With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Leading up to KEXP's 6 Degrees of Prince progamming event on April 18, KEXP writer Dusty Henry revistis Prince's 1989 Batman soundtrack which turns 30 later this year.
He stalks the night, clad in leather. He doesn’t have superpowers, per se, but he might as well. His home is an iconic mansion, the envy, and awe of the city. There’s an undeniable cool factor when he rides around town in his trademark vehicle, the same color as his suit. He’s so cool, in fact, that he goes by just one singular name.
His name is Batman. Wait. I mean, Prince. Okay, both.
If you were to describe Prince to someone who (somehow) had never heard of the Minneapolis rock icon, he’d sound like something out of a comic book. Stories about Prince are something of modern folklore – from the classic Dave Chappelle skit about Charlie Murphy playing basketball and eating pancakes with The Purple One to Prince interrupting a Questlove DJ set to play the Pixar movie Finding Nemo instead. How could someone so eccentric and innovative exist within the confines of our ordinary world? For decades, fans have tried to answer that question for themselves.
When Prince was tapped to do the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman – the DC heroes first appearance on the silver screen – it may have seemed odd. But really, who else would be better to tap into the psyche of a man who confidently walks around the world in lavish, extravagant outfits and disdain for wrongdoing? In 1989, Prince was the closest thing to a real-life comic book superhero. His soundtrack for the film reflects that.
Batman may be one of the more controversial records in Prince’s discography – that’s saying something because he literally has an album called Controversy. When you’re assessing the body of work from someone who wrote masterpieces like Purple Rain and Sign o’ The Times, a superhero soundtrack is easy to dismiss or write off as a gimmick. Within Batman, however, we can find further evidence of Prince’s influence outside of his “most notable” works.
”I’ve seen the future and it works,” Prince sings on Batman opening track “The Future.” Prince was always an artist looking forward, even naming an album 1999 in 1982. He may not have been trying to give a prophecy – in fact, the album’s liner notes make it clear that the song is meant to be from the perspective of Batman himself – but the soundtrack would unknowingly set the stage for lucrative pop and superhero crossovers for decades to come. But before the soundtrack could claim any sort of influence, it would first have to first come to fruition.
Not everyone wanted Prince’s Batman soundtrack to happen. Most notable among its protestors was the film’s director Tim Burton. In an interview with David Breskin for Rolling Stone in 1992, Burton expresses admiration for Prince but regrets for his music’s inclusion in the film. He claims to have been pressured by the studio and the record label to include Prince’s music. Even though Burton is a professed Prince fan, being forced to include the funky soundtrack did not align with his brooding vision of Gotham.
“It tainted something that I don’t want to taint. Which is how you feel about an artist,” Burton says in the interview. “And actually, I liked [Prince’s] album. I wish I could listen to it without the feel of what had happened.”
It feels weird to dismiss one artist’s vision against another’s. That Burton, sitting in the director’s chair, couldn’t have the final say on a project he was helming is troubling. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine the film without Prince’s funky, melodramatic, maximalist soundtrack.
The Batman soundtrack is a veritable “sign o’ the times,” overflowing with decadence and late 80s excess. It’s the promise of Crystal Pepsi – a play at being sleek, fresh, glamorous, and over-the-top. Each Batman movie we’ve seen feels like a reflection of their era. While Burton may think Prince’s music dated the film, there was really no avoiding it. Just as Hans Zimmer’s “wwwwwwwwwomps” would define Christopher Nolan’s bleak and broken view of the world in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Prince is reflecting back the world he was living in.
In the same Rolling Stone interview, Burton describes the film as being, in part, about depression as well as duality and “a person who’s completely fucked and doesn’t know what he’s doing.” He paints Michael Keaton’s Batman as a person working toward their perceived purpose and trying to make a change, a contrast to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker who just takes whatever he wants.
In 2001, Prince told Rolling Stone that initially this duality would be expressed in the soundtrack in what would have been one of the biggest pop crossovers in history. The soundtrack was first conceived as a collaboration between himself and Michael Jackson. Jackson would sing the brooding ballads as Batman, while Prince would embody the Joker with devious, funk jams. For numerous logistical reasons, this never panned out.
Elements of that concept can still be felt in Prince’s final version. While Prince plays both roles, songs are written and sung from the perspectives of Batman and the Joker, with a little bit of Prince’s own worldview thrown in the mix.
Batman and the Joker are obvious representations of the classic good versus evil, but the Batman soundtrack blurs the lines. Having one vocalist symbolize both gets to the root of the moral conundrums expressed in the Batman comics and the relationship between its hero and villain. It’s the internal struggle at the core of the human condition. Do you work toward the betterment of humanity or do you indulge your own whims and vices in the short time we exist in this mortal coil?
Prince poignantly touches on the human experience with gravitas at many points in his catalog. One of which is most certainly “Batdance.” Yes, “Batdance.”
The single is maybe one of the most contested or scoffed at works in Prince’s catalog. On its face, it seems pretty, well, goofy. The song plays out more like a collage of Burton’s Gotham. It’s Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” but with copious amounts of samples of campy Batman dialogue. There’s little structure to the song, meandering with speedy drum samples, euphoric harmonies, slapping bass, and yells of “BATMAN!”
It’s easy to see how the song could be taken a musical commercial for the film, and in some ways it intrinsically is. But the song’s music video enlightens us to just how in touch with the film’s themes Prince really is.
Prince struts down the steps in what would become his iconic look for the Batman era, sporting (of course) a purple suit and his face half covered in Joker makeup – his hair is half-green to match. Typically, the other half of his costume is just Prince himself sans make-up. But in the “Batdance” video, the entire right side of his suit is the iconic Batman costume, complete with a half-cape and cowl. He is both hero and villain, good and evil, moral and moralless.
Throughout the video, he mouths the dialogue from the film – both as Joker and Batman. His dual-self isn’t the only Prince in the video either. Another version of himself stands at the helm of the Batcave computer, surrounded by guitars and keyboards as he tries to mitigate the threat of the Batman/Joker combo Prince. Joker and Batman dancers sashay across the room, aggressively thrusting their way through the scattered rhythms in the best superhero dance battle this side of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Purple One looks absolutely maniacal, torn between his two sides. He isn’t alone either. When a slew of women dressed up as photo-journalist and Bruce Wayne love interest Vicki Vail, they show off both their Batman and Joker tattoos.
At the end of the video, he’s lifted up by both the Batmen and Jokers. They set him down and he confronts each group, debating who it is he should fight against. In his uncertainty, he panics and runs for a killswitch which explodes and electric chair in the room. Trying to find the balance between light and dark can drive you to do crazy, impulsive things.
The constant culture around rebooting franchises has led to a common comic film debate: who is the best Joker? There’s plenty to choose from. Cesar Romero brought comic delight to the role in the 1960s television version of Batman, perhaps a precursor to Nicholson’s plastered smile in Burton’s 1989 version. The late Heath Ledger would earn a posthumous Academy Award for his portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s brooding epic The Dark Knight. 2016’s Suicide Squad found Jared Leto sporting gaudy tattoos in his take on the notorious villain. Later this year Joaquin Phoenix will take the role center stage with the eponymous Joker film.
But maybe no one understood the Clown Prince of Crime better than Prince.
In the “Partyman” music video, we see Prince in his full Joker glory – not tied to the goody-two-shoes influence of Batman. The video is a play on the infamous scene in the Batman film in which Nicholson’s Joker gasses the room in a museum and wrecks havoc on the artwork with “Partyman” playing in the background. But Prince’s version plays out somewhat different. His minions, also dressed in purple, enter first and pronounce his arrival, saying, “Hail to the new king: Partyman.”
And that’s what exactly Prince is. He’s a party, man. Bringing this energy to the Joker is all too apt for the character. We see this in Nicholson’s performance, but it just comes so naturally for Prince. The Joker thrives in chaos and the best parties are where chaos reigns. He dances on pianos, pours drinks into aquariums that people are swimming in, and romances multiple women in the crowd.
It all looks good and fun before it begins to unravel. The video ends with piles of people, limp on the ground. The implication might be that they’re dead. The cops come in and shake their heads as Prince lets out an iconic Joker laugh and scurries away.
Prince gets that the Joker is a clown while not forsaking his most diabolical tendencies. He allows himself to be comical, yet sinister. Much like Prince, the Joker can be hard to read and anticipate – always concocting some elaborate scheme that alludes even the most rigid of detectives (or critics).
It’s almost novel to think of a time when superhero movies were hard to come by. Or even to think of a time before Batman specifically wasn’t on the silver screen. The well of superheroes has been continually mined since. While 1978’s eponymous Superman stakes the claim as the first superhero film success, spawning numerous sequels, Batman brought in just the right amount of pomp and grit to call it the true godfather of the genre.
John Williams’ score for Superman as well as Danny Elfman’s compositions for Batman are hallmarks of orchestral superhero themes, but Prince’s soundtrack set the groundwork to explore pop music role in superhero mythology.
Even if having Prince involved made Burton nervous, it was a move that appears to be ahead of its time. Superheroes and hit songs would continue to be synonymous. You needn’t look further than the rest of the Batman film franchise to find out. Music nerds love to point out the bafflingly great compilation for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, which included the mega-hits “Kiss From A Rose” by Seal and U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” Not just that, but it also featured contributions from PJ Harvey, Sunny Day Real Estate, Brandy, Nick Cave, Massive Attack, INXS’s Michael Hutchence, and The Flaming Lips. Talk about casting a wide bat-net.
Will Smith would take Prince’s cross-over of persona and musical theme a step further in 1997 when he’d pen the Patrice Rushen sampling “Men In Black’ from the film of the same name. (The rest of the tracklist is also bonkers, featuring The Roots with D’Angelo, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Destiny’s Child, and more.)
Skirting past Prince’s canonized year of 1999 and into the new millennium – excuse me, Willennium – big budget compilation albums became a must for superhero films. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, like Batman before it, reinvigorated the film genre and dominated the public conscious with a nu-metal leaning soundtrack (hey man, it was 2001), propelled by Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott’s radio hit “Hero” (see my last parenthetical). The Spider-Man films would also do well for artists like Dashboard Confessional, Train, The Flaming Lips, and more. This rock-leaning model would continue with films like 2003’s Daredevil and 2005’s Fantastic Four.
Near the end of the decade, superhero movies began to get “serious” and pushed aside pop and rock for brooding, expansive scores – particularly in the vain of the aforementioned Hans Zimmer. But we’re once again seeing a resurgence with the bizarre and eclectic mix for Suicide Squad and last year’s animated epic Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which is still charting songs from Amine, Post Malone, Swae Lee, and others. And while it didn’t include new material, I’d be remiss to not mention Guardians of the Galaxy’s incredibly popular classic rock mixtapes.
But maybe no soundtrack is closer to Prince’s Batman legacy than the smash-hit soundtrack for 2018’s Black Panther, curated by Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. Black Panther: The Album takes a step further than just creating a mix that stellar behind the film’s exciting fights and montages. Lamar embodies both the personas of hero T’Challa and villain Killmonger.
While he’s not the sole artist performing on the soundtrack, Lamar’s voice becomes the thread that ties it all together. Much like Batman, the soundtrack offers its own interpretation of the director’s work that also complements the film in a thought-provoking manner. The battle of good, evil, and the grey areas in-between is central to the film and Lamar’s conflicted inner monologue.
The celebrity culture that was in full-force in 1989 when Prince was taking on the caped crusader has only heightened. Pop stars are something akin to real-life superheroes. We watch their mythical actions from afar, trying to piece together who these people really are and what their presence means for the world. It was only natural he’d be emulated, even if it's not done consciously. He created a template that now seems obvious. Like so much of Prince’s work, the ripple effects are still waving outward.
30 years after the release of Batman the world is certainly a different place, but it’s also not. The Gotham that Prince soundtracked feels more and more familiar, devolving into lunacy and excess. Batman is certainly no Purple Rain, but it carries with it an important sea change in pop culture. From its exploration of duality to spearheading an entirely new avenue for crossover creative expression, Prince utilized everything in his utility belt that keeps up his assless chaps.
As KEXP celebrates the music of Prince with Six Degrees Day, we take a moment to spotlight the influence he also had on fashion.
35-year-old Martin Douglas explores living with an epochal album which has been living in his subconscious for pretty much his entire life.
This is the first time the original 1984 recording has been released. Not just that, but the estate has also released archival rehearsal footage of Prince & The Revolution.