about purple without mentioning Prince, one of the most transgressive and innovative stars to enter this world and he’s signified by a simple hue. He capitalized on a color that represented royalty and spirituality; In the ancient Phoenician city Tyre, purple became associated with royalty and holiness as it was an extremely expensive and difficult color to manufacture into a dye. Over the centuries, purple became a color regulated by royal empires. (People were literally killed over wearing purple!) It was the perfect color for an artist named Prince to reclaim as he reigned over the pop charts and culture.

Nearly thirty years post-Purple Rain came Lorde, who expanded on the relationship between purple and royalty. Wearing lush, vampiristic plum lipstick, she made her debut with “Royals,” a song that shook its head at status symbols: “We’ll never be royals/ It don’t run in our blood.” She penned an anthem that questioned the lure of consumerist luxury, suggesting that the fantasy of it all was more fun than the reality. In her hands, purple felt like a subtle weapon rather than Prince’s glamourous calling card; but they both ended up transforming the pop world with it.

Purple appears every decade in pop music and acquires subtle shifts in meaning. One strong era coincided with Tumblr and its peak in the 2010s when the pastel goths lurked. During those years, it seemed like everyone on the platform wore their hair like the lavender blondes Lady Gaga sang about with knee-high socks and scuffed Doc Martens. Tumblr is where Lorde’s Pure Heroine world began to expand. It was where young people were exploring their identity, questioning how what they wore affirmed or conflicted with current gender norms. Those themes were reflected back in the music of that time: the 1975, Charli XCX, Lorde, Marina and the Diamonds, Arctic Monkeys, Azealia Banks, Lana Del Rey, and Sky Ferreira; pop music that was moodier, yearning, questioning, and bitchier.

Olivia Rodrigo feels part of the post-Tumblr regime with her soft grunge aesthetic and use of purple for her songs about redefining girlhood. Tongue–in-cheek rebellion pervades Guts and she’s ready to spit at the ground while giving a curtsy. “I got class and integrity/ Just like a goddamn Kennedy, I swear,” she snarls on the rowdy “All American Bitch.” It’s her take on Americana coming-of-age pop that the internet saw Lana and Marina perfect.

Purple’s link to discovering new societal norms feels rebellious and headstrong, both qualities necessary to navigate a world constantly on fire. The color is linked to queerness—a mix of both pink and blue, an androgynous color that represents both and something new simultaneously— and finding alternative forms of gender identity. But it also seems tied to doom. Prince described “Purple Rain” as being about “the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” And Charli XCX’s album of “purple pop,” True Romance, has a similar sense of dread and resilience. “It’s about being in a state of decay. You know you have to survive and get out, but you don’t know how,” she said of the song “Nuclear Seasons.”

Another champion of the noble hue is alt-rock group Hole whose song “Violet” warned of an “amethyst” sky and impending change. The cover for that album, Live Through This, depicts a sobbing prom queen—an image both pretty and horrifying — and there at the center sits purple. It is both beautiful and a mess, and feels utterly human. On the record, Hole was also breaking down the feminine gender roles. In retrospect it made sense for Rodrigo to use this cover as inspiration. Purple lives on as a color that mirrors personal vulnerability, a bruising ache, and a person finding their spark in a sea of social norms.

Hole’s Live Through This.DGC Records
Prince’s Purple Rain.Warner Records
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As I dove deeper into the history of purple in pop music, I began to wonder if Prince’s legacy would be the same if he was associated with orange. Would Guts have made more sense if the album cover was red (as some argue)? As consumers, we’re constantly prescribing meaning and relationships to colors — we suggest they’re conversing with the past like in the case of Prince with the many artists he inspired from Outkast and Erykah Badu to Lorde, or Liz Phair and Hole in conversation with Rodrigo — but how do the artists make sense of all this?

Musician Mia Berrin, the frontwoman behind Pom Pom Squad, intentionally built her album Death of a Cheerleader around the colors white, pink, and red. “With Death of a Cheerleader, something that I was exploring was my relationship with femininity, and specifically how I was reconciling what it meant to be a woman, a queer woman,” she says. “For most of my life, I thought that I couldn't be a certain type of woman because of the way I presented. Growing up, femininity and beauty felt like this thing that was really elusive. I felt like I could never be conventionally beautiful, whatever that means.”

When it came down to visually translating the hyper-emotional music she was making, she returned to the most elementary way we begin to associate feelings: with colors. “Using the color pink in my work in some way signified beauty to me,” she explains. Red came to her with the texture of latex, expressing both anger, intensity, and sensuality. And white was a color that played with “the idea of purity, that kind of angelic quality being ethereal.”

Experimenting and expressing herself with these colors during the making of the album helped Berrin reconcile and unpack stereotypes as a femme presenting lesbian who is Afro-Latina. “As a brown woman, as a queer woman, you never got to be portrayed as pure or as beautiful period, because there are so many negative stereotypes,” she says. “As I'm exploring these three colors, beauty comes back around as I describe them.” For Berrin, choosing colors that go along with one’s artistic identity is more than just creative freedom, but personal validation in a world with grossly prescribed beauty aesthetics. Dressing in the colors we want can allow us to embody beauty, royalty, and more complex ideas of creative autonomy.

Purple, for me, has come to symbolize a hardened resolve towards this world against a plush beat, balancing a bleakness and a rich desire for more. It’s those major and minor chords on Lorde’s “A World Alone” mingling with lyrics about feeling like a social outcast and mortality. It’s when Lana sings in velvety croon: “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Certain songs feel distinctly purple to me for no obvious reason at all.

As I worked on this piece, I continued to come back to the idea of synesthesia, simply defined as the neurological phenomenon of one perception stimulating another unrelated perception, i.e. seeing different colors for every letter. Perhaps an explicable neurological phenomenon could help me understand this cultural enigma. (After all, an overwhelming number of the artists mentioned in this piece claim to experience synesthesia including Charli XCX, Rodrigo, and Lorde, who once said her creative process is “about getting the actual thing to sound like what I’ve been seeing.”)

So does purple have an actual, universal sound? Well, no, according to researcher, artist, and synesthete Carol Steen. “Probably 99% of the people that I talk to who have synesthesia will immediately tell me that I'm wrong,” she says of sharing her own synesthetic findings with other synesthetes. “So immediately I tell them how wrong they are,” she laughs. “So it doesn't seem to be any kind of correlation that you could point a finger to. [Synesthesia] really is quite idiosyncratic.”

Steen tells me about a synesthetic experience she once had with tooth pain. She went to the dentist and explained that she had a tooth that was glowing orange. Dreading having to wait for another appointment, she insisted on a root canal. Sure enough, the nerve was dying. I ask if synesthesia is a kind of language, a way of seeing and understanding the world. “It's a form of translation,” Steen says of her synesthesia. For her, the color perception came before the pain.

It’s no surprise then that many synesthetes turn to creative outlets to find a deeper way to understand their experiences and ultimately share it with the rest of us. Synesthetes teach us that the world is far more dynamic than we understand. All I can think is that the notion of purple in pop music demonstrates humans’ constant expansion of understanding and existing in the world, and a mysterious empathy for those that listen to understand. Colors are far more complicated than their vibrant hues that call out to us at stop lights or stores. If we listen, we can hear them sing to us.