Prince and the Perfect Line

She walked in through the out door.

The perfect line—we all know it when we see it—the phrase that somehow captures a slice of life in a way we all understand, but, somehow, had never thought of before. Prince had a knack.

We all have our favorite authors who possess the magic of stringing exactly the right words together in exactly the right order, but how do they do it?

I don’t know. Not exactly.

What I do know is when my brain sings “Raspberry Beret,” I smile. I don’t see images from the official music video (although they are rather charming, in a 1980s-psychedelic-cartoon sort of way). I don’t think about a scene cut fromPurple Rain, which, according to Wikipedia and, was the inspiration for the song. Instead, I imagine the kind of person who actually walks in through the out door.

Think about it. We all know people who walk in through the out door. Maybe we are those people. We can either smile at the girl who breaks the rule, or we can judge her. Either way, Prince offers us the chance to daydream a bit about that store, that door. The invitation to imagine is, I think, the first and most fundamental aspect of what makes a perfect phrase.

A second reason this line works, is it tells us so much about the girl in the raspberry beret without wasting a single extra word. Prince didn’t write: she’s the kind of girl who doesn’t let herself be constrained by arbitrary rules and expectations.

Beyond the elegance of only using strictly-necessary words, the third reason this line works is that it’s fresh. Like the perfect improv sketch, Prince takes a human quality we all know and presents it in way we hadn’t really thought of before. It’s the genius of the anti-cliché. It describes something common without being commonplace. No easy feat.

Now that I’ve parsed what I think makes for a perfect line, I’ve got some music to listen to. French millinery may or may not be involved. I’d love to know what you think makes for a perfect line, whether you can sing it or not.

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