25 Years Ago: ‘Batman’ Saves Prince’s Career
On June 20, 1989, one of the world’s most famous superheroes helped Prince recover from the first sales slump of his career.
Originally asked to contribute just a couple of songs for Batman‘s big-screen comeback of the same year, in typical overachiever fashion the “Purple One” instead created an entire nine-song soundtrack in a brief, frenzied burst of creativity. The album sold over five million copies and spawned two hit singles — the chart-topping ‘Batdance’ and the Top 20 ‘Partyman.’
In retrospect, it’s safe to say much of the commercial success of the album was due to the Bat-mania that swept the world that summer. The film, which starred Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson in a scenery-chewing, spotlight-stealing turn as the Joker, grossed over $400 million and was one of the earliest big-budget comics-inspired movies. Anything that had the Batman logo on it — from T-shirts to breakfast cereal to compact discs — was guaranteed to sell.
It was a smart business move and a much-needed shot in the arm for Prince. As the ’80s wound to a close his record sales were dwindling from their ‘Purple Rain’ peak — possibly because he was releasing albums such as ‘Around the World in a Day,’ ‘Parade,’ and his masterpiece, 1987’s double-album ‘Sign o’ the Times’ faster than his audience could process them, which would lead to a nasty public battle with his record label a few years later. More recently, he had alienated even some of his most loyal fans with his previous album, 1988’s religious-minded ‘Lovesexy,’ a heavy-handed concept record that played as one continuous 45-minute long track and featured its star totally nude on the cover.
Reportedly eager to reverse his commercial fortunes, a somewhat skeptical Prince flew to London in January of 1989 to see early footage from the film. Director Tim Burton had used two of the artist’s old hits, ‘1999’ and ‘Baby I’m a Star,’ as temporary background music for a pair of scenes, and the musician quickly insisted on creating new music for the movie.
Apparently at one point, a plan was floated to have Prince and Michael Jackson collaborate on the project together, but as this hysterical account of their aborted collaboration on the song ‘Bad’ illustrates, perhaps they just weren’t meant to team up, and the idea was nixed.
Regardless, as detailed in Jason Draper’s book ‘Prince: Life and Times,’ Prince was so inspired he even tried to cancel an upcoming tour in order to focus on his work. Instead, he holed up in the studio for six weeks in February and March and ultimately turned in 11 new songs for Burton. Nine of those ended up on the soundtrack, and two of those received prominent roles in the movie. ‘Partyman’ plays as the Joker gleefully vandalizes an art museum, and ‘Trust’ as he lures Gothamites to their doom with free cash during a street parade. (Technically, the album was billed as ‘9 Songs Inspired by the Motion Picture’ rather than as a pure soundtrack. An instrumental score by noted Burton collaborator Danny Elfman was also released.)
Watch the ‘Batman’ ‘Partyman’ Scene
A fan of the Caped Crusader since his childhood — legend has it the original ‘Batman Theme‘ is the first song he learned to play — Prince got deep into the comic book’s psychology for the lyrics of his album, casting various songs from the point of view of Batman, his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, the Joker and the disputed object of their mutual affections, Vicki Vale. Although creative, this move automatically dated the album, as did the various dialogue samples scattered throughout its songs. Basically, it’s very hard to listen to this record today and not hear it as the companion piece to a movie that itself has been rendered quaint and out of fashion by the more recent, grittier ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy that began with 2005’s ‘Batman Begins.’
Plus, let’s face it, much of the music here is — by Prince’s amazingly high standards — somewhat pedestrian. We’re not sure if anybody keeps track of such things, but outside of Milli Vanilli, we imagine there isn’t a former No. 1 song from that era that gets less airplay nowadays than ‘Batdance.’ After all, it’s not really a song so much a series of disjointed musical segments that uses movie quotes to chronicle the plot and central conflicts of the film. Other tracks, from the rocker ‘Electric Chair,’ to the house-influenced ‘Lemon Crush‘ and the ballads ‘The Arms of Orion‘ and ‘Scandalous,’ are, well you know, nice. But we’ve seen a lot of copies of ‘Batman’ available pretty cheaply in the used record bins over the years, and we’re guessing plenty more are trapped under those aforementioned T-shirts.
The 2004 zombie comedy ‘Shaun of the Dead’ summed up the album’s proper place in Prince’s acclaimed discography in a very astute (if bloody) manner. As the film’s stars try to fend off a group of brain-eaters by tossing vinyl albums at them, they quickly debate which albums can be sacrificed. ‘Purple Rain?’ ‘No.” ‘Sign o’ the Times?’ “Definitely not.” ‘Batman?’ “Throw it!”
Watch the ‘Shaun of the Dead’ ‘Prince Records’ Scene (NSFW)
But here’s the thing. There are two absolute gems on ‘Batman’ that you must hear, whether it’s again or for the first time. The album opens on an extremely high note with the ‘The Future,’ which comes off like the sexy, dance-floor ready sister of Prince’s politically aware ‘Sign o’ the Times’ single. Over an insistent, pulsing bass line, we are once again warned of the dangers of drug addiction, and perhaps more importantly, urged to stay positive even in the face of an increasingly violent and cynical world: “I’ve seen the future and it will be / I’ve seen the future and it works / And if there’s life after we will see / So don’t go out like a jerk.”
Then, at the end of side one, we get the best Stevie Wonder song Prince ever wrote, ‘Vicki Waiting.’ Over a similarly rumbling-but-sophisticated bass undercurrent, our hero (hiding behind the thin guise of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne) at first tries to keep a potentially serious romantic partner at bay with a crude sex joke. But he soon owns up to his insecurities and pleads with himself for the strength to become a better man: “Talk of children still frightens me / Is my character enough to be / One that deserves a copy made? / This I one day, I hope to see / Until then, she’s held at bay by my animal-like persistence.”
Buoyed by the success of this soundtrack, Prince next embarked on his third massive film project, the ‘Purple Rain’ sequel ‘Graffiti Bridge,’ a project which flopped massively and pretty much immediately spent every bit of goodwill ‘Batman’ had earned our hero. But don’t worry, he quickly recovered from that, too.
Watch the ‘Batman’ ‘Trust’ Scene