Prince’s Batman soundtrack is not the embarrassment it’s reputed to be

Prince’s Batman soundtrack is not the embarrassment it’s reputed to be

In We’re No. 1, Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Prince’s Batman soundtrack, which went to No. 1 on July 22, 1989, where it stayed for six weeks.

Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster Batman is near the top of an increasingly long list of items that make me feel like I’m 10,000 years old. Batman was one of the biggest pop-culture events of my childhood. When I was 11, it was the best film ever made, with the possible exception of Back To The Future. After seeing it for the first time I immediately made plans to see it at least three more times, which isn’t easy from a logistical perspective when you’re in the fifth grade, but I made it happen, because this is Batman we’re talking about. Even as neighborhoods were being destroyed by the onset of urban sprawl, kids still could gather at the local Cineplex showing Batman to get a sense of community. 

And yet here we are, not even 25 years later, and this Batman might as well not even exist. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy hasn’t just eclipsed the original run of Batman films in the late ’80s and ’90s, it has rendered them all but invisible. Occasionally, I’ll catch one of them on cable and it looks as dated and cheesy in 2012 as the old Adam West-starring Batman TV show did to me as a Michael Keaton acolyte in 1989. 

Even Batman, by far the best of that first series, is very much a movie of its time. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism, as Nolan similarly constructed his Batman films as a commentary on culture in the early-21st century. For Nolan, the Batman story is a metaphor for how strict moral codes can start out as righteous, but eventually come to justify evil and cause mass destruction. His movies work as fantastically commercial works of kinetic entertainment, but they’re also resonant in an era marked by random acts of terrorism and governments that inevitably fall victim to brutal over-reactions to those acts out of a sense of fear and helplessness. 

Burton’s Batman, on the other hand, is ultimately a movie about ’80s excess. As played by Jack Nicholson, the Joker epitomizes the era’s plastered-on smiles and maniacal pursuit of pleasure by any means. The late Heath Ledger was celebrated for disappearing into his Joker performance in The Dark Knight; Nicholson does the opposite in Batman, infusing his interpretation of the character with an exaggerated (but not that exaggerated) version of the Jack Nicholson persona, which was the very definition of suntanned, sunglasses-donning, courtside-seats-at-the-Lakers-game ’80s cool. Both portrayals are perfect for their respective films. 

The Joker might get his comeuppance at the end of the movie, but Batman remains by and large a celebration of ’80s ebullience and id run amok. How could it not when the movie itself was a big-budget superstar project designed to make millions of dollars for Warner Bros.? When looked at this way, it makes a lot more sense why Prince, was tapped for the film’s soundtrack. Prince also worked for Warner Bros., and he hadn’t had a major hit album since his soundtrack for Purple Rain five years earlier. Pairing him with a profitable film franchise was corporate double-dipping at its most ingenious. And Prince, like Nicholson, personified a lust for life (as well as for sex and power and instant gratification) that jibed with much of what pop culture celebrated in 1989. 

In Rolling Stone, Burton said he listened to Prince’s music constantly while filming Batman, particularly when conceiving its version of the Joker. He even included “1999” and “Baby I’m A Star” in a rough cut of the movie before Prince was contacted to write an original song or two for the soundtrack. Prince, in turn, produced a whole album’s worth of songs after watching about a half-hour of early footage. 

Unlike Prince’s other late-’80s LPs, Batman was recorded quickly and, intentionally or not, sounded more direct and commercial than much of his recent work. But it was not a traditional soundtrack in the sense of helping to tell the story or adding to the mood of the film. Much of Prince’s music doesn’t even appear in Batman; the most prominently used songs include “Partyman,” which is employed during the “Joker defaces an art museum for some reason” scene, and “Trust,” which appears before one of the big Joker vs. Batman action setpieces in the film’s final third. They are hardly instrumental parts of their respective scenes. If you’re not a Prince fan, it’s easy to overlook these songs as mere background noise. 

Prince’s Batman is more of a commentary on the film and its themes than a functional part of the film. It sounds like what it is: a bunch of songs Prince wrote after seeing a movie he thought was kinda cool. This is truest of the soundtrack’s biggest hit, “Batdance,” a six-minute vamp composed of samples from the movie, references to the old Batman theme, and even songs from Prince’s own Batman album, including snippets of its two best tracks, “The Future” and “Electric Chair.” 

“Batdance” was a huge hit in the summer of ’89, eventually topping the singles chart in August. Today, it’s considered a novelty track, a jokey signifier of late-’80s cheese. I’m not going to argue against that; “Batdance” is a novelty track that rode to the top of the charts on the strength of Batman’s popularity, and it essentially helped Prince’s album do the same. Prince was still respected by critics and serious music fans in 1989, but his commercial prospects were already dimming, and it’s doubtful that he could’ve had a No. 1 album without the considerable promotional benefit of a major motion-picture tie-in. “Batdance,” in turn, was a commercial for Batman dressed up as a Prince comeback single. 

Nevertheless, “Batdance” is better than it’s remembered as being. The quotes from the film are integrated with intelligence and wit, Prince plays some excellent rock guitar, and the different sections of the song gel surprisingly well. (The “Vicki Vale” part is particularly awesome.) “Batdance” is no “Let’s Go Crazy,” but it is leagues better than Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers

“Batdance” is the most overtly Batman-centric song on the album; part of why it seems so ridiculous now is that it’s so closely related to a film that pop culture subsequently pushed to the side. The rest of the Batman soundtrack is only tangentially related to the film, in spite of Prince’s best efforts. The vocals on the sappy Sheena Easton duet “The Arms Of Orion” are credited to Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale, just as vocals on the other tracks are attributed to characters in the film. But if you set aside the liner notes and the album cover, Batman can be appreciated on its own terms as one of Prince’s more approachable records from the end of the ’80s. 

While nothing on Batman belongs on a mixtape of Prince’s A-list hits, you could certainly find room for the shadowy death-funk of the “The Future” and the great psych-metal track “Electric Chair” in a lost-gems mix. Plus there’s “Vicki Waiting,” which is the kind of simple, likeable pop song in the mold of “Pop Life” and “Alphabet Street” that Prince soon seemingly tired of writing. I also really like “Partyman” and “Trust”; even if they are Prince in autopilot party-funk mode, they’re a lot more fun than the mannered art-rock moves that Prince attempted with mixed success in the wake of Purple Rain. 

Prince initially approached Batman as a way to (in the words of Rolling Stone) “make a Prince record without making a Prince record.” Today, it’s as if the album belongs to nobody; if you took a poll at the Prince concert I attended few weeks ago, Batman would surely rank among the least-loved releases from Prince’s glory years. It’s true the Batman soundtrack will never belong with Purple Rain, 1999, and Sign “O” The Times in the pantheon of all-time great Prince records. It lacks the ambition of Around The World In A Day and Parade, it wasn’t the formative work that Dirty Mind is, and it doesn’t have the backstory that makes The Black Album fascinating. It’s just a record of knocked-off, nice-enough songs that Prince pretended were performed by fictional people. But my 11-year-old self loved it. And on this count at least, I agree with him. 

Coming up: Santana’s Supernatural

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