This year is the 30th anniversary of Prince’s eleventh album, Batman, and I have many thoughts and emotions about it which I will recount for you now and you will accept them regardless of what you think of this oft-maligned project. THAT’S RIGHT, MALIGNED.
Batman was the third soundtrack of Prince’s career, and the first for a movie he wasn’t actually in. There will be a lot of commentary on this album as the year progresses (it came out June 20, 1989, so prepare yourselves for a thinkpiecey summer), and much of it will be hate. By contrast, I had a very special relationship to it, so I’m just going to get mine out now.
When this album dropped, I came to it with all of my radars lit up. Batman came out the summer I graduated from high school, and I was still three months away from moving into the Steeb Hall dorm on OSU’s south campus. I was already a Prince fan, and I was looking for him to redeem himself a little after the previous year’s Lovesexy (which wasn’t bad so much as shockingly unexpected). I was already a life-long comic geek. And for the hat trick, I was already a Batman fan. There was an enormous amount of buzz leading up to the release of the film and for its out-of-left-field soundtrack. I was standing in a serious intersection of fandom at every turn.
There was an enormous amount of attention and rumor swirling around the film, which was already riddled with risks and was maddeningly different than anything else out at the time. Tim Burton was still just some weird director who had just released Beetlejuice the year before, and Batman was only his third film. Jack Nicholson was cast as the iconic Joker, comic actor Michael Keaton was the titular hero, the soundtrack was going to be done by the newly religious Prince…it all sounded like a Saturday Night Live fever dream that shouldn’t work.
Then photos and merchandise started coming out and everybody lost their collective fool minds. We were stunned that it looked so legit. And, of course, the “Batdance” video was a bananas mash-up of Prince and comic books and ballet and really fake DJ scratching.
You have to understand that Prince’s album not only didn’t come out in a vacuum, it was coming out on the heels of something no one had seen before, which gave it an enormous gravity. Here’s a hot take none of the reviews are likely to mention: prior to this film, Batman was basically trash as a property. All most people knew about Batman was the old 60s TV show, the campy near-sitcom, and it had all but ruined the brand. That changed when comic artist Frank Miller did a comic mini-series called The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, in which he basically rebooted the hero, making him gritty and violent and more realistic.
The mini-series changed the entire comic industry. There were news articles at the time trying to determine if comics were becoming the new thing to worry about (all over again, for the thirteenth time). The 80s was consumed with the idea of kids having their minds warped by media. Same argument you hear today but with 2000% less social media. Anyhow, the comic was a huge success and, because the Miller portrayal was significantly more realistic than perhaps any portrayal before, there was talk about a movie almost immediately. You could actually budget and shoot something like The Dark Knight Returns. Three years later, we got the movie by Burton. It was pretty much the only superhero thing in the market.
The short, non-Wikipedia version of this is that the soundtrack was a Warner Bros. push to cross-pollinate its artist roster with its movie projects. There were a few permutations about how this might go (including the idea of Michael Jackson doing half the songs) but in the end Prince locked it down and cranked out the songs before anyone realized how insane an idea it was to have the guy who just released “Alphabet Street” the year before doing a superhero soundtrack. So the album and the movie both dropped that summer and the world changed overnight for comic book fans, movie fans, Prince fans, and for the movie industry itself (thanks in large part to Jack Nicholson’s wily play to take a cut of the gross to get in the make-up). The movie legitimized a new genre and Prince had a hit record with a bunch of singles he sorely needed at the time. (Lovesexy had, shall we say, underperformed.)
I was 18 when all this was going down, hormone-crazed and newly independent at college. I had several huge Batman posters, but my biggest one was basically the cover of the Prince album, Batman’s symbol on black. I had it on my dorm room wall on the fifth floor of Steeb Hall and when the curtains were open, you could see it from the street like a Batsignal. Mad sexy. I can still be found on occasion at Catfish Biff’s, the pizza joint across the street from the dorm, having a slice and looking up at my old room for the signal.
Which brings us to the album proper.
The movie turned out to be good, so it really amped everything up, including everyone’s reception of Prince’s music. What’s cool about the soundtrack is that not all of the songs are used (thank God) and even when a song is used, only the part that fits is there. That’s a pretty common way to use music in a film, but most films eventually get all of the songs from the soundtrack onscreen. Not Batman. There were clear narrative pushes with songs like “Partyman” and “Trust”, but most of the album wasn’t even in the film. It was essentially bonus content. Seeing as how the intent wasn’t to have Prince do an entire album, the tightness in the decision about what made the cut makes sense. That Prince took it upon himself to fashion a whole album after being inspired by the project in progress is a huge deal. I challenge anyone to point to another instance in his career when he put himself in service to someone else’s vision to this degree.
Mind you, Prince was no stranger to a movie set at this point. This was all happening two years after Under the Cherry Moon. By the time Batman is being shot, Prince is the same number of films deep as Burton. Still, Prince saw something in what was happening on the Batman set that compelled him to do something he hadn’t ever done: he became a team player on someone else’s enormous project. Even if the music sucked that would be a profound observation on his career at that point.
Then there is the music itself. “Batdance” was wild, but wasn’t as polarizing as one might think. It sticks out in his catalog, but it’s not so weird for its time. At that point in Prince’s career, fans were getting into the habit of questioning his decisions. Critics may have been divided on Prince, but people were used to loving everything Prince did until Under the Cherry Moon opened. Even then, we still liked the music. We just didn’t go see the movie…at all. So we were kind of getting into the habit of criticizing Prince, but the relationship was still okay because we just started treating him like a talented weirdo, not like he couldn’t make good music. Fortunately the awkwardness didn’t last because “Batdance” was a hit regardless.
Radio stations had an edited version they used that cut out some of the odd elements, but it was still “Batdance.” The song was practically impenetrable – what do we do to this? Dance for a minute, then hop on one foot, then sit down and drink? – but you could still put something like that out and have a hit in 1989. This was on the tail end of the 80s, when all popular music was weird as a matter of course. The Art of Noise had a hit in 1988 doing a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” with Tom Jones, but that was a rare strike at normalcy. Their typical hits were downright confounding and pioneering in their use of samples. Kraftwerk was a staple in boomboxes through no design of their own; they just fit. MTV was still watchable. In short, all bets were off artistically. It’s worth mentioning that The Art of Noise was selling mad gold records releasing the kind of stuff Prince was attempting in “Batdance,” so it’s clear that he was listening to all of that work. It was, in fact, unavoidable. Max Headroom had a TV show around this time, so glitchy sample music was kind of the order of the day. And in a move to tie all of these disparate elements together, know that Art of Noise released the hit theme song and video for the movie Dragnet in 1987. “Batdance” had some clear cultural, musical, and chart-minded precursors. The single was basically a “Batdance” road map, down to the mid-song style changes.
All of that is to say that, as a fan of Art of Noise, Prince and Batman, I have a soft spot for “Batdance” that people who may be exclusively Prince or electronica fans may not have.
By the time the movie had been out three months, Prince dropped the second single, “Partyman“. The song is clever, funky, and in complete service to the film, which is something of a stretch for our boy. It uses instrumentation that I find interesting, even now. It works beyond all convention and may be my favorite song on the whole record, though I admit that is due in large part to the video. “Partyman” is a top ten Prince video for me. His sense of humor has never been more present outside of Under the Cherry Moon, which also makes it a very him thing. Not to mention that the funky drum break at the end of the extended version of the song is my total jam. When that break drops at 5:53 in the video I am still floored, mouthing the words, “What IS that?” Even the chord progression at 6:30 with the laughter dropped at every four and half beats is mad compelling.
Releasing “The Arms of Orion” was a clear misfire, and was likely an attempt to capitalize on the Sheena Easton gold he had struck a couple of times before (“Sugar Walls” and “U Got the Look”). Prince had a hit with “U Got the Look” with Easton two years before. By the time he dropped “Orion” as a single, the Batman movie and the album were starting to wind down. Prince probably figured he could get another hit off of it. He was wrong. Conversely, he released “Scandalous” the next month…with a video.
Three months in, the movie was still in the top ten earners of the season every week, and Prince was either fueling or feeding off of that. I’m inclined to say that Prince had two proper singles in him (“Batdance” and “Partyman”), and then the rest was just fumes. He spent his last dime on “Partyman” and “Scandalous” was shot in a dark room, while the remaining two singles didn’t get anything but release dates.
As far as the rest of the album goes: “The Future” I love, “Electric Chair” I respect, but never play. “Arms of Orion” is generally reviled. “Vicki Waiting” is a clear Prince song that I never play. “Trust” I still dig, “Lemon Crush” I still love. At the end of the day the album works for me, but is a singularly odd entry in his catalog. It is definitely a product of its time, and essentially a work for hire. It falls at a life-changing time of his life, and before his relationship with Warner Bros. completely melted down. It is in many ways the opera Prince was always threatening to compose, and should be considered in that light. It is not a pure Prince record, and when it misses, it misses hard. The movie hasn’t aged well, but the music still works, and as Prince albums go, it is a fascinating combination of idea, passions and agenda.