If I’m honest, I wasn’t overly thrilled with the Batman soundtrack by Prince, that serviced the 1989 movie of the same name. Upon the first few listens, the songs were hit and miss for me. While I loved Batman as a movie, as a future franchise, as a hokey 60’s television program, as action figures I owned as a pre-teen, and the Taco Bell promotion, the soundtrack left me feeling out of sorts.
It’s not that I didn’t eat up everything Prince produced, arranged, composed and performed. It’s not that he wasn’t already an icon after only a decade in the business. It wasn’t that he had ever disappointed me on an album release (although let’s be honest, 1985 was shakey for a hot second). It’s just that I was …meh.
The year was an interesting one for music. Madonna released her best album to date (and what would be her best record in a decade) Like A Prayer. Its Pepsi-tie in, burning crosses, a healthy dose of stigmata, and a black saint were more than enough to generate controversy, attention, and curiosity. Janet Jackson would sneak out “Miss You Much” to radio stations and blow the roof of who we thought she was as a singer. Sure, Control was funky and all, but who had ever heard something so textured, and entertaining as “Miss You Much.”
Then comes Prince. 1989 was a year he was supposed to take off — allegedly. 1987’s Sign O the Times wasn’t toured in the U.S. and Lovesexy didn’t hit the notes with the public as he would have liked; the tour was hemorrhaging capital. So sure, maybe take some longer time off than he usually would have, and just reset. Get out of people’s eye line and then come back with something new and fresh a year later. Make ’em beg. But let’s face it, Prince doesn’t reset, or take time off. He keeps recording. He continues to create music, despite what the world is doing. Then lo and behold, some weird little song hits the radio. Let me back up just a skooch. (Skooch is a technical term for “just a little bit,” by the way.)
Batman director Tim Burton got in contact with Prince at Jack Nicholson’s prodding. They were using “1999” and “Baby I’m A Star” as stand-in filler songs while filming, to evoke a mood or atmosphere. They figured, why not just call him and ask him to do a couple of songs. Gentlemen?! Let’s broaden our minds! Prince never does “just a couple of songs.” Prince wrote a whole album of songs, some of which were used in the film, some of which served as inspiration from the movie. (That’s a fancy word for “we can’t fit it all in and some stuff doesn’t fit at all, but let’s fill up the cassette, shall we?”) The liner notes to the tale told a more vibrant story of how Prince, after seeing chunks of the film at Burton’s offering, wrote and sang songs from a character’s point of view. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, he’s going to use samples from Keaton for the melody of this song!” Hey, I was in a car with no cassette player when I bought the album. I was trying to soak in the music as much as I could before I even heard it. Much to my chagrin (or relief), Prince did not sample Jack or Michael’s voice to make a whole song. You can understand why I’d think that since “Batdance” was … wait, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let me go down the list, mmkay?
“The Future” — it’s the first song you hear after the credits in the movie, echoing through the streets of Gotham as a tourist family is quickly losing their way from the sights, and finding their way into a thief’s back alley. Movie dialog from that sequence is the first thing you hear in the song. “I want you to tell all your friends about me!” the caped crusader tells his victim. “Who are you?!” the scared-shitless thief asks. “I’m Batman.” Aaand cue the beat. The scene reads like Jesus on the cross between two thieves, one mocking him, the other scared for his soul and begging for mercy from the Lord.
“The Future”’s bassline swirls under a knocking beat that dates the song to the late 80s, a bit. However, it’s not to be dismissed as a tune coated in late 80s pop tropes. Instead, Prince speaks as Batman (one of the only two songs on the album told from the crusader’s point of view), pontificating about the unforeseeable future and serves as a dark warning for people to shape up before they end up in hell. Prince declares he’d rather sacrifice everything on earth, including his own body, to save his soul in the afterlife. “If there’s life after we will see/so I can’t go out like a jerk.” The words feel juvenile, but the meaning is clear. It’s a mainstay in Prince’s music almost since the beginning. It’s Prince’s way of wearing a sandwich board and yelling, “REPENT! FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND” at the bus stop. His vision of the world serves as an allegory of man’s desperate need for redemption.
Prince’s mantra of ignoring what’s thrown at you on television and in movies, and living in the moment and realizing who and what you are and where you’re existing is a rallying call all too familiar. His consistent balking at the system (he would later visit this idea after seeing The Matrix) and breaking free of being inbred with information and false flags spikes in “The Future”. “Systematic overthrow of the underclass/Hollywood conjures images of the past/New world needs spirituality that will last.” While Prince was aware of the world around him, he certainly took the old Christian-touted route of being in the world, but not being of it. Even in “The Future,” his mantra of a better world wasn’t a quiet notion. In “Sexuality” (Controversy, 1981), he says, “We need a new breed leader, stand up, organize.” In “New World” (Emancipation, 1996), he asks, “How we gonna make it in this brave new world?” Prince has seen the future and hopes it will be… something.
Whether you buy into Prince’s new world dogma or not, the lugubrious timbre is infectious. It’s not mid-tempo, but it doesn’t come blazing out of the barn like “1999” or “Let’s Go Crazy” did. It takes the side door, where the real fans wait to deliver its message of pending catastrophe in the wake of spiritual conviction.
“Think about the future.” says the Joker. “Electric Chair” plods into the Batman soundtrack like a child having a tantrum. The ear-numbing bass, one reminiscent of “Hello” or “Girl,” the screaming guitar, and garish synths are there to keep your attention. Prince doesn’t rely on musical tricks in “Electric Chair.” Instead, he rests on his ability to tell a story about lust and redemption. Prince’s religious influences are up front in this song, and he throws all caution to the wind. He disavows the dogma he was taught as a child, “if a man even looks at a woman with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultery with her” (which sort of begs the question, where does that leave the woman, but that’s another story). Prince is perfectly willing to sacrifice his own life for a woman he worked his way toward through her friend. “I saw your friend first, that’s who I danced with/all the time I was watching you.”The happiness he feels with his new female friend blinds him to the banality of life. “The music rocked us, our eyes locked thus/Makin’ us see a trippy picture shoo.” It’s then that he throws his hands up and chants one of the most memorable and thought-provoking choruses (and vastly underrated in my opinion) in his music: “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind/then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.” He’s willing to shun everything, and ultimately dying, for love. His character in Under The Cherry Moon followed the same path, chasing the woman he loved — and who loved him — and died for her in the end. But is it selfish to forfeit to such an extent that the one who loves you can then no longer enjoy you in person? Is it an over-romanticized version of a relationship? You can live for love, but love doesn’t pay the light bill.
Perhaps it’s more of a death wish; to be so totally in love knowing you could lose it or afraid you’ll never love more than in this moment, that you’re willing to die because any other minute you live will be less than the here and now. It’s a tragic scene played out all too often, men or women eschewing their livelihood and well-being for another. I wonder if Prince ever saw The Hairdresser’s Husband, a French film (although the film was released a year after Batman, the theme in Prince’s music stretch further). A hairdresser is wooed by a man who has always fantasized about marrying a hairdresser. However, a decade into their loving marriage, she commits suicide because she’s so happy and is afraid of the happiness she has found with her husband ending. Anything less would be a disservice to their relationship and to love itself. Is Prince so willing to walk to his death because he sees a greater love on the other side? The last part of the bridge brings to mind lovelorn couple of Romeo and Juliet, “2 commit the crimes of passion that sets us free/Me lovin’ U, U lovin’ me”. He seems resolved to give up everything for love.
Michael Jackson may have said he was a lover, not a fighter, but Prince lived it through his music and in his life. While we never heard much of anyone dating Michael Jackson, the laundry list of women Prince romanced would be enough for a sleeve tattoo. Prince would often sacrifice himself for the woman’s love. The irony is that he only did that in his music, not his personal life. Prince’s real mistress was his music, and the list of sacrificed souls around him is just as long, if not longer, than the romances. That became his future.
In typical Prince fashion, the third song in the tracklist is a ballad, and it fits quite well in the realm of the Batman soundtrack. I’ve gotten so much flack personally for touting the beauty of “The Arms of Orion,” and I suppose I will continue to do so here. Maybe it’s because it’s my default warm-up song when playing the piano. But I’ve never backed away from this song (or its simplistic and sexual b-side “I Love U In Me”) as the perfect ballad for Batman. While this song didn’t make an appearance in the movie, it is written from Bruce and Vicki Vale’s perspective, and sung by Prince and Sheena Easton. While the Romeo and Juliet notations started in “Electric Chair”, one almost wonders why “The Arms of Orion” wasn’t included in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet film as the go-to love song that kept the young lovers connected; each one singing a verse from their bedroom, separated from the other but looking at the same stars. (Ironically, Lurhmann used a gospelized version of “When Doves Cry” in his film.)
The scenario is one played out for decades. Prince certainly pulled out the long-distance relationship trope, which is why maybe some fans don’t like it. “When I am lost or feeling lonely, I just look 2 heaven/I find my comfort there, God only knows where U are 2night”. You can almost see the boy and girl, languishing on their bed, surrounded by their Trapper Keepers, iPods, and Nike tennis shoes while wondering, “Whatever will I do? Wherever will I go?”, a modern “Romeo, wherefore art thou?” While we’re not sure what pieces of the film Prince saw, or if he saw it in full while writing the music, it certainly seems to make sense that he took a cinematic approach to many of the songs and “The Arms of Orion” is no small example. It’s melodramatic, sure. It’s rimmed with sugar. It’s overly hopeful. But it’s never to be dismissed as an invalid track on this album.
Prince may have examined the heavier side of love and sex, but at some point, one has to step back and have fun. In Batman, the Joker (formerly Jack Napier), whose life is dramatically altered, offers a consistently macabre and sinister party atmosphere. “Partyman” (which replaced “1999” when used as a stand-in song) is written from the Joker’s point of view, hailing himself the new king in town as the go-to party planner. (Can you even imagine the deposit you have to put down for that?)
The music is used where the Joker and his cronies destroy art in the Gotham Museum of Art, disrupting a lunch date with an unsuspecting Vicki Vale (who thinks she has a date with Bruce Wayne), a photographer now working on the Bat-story in at the Gotham Globe. The Joker crashes her date with Bruce Wayne and tries to seduce her to join him. It’s a wish the Joker makes in Prince’s song, as the sample of Vale’s “Oh, I love purple” is not easily overlooked.
Prince’s attempt to relay Napier’s now-twisted ideology in “Partyman” comes across almost like an anthem, begging listeners to listen up as he “tell U what my name is!”, then proceeds to chant “Partyman” repeatedly. Prince’s braggadocio, as the Joker serves as a fluid display of his Gemini astrological sign, also inhabiting both sides of the Joker; one being the criminal and gangster, the other the mutated hubba hubba bubba of Gotham laying siege — either mentally or physically — wherever he goes. “I rock the party, I rock the house/I rock the whole world north, east, and south.” Prince himself lived his adult life without rules and doing what he wanted to achieves his goals — like a gangster. His other side was just as human, loving the playtime, the parties, the women. It would seem the Joker, and Prince could both be Geminis, and perhaps aren’t that far apart in their approach to life. Prince holds court throughout the song — as the crown and the jester, Gemini again — demanding “all hail the new king in town.” “Partyman” sounds like a Camille outtake, but was explicitly recorded for Batman in March 1989. It’s the standout track on the A-side of the album.
Not to be missed: the 12″ single of “Partyman,” which includes “The Purple Party Mix,” and the video mix. Not to leave Camille in the dust, the B-side here is a Camille outtake, “Feel U Up (Long Stroke”). To note, “Feel U Up” dates to 1981, but was updated and tracked for the aborted Camille project before being added here.
The first side of Batman ends with a song that took me a long while to enjoy. It’s still iffy sometimes, but I can appreciate the fanbase’s love of the “Vicki Waiting.” Told from Bruce Wayne’s point of view, it seems that Wayne laments not being able to meet with Ms. Vale whenever she calls him. His constant, and often obsessive, duty as Batman has become his mistress, while Vale waits in the proverbial wings always having to yield to his higher duty. He doesn’t seem to be able to commit his love to her because the crime of Gotham city permeates his sensibilities. “All is well in Gotham City, the sound of terror is all U hear/Sometime a pistol take the place of her body, Sometimes her body’s here.” Wayne’s obsession with the Joker’s ongoing crime spree also serves as an unseen interloper in Wayne and Vale’s relationship, leaving both to sleep alone rather than together.
The song itself has a lackadaisical attitude, stumbling out of the gate with otherwise can’t-be-bothered drums and a secondary chord progression. It mirrors Wayne’s inability to commit to a relationship because he’s otherwise preoccupied. “Vicki Waiting” seems to take the same approach, never filling out as a song, suffering somewhere between a demo and a song we’d more expect from the Gemini Partyman himself.
“Trust” was used to replace “Baby, I’m A Star.” Both songs are upbeat and full of testosterone-laden vibrato. While “Baby, I’m A Star” is more of a personal anthem of self-encouragement, “Trust” seems to find Prince full engulfed in his celebrity, albeit as the Joker. Once again, I find myself hearing themes in the Joker’s song that Prince has used throughout his music, those of solidarity, a new world with new ideas (“Dig it now, Another world awaits us/Another power 2 see”), and eventually renouncing the physical (possibly out of guilt?) in favor of a higher spiritual bliss. “Just let yourself go, don’t put up a fight/Sex — it’s not that type of party (Higher, higher, higher)/Girl, we’re gettin’ higher 2 night.” With Prince embracing his Gemini calling, it would seem again that Joker and Prince could be the same, someone who battles his status quo (whatever it may be) against the deliciousness of a more sinful lifestyle. Although, here it proves the Joker is selling snake oil. He’s unredeemable but gaslights those around him. Could it be that the listener is being sold a bill of goods framed in gold but ultimately hiding a world of excess and greed, not unlike televangelists today who preach prosperity to their poor parishioners while they sleep in a 10,000 sq ft McMansion on a hill? Spoiler alert: the Joker hands out money, “Money — how much’ll make U happy?/U can have it all if it’ll suit U right,” then gases everyone in sight. Batman steals his balloons and takes them out of the danger zone for Gotham’s citizens, but not before a few lose their life to the toxic vapors. One wonders if the Joker would change his tune had he read the same bible Prince did as a child, “what does it profit a man to gain a fortune, and lose his soul?”.
The song is a stepper by every standard. It’s fast-paced to the point that even Riverdance could choreograph to it, peppered with a finger-curling hook, frenetic-sampled vocals between the verses, and a dizzying production that is sure to intoxicate the listener as much as the Smylex gas from the balloons did in the movie.
In the end, Prince seems to come to his senses, his spirituality (that will last) overcoming his carnal nature. The only line on the album attributed to Prince himself is the last one of this song, “Who do ya trust if U can’t trust God?/Who can U trust — who can ya?”. It sure to fuck ain’t the Joker.
While I can deal with “Vicki Waiting,” it’s “Lemon Crush”’s ear-piercing falsetto that brings me to my knees, begging for the Next button. It’s the only song solely associated with Vicki Vale. I’m regretful in that I don’t have much to offer in a recommendation for this song. It feels like a throwaway track and is one I skip over more than not. It fits within the sound of the album, but as a track on its own, it falls short of anything interesting. Perhaps it’s the melody or the lyrics that throw me. The music is worthy of a rewrite. If Prince can rewrite a Mazarati song (or two), he could have reworked this one into something more pleasing to the ear. And while I know some fans will adamantly disagree with me (because every Prince fan is the best and biggest Prince fan, you know), this remains my truth.
Prince is known for monster ballads. Not the Bon Jovi or Motley Crue type, but the Prince type. He redefined ballads on his records, made them a staple of his music, and they were never to be missed. Arguably, the first one we all took notice of was “Do Me, Baby” on Controversy. Others followed on almost every album, “International Lover,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “Under The Cherry Moon,” “Insatiable,” “Condition of the Heart,” “When 2 R In Love”, “Shhh,” “Savior,” and of course “Adore.” Batman doesn’t get a pass, because “Scandalous” sits near the end of the record as a jewel of the album. Told from Batman’s point of view, it reasons out the taboo nature of a vigilante making waves with a local photographer. (A sentiment inhabited solely by Peter Parker in the Spider-man series, which makes you wonder what the kid is doing at night, really.)
Even though love is explored throughout all the characters on Batman, it’s only in “Scandalous” that you hear Bruce Wayne, as his alter-ego, say “I love u” to Vicki Vale. “Understand, understand that I love U.” In the movie, Bruce has a hard time committing to the love he feels for Vicki. While Vicki is fully open to a relationship and pushes for one (albeit cautiously), it’s Bruce who resists; his internal demons laced with fear and revenge flesh themselves out and sacrifice anyone who threatens to pop that bubble. It’s only behind a figurative and literal mask that Bruce can tell Vicki he loves her. Even in the movie, Bruce confesses that he “tried to avoid all this, but [he] can’t.” Vicki begs Bruce, “I just gotta know, are we gonna try to love each other?” In “Scandalous,” Prince picks up on that struggle (another Gemini human side vs. creature of the night side) and lets Bruce explore a side of himself that he doesn’t usually let happen. It’s the side that saw his parents get murdered and made him forever distrust people (if you can’t trust God who can you trust?), and fight the evils that took his parents and his childhood from him. “Scandalous” parades as a power ballad on the outside and Prince’s blood-curling falsetto again nails the song. Underneath, the Batman — behind his cowl — finds it his only way to be himself. Maybe the two sides of Bruce’s possible Gemini status have merged. Perhaps the multiple personalities have re-incorporated into the creature everyone fears. It would be the one thing Bruce thinks himself to be the opposite of, that being something twisted like the Joker. In the movie, Batman blames Joker for creating him, a self-made sheriff, while the Joker paints a bigger picture that Batman made him. They are equal parts of the same Gemini.
It’s quite alright to get lost in the Prince ballad similitudes, to enjoy the rapturous gospel-tinged backing vocals, the soaring chorus, and the seductive narrative that drips from his tongue. But rarely has a Prince ballad delved so deep into a man’s psyche to not only help him express himself but lay waste to the things that hold him back from being authentic with those around him. Prince never really strays far from the fact that it’s Batman doing the talking here, “2night I’m gonna be your fantasy”; arguably a line that can be taken two ways.
The song has a co-writing credit with Prince’s father John L. Nelson. It’s not known, and possibly unlikely, how much input John had in the song.
In many ways, the album ends with “Scandalous” (as does the movie, by the way). The last track, “Batdance,” presents itself as a bonus track, a conglomerate of everything you just heard, either as an idea and quite literally just heard. The song doesn’t have a proper verse or chorus, but sections are clearly defined. Bruce, Vicki, Batman, Joker and Prince’s own Gemini character all make appearances in the song (and the actors playing them are credited in the liner notes as “special appearance presence,” again — literally). There are no overly bright limericks here or catchy sing-along moments. The only familiar piece you hear is Prince re-singing the theme from Batman and Robin television show in the title, “Batdance” or perhaps slipping in the original notes of “Batmaaannn” from the show. There is a more extended version circulating, but the one presented here still clocks just over 6-minutes; as long as its predecessor falling short by only two seconds. He revisits lines from former songs like “The Future”, “Electric Chair”, the later-released “Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic”, and from the b-side “200 Balloons”, a song intended for the “Trust” scene in the movie (“Who’s gonna stop 200 balloons? Nobody!”). Larger sections of movie dialog are sprinkled into the song, including Joker’s visit to Vicki’s apartment, which ends up with Bruce being shot (albeit saved by a silver tray in his jacket).
The song acts as a commercial for the album and the movie. But this oddball song hit #1 in 1989 on the charts. It had everything in its favor: a much-anticipated film, a rock superstar producing the soundtrack, and more sections than “Bohemian Rhapsody” (although less interesting than Queen’s opus if we’re honest). Its mid-section shifts gears into the otherwise “Trust”-esque BPM. It’s a half-time shuffle of sorts. Not since Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” did a song stop to change tempos in the middle, then go back to the original pace, and still be a hit. “Batdance” does, and it worked. (By the way, Richie’s song was #1, too.) The faster section would later be used on the 12″ as the “Bat Mix,” and the slower part used on its own as the “Vicki Vale Mix.”
“Batdance” isn’t your typical big movie hit song. It wasn’t even in the movie, yet relied the most on the film’s storyline to support itself. But once you hear it, you’ll never hear anything like it again.
There are no gargantuan songs on the Batman soundtrack. There are no Bic lighter anthems, no songs that anyone was necessarily humming six months after the fact. The singles history was spotty, but the album reached #1 within a few short weeks of its release. The production emits a dark tone, even on the more fun songs like “Trust,” “Partyman,” or “Batdance.” The soundtrack is more than a set of random songs thrown together that might speak to the movie’s storyline. They were all written for the film, fully inspired by it. It’s often a dismissed album by the general public, as many soundtracks are because they’re usually either a melange of random songs or are so firmly dated to the movie that people lose interest in nostalgia. But Batman is different.
It shows Prince not only challenging himself with someone else’s agenda; it’s an opportunity where he could take himself out of his celluloid imagination and purposely write songs for a specific project. It’s a project that would age as one of the most focused times in Prince’s first decade as an artist. Even without a film tie-in, the Batman soundtrack, with its strengths and weaknesses, stands as a solid Prince album on its own. It just so happens we can nerd out to the most famous DC Comics superhero at the same time. (You aren’t gettin’ that in the Marvel Universe.) In 2019, it feels just different enough that you don’t necessarily realize it’s a Prince album, but you’re certainly glad it is once you do.
- The Scandalous Sex Suite EP — the 12″ version clocks over 19-minutes, in three sections (The Crime, The Passion, The Rapture), with new dialog and sexual noises by Kim Basinger, and a guitar solo (part of which is borrowed from Sheila E.’s “Dear Michaelangelo”) in “The Passion” section that has remained unparalleled. The single also has a b-side “Sex,” and the twice-released “When 2 R In Love” (from the Black Album and Lovesexy).
- “Feel U Up” — go for the long stroke here, although if you’re up for a quickie, the 7″ short stroke will do just fine.
- “I Love U In Me” — b-side to “The Arms of Orion.” Fans recoil at lines like “when we’re making love it’s like surgery,” but maybe they’ve just never made love quite like that.
- “The Future”/”Electric Chair” single — both have remixes by William Ørbit who saw more significant success almost a decade later producing Madonna’s Ray of Light (1998). The single is harder to find, as it was only released in Europe, and done so almost a year after the album was released.
- “Partyman” video — it’s a romp through a Joker-inspired party, complete with everyone being roofied to death in the end. It’s a fun time for all.
- “Electric Chair” — Saturday Night Live performance, introduced by host & Batman co-star Jerry Hall.
- “Vicki Waiting” (live from NPG Music Club — this live offering of the Batman song was the only other release the song ever saw. To me, it’s superior to the album version.
If you want to change things up, create your own Batman extended playlist as follows:
- The Future (Ørbit remix)
- Electric Chair (Ørbit remix)
- The Arms of Orion
- Partyman (The Video Mix)
- Vicki Waiting (NPG Music Club live version)
- Lemon Crush
- Scandalous (the whole of The Scandalous Sex Suite EP)
- Batdance (The Bat Mix)
- Batdance (Vicki Vale Mix)
Starting June 20, 2019, my Twitter will be updated regularly on anniversary dates, with relevant Batman-related events, releases, etc., all celebrating Batman’s 30th anniversary. Use #Batman30 across all social media platforms. You can stream Batman on most music streaming services.