Happy 30th Anniversary to Prince’s eleventh studio album Batman, originally released June 20, 1989.
OK, let’s get something straight. Three decades have passed and Batman’s legacy is still somewhat unsettled. Fans such as Matt Thorne, Anil Dash, Jay Gabler, and Prince’s Friend recognize the soundtrack’s enormous success and influence. However, critics at Rolling Stone, AllMusic, and City Pages act like it’s damaged goods.
Was Prince untouchable during his first decade as a recording artist? Yes.
Is Batman where he slammed the brakes on his genius streak? No.
Before you give me the side-eye, here’s why this underappreciated project deserves a spot next to his very best work.
What’s the 4-1-1?
Expectations for director Tim Burton’s gritty Batman reboot were high. Up to that point, Richard Donner’s first two Superman films were the benchmark for big-budget superhero movies. But even that series fizzled out due to lackluster sequels.
While assembling a rough cut of the movie, Burton used “1999” and “Baby I’m a Star” as placeholders in two Joker scenes. Superstar actor Jack Nicholson felt the songs worked so well that he urged Burton to bring Prince onboard. The singer, of course, was thrilled since he taught himself how to play Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme” on the piano as a child. Plus, he wanted to bounce back from his financial losses during the Lovesexy Tour and create more movies. (The less said about Graffiti Bridge, the better.)
Prince returned to his musical Batcave and developed nine songs inspired by the film’s main characters, a trailblazing move that subsequently found the alignment of superhero movies with hit songs becoming commonplace. Anticipation for new Prince music was at a fever pitch. And when Batman arrived that summer, it was clear the Purple One was back with a four-inch heel on his competition’s throat like, “Y’all really thought I fell off?”
With 11 million copies sold worldwide, it’s easy to dismiss Batman as a “cash grab.” However, the record’s biggest singles prove nobody could predict what Prince would do next.
The #1 smash “Batdance” is a musical Frankenstein of dance floor adrenaline, stadium rock, and slinky funk with no visible stitches or scars. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, its wildly entertaining video is one of the best pieces of Gothic musical theater ever made. However, if you look past the Batmania, it represents how the human soul is a spiritual battlefield when good and evil try to occupy the same space.
The megaton funk bomb “Partyman,” along with its spunky music video, didn’t disappoint either as a Top Five R&B hit. It captures the shared essence of Prince and The Joker: rebels who took the rule book, rewrote it, and ripped it to shreds with playful grins on their faces. “Partyman, partyman / Rock a party like nobody can,” he brags in his trademark Camille squeal. “Rules and regulations—no place in this nation.”
The scorching bedroom ballad “Scandalous!” also snaked its way up to #5 on the R&B charts, igniting more unplanned pregnancies than anything he had recorded since “Do Me, Baby.” If you want a masterclass on how to speak fluent pillow talk, listen to the 19-minute Scandalous Sex Suite EP with Prince’s then-girlfriend Kim Basinger (KB: “It’s so dark in here.” P: “I can see you.” KB: “What do I look like?” P: “Overdressed.”).
The Next Steps
While Prince reminded his doubters that he could top the charts at will, the rest of Batman reinvents his signature sound in unique and creative ways.
Album opener “The Future” drifts into the shadows of Gotham’s Crime Alley. “Systematic overthrow of the underclass / Hollywood conjures images of the past,” Prince sings atop skittish drum loops and eerie waves of keyboard (“New world needs spirituality that will last / I’ve seen the future, and it will be”). Similar to his 1982 epic, 1999, “The Future” challenges listeners to examine their lives and offers hope in its prophetic chorus (“I’ve seen the future, and it will be / I’ve seen the future, and it works / If there’s life after, we will see / So I can’t go like a jerk”).
“Electric Chair” snatches you into The Joker’s demented mind, or parts somewhere south of it (“Your face looked so good / I wanted to touch your mouth / My brain is jackin’ all over the place”). So, for those fans who miss the Dear Penthouse filth of Controversy, this sizzling rocker is obsessed with the nasty and doesn’t care who knows it.
“Vicki Waiting” floats into the psychedelic bliss of Around the World in a Day while expressing Bruce Wayne’s inner conflict between who he is and what he wants to be (“Talk of children still frightens me / Is my character enough 2 be / One that deserves a copy made / This I, one day, hope 2 see”). Those words always cut deep. The reason? Because Prince—who tragically died alone and childless—wanted the same things as everyone else.
During the film’s parade scene, The Joker pulls a bait-and-switch by throwing wads of money to crowds lining the streets before gassing them. Similarly, “Trust” draws you in with The Black Album’s lustful funk (“Hot—I get so excited just thinkin’ about all we could do”) before baptizing you in Lovesexy’s pure gospel (“Who do U trust if U can’t trust God?”).
The Deep Cuts
Music flowed through Prince at all hours, famously setting aside an untold number of songs and complete recordings in his Paisley Park vault. Some material from these sessions ended up on various projects while others required some digging. Click here and enjoy some of those hidden gems!
You still wanna argue? Bring it!
Myth: Batman feels like Prince just phoned it in and said to himself, “Here’s what I think a Prince album needs to have on it.”
Reality: Not only did Prince fly to London to meet Tim Burton, but he also completed the entire soundtrack in six weeks after watching 20 minutes’ worth of raw footage. That speaks volumes about his desire to create.
Myth: “The Arms of Orion” and “Lemon Crush” are the weakest songs of the bunch.
Reality: Every Prince album has its flaws, and he’s still fascinating on what some might call “filler.” His dreamy vocal chemistry with Sheena Easton on “Orion” arguably laid the blueprint for Rosie Gaines to follow on the 1991 classic “Diamonds and Pearls.” And, in rare defense of “Lemon Crush,” dozens of laptop-era producers would need several months to come up with sounds as forward-thinking as he did in a week.
Myth: Batman sounds “cobbled together” and “under-produced.”
Reality: If that’s true, why does PopMatters give Sign O’ the Times a pass for being “a musical quilt work of dizzying versatility?” Why does AV Music praise Dirty Mind for sounding as if it was “recorded not just in Prince’s bedroom, but under his bed?” Perhaps we set such a high bar that we took him for granted.
As one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the Eighties, Batman re-established Prince as one of music’s brightest stars and brought the Caped Crusader from the comic books to the silver screen. But that’s not the most remarkable thing about this multi-platinum best-seller.
If you were to list the qualities of a great Prince album, there’s no category in which Batman comes up short. Genre-blurring experimentation? Cinematic storytelling? Guitar heroics? Limitless vocal range, global appeal, and a touch of the bizarre? Check, on all counts.