SoundTreks | Batman (1989)
There’s a new Batman film coming up. It’s directed by Zack Snyder, and it’s called Batman Fights a Dude: Big Ol’ Franchise. In this one, Batman fights The Superman. It seems to me that The Superman would easily win that physical altercation (can’t The Superman lift entire airplanes? would a fistfight really be the best way to confront him?), but surely the filmmakers will be careful to introduce some sort of sci-fi conceit as to how the odds would be evened.
But that’s as may be. While the world is still a little bit Batman goofy, SoundTreks is going to take the opportunity to look back to 1989, and examine the phenomenon of the soundtrack record to Tim Burton’s mega-smash Batman, performed by Prince.
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Tim Burton famously disliked the inclusion of Prince in Batman. However good the songs may be, Burton went out of his way to make his movie look like it was timeless. It could have taken place anywhere from the early 1930s all the way to the near future. By including Prince, the film was suddenly pegged in a specific timeframe. If you want to include a pop star in this timeless world, select someone with a more timeless sound.
But Prince we have, and to Prince we shall listen. This 1989 soundtrack record was a massive success at the time, and doubled as a soundtrack and Prince’s 11th studio album (he has released 37 studio albums to date, not including live albums, compilations, or records credited to The New Power Generation, Madhouse, The NPG Orchestra, or those two internet-only albums). Put on purple, and let’s have a listen.
Track 1. “The Future”
You may immediately notice that there are only a few videos posted in this article. That’s because Prince is notorious for protecting his own music from proliferating online without compensation. He’s one of the few artists who is successful at doing this. Even Metallica folded eventually. The videos below may even be taken down within the next few days. I apologize that you cannot listen for free. But this is a good record, so go ahead and pony up the $10 and download it.
Right off the bat (no pun intended), we have to acknowledge that this record is an odd collection to ascribe to a Tim Burton film, and to Batman in particular. One can tell that Burton and Prince did not work together to form a cohesive sound. The score to Batman was composed by Danny Elfman, and it has a Gothic, Stravinsky-inspired tone. These R&B superfunk songs definitely do not fit.
That said, this era of Prince was when he was particularly strong, and these songs are danceable, enjoyable, and wicked. “The Future” has a lyric about how Hollywood envisions the past. He’s seen the future, and it works. Perhaps this was Prince’s attempt to interpret the film’s timeless qualities.
Track 2. “Electric Chair”
“Electric Chair” is one of the harder songs on the soundtrack and is good for blasting from car windows. It’s grinding and sexy. This was a time when most of Prince’s songs seemed to be composed specifically for strip clubs. The crimes mentioned in the song, therefore, feel like sexy crimes. He’s clearly attempting to evoke The Joker, or other criminals that Batman fights, but the connection – if that’s even feasible – ends there. He talks less about muggings and more about “touching your mouth.”
Perhaps I missed something creeping through popular culture, but is Batman considered a sex symbol? I know in the Schumacher-directed Batman films, the outfits were highly fetishized, but I’ve never gotten the impression that Batman is seen as any sort of sexually powerful being. He’s too broody. I even get the impression that he himself is 100% chaste. Applying Prince levels of sexuality to Batman is totally wrong.
Track 3. “The Arms of Orion” feat. Sheena Easton
This duet with Sheena Easton is a tender love ballad that does not appear in the film. I should perhaps note that the bulk of these songs actually do not appear in Batman. “The Arms of Orion,” then, is very, very distant from the mood, the sentiments, and the events of Batman. I have personally never been the biggest fan of tender love ballads like this one, so my ears glaze over when listening to it. I admire it more than enjoy it.
Batman Returns, the sequel to this film, featured a love song by Siouxsie & The Banshees. It was called “Face to Face.” It was a little dark, a little sinister. That’s a more appropriate ballad for Batman.
Track 4. “Partyman”
“Partyman” was featured prominently in Batman. In the scene where The Joker breaks into the Gotham City art museum in order to deface famous and priceless art pieces. It’s a fun scene, punctuated by this song. “Partyman” is, then, presumably about The Joker. Black and white, red and green. The funkiest man you’ve ever seen. It celebrates the fun that The Joker has in committing crimes.
The Joker is, in many ways, the main character of Batman. Jack Nicholson was top-billed, we know more about The Joker’s origin, and he is definitely instigating more of the film’s story. So it makes sense that there should be a song that celebrates him. Batman is given an orchestral score and quiet moments. The Joker is given this. It works.
Track 5. “Vicki Waiting”
Vicki Vale, played in the movie by Kim Basinger, was a Gal Friday character from the Batman comics dating back to the ’40s. She’s made periodic appearances throughout Batman, and became the primary love interest in 1989. Prince wrote a song about her. I don’t know what woman Prince is referring to, as the woman in the song is clearly not the sexy and resourceful photojournalist from the movie. The woman in the song is a vixen-in-waiting. She’s waiting for a sexy Batman to sweep her off her feet. Again: The sexuality of Batman is placed in the foreground, where it never lives.
Track 6. “Trust”
“Trust” appeared in Batman during a Joker-backed anniversary parade wherein he dumps $2 million in cash over the heads of Gotham City’s citizens. He then proceeds to release poisonous gases into the city, ensuring that he’ll murder them all. Why does he want to murder all these people? Because he is an evil man who enjoys death. Although Heath Ledger’s Joker was more terrifying (he felt like a serial killer), Nicholson’s Joker got shit done.
Why is a poppy, upbeat song like “Trust” played during this sequence? I have the feeling that this was a studio choice, and that the selection was chosen before the context of the scene was known. The lyrics of the song have nothing to do with the scene, aside from a passing reference to money. I’m guessing it supposed to serve as a generic party anthem. It works as a party anthem. It refers no no Jokers and no Batmans.
Track 7. “Lemon Crush”
Everytime you kiss me, lemon crush. If you want to posit a connection between this electro-rock-funk number and Batman, I want to hear it. Because this track is about as far from Batman as you can get. It’s a strip anthem, a commercial jingle, a dancefloor classic, but for Batman, nay. Unless we accept Batman as an erotic dynamo.
I enjoy the song immensely, however. Can anyone tell me the name of the electric-sounding power chord that appeared in so much of this era’s hip-hop? I refer to it as a “bwamp,” but surely there is an official moniker for the sound. It was heard prominently in the theme song to In Living Color. It was the first sound on Milli Vanilli’s first album. What is that sound called?
Track 8. “Scandalous”
See “The Arms of Orion.” Another tender ballad that is perfect for a Prince record, but odd for Batman. Indeed, this song’s attachment to Batman only robs it of its romantic and erotic power. Imagine if you were attempting to seduce a young woman using Prince music (a common and effective tactic), and this came on. She may begin feeling amorous. But then she sees the record sleeve with the big Batman logo on it, and she begins to have second thoughts. Scandalous.
Track 9. “Batdance”
This was the hot single from the record, and was the fourth of Prince’s #1 hits. This single is insane. It’s a dance remix of dialogue from the movie, mixed in with Prince belting “Batman!” Perhaps it was such a huge hit because it’s the only song that is directly evocative of the movie. The movie, it must be recalled, was a juggernaut. It has mountains of tie-in merchandise, which was, at the time, pretty much unprecedented since the days of Star Wars. As such, anything tied to the movie was going to be a hit. In effect, then, “Batdance” was the 1989 version of that one disco Star Wars theme. But I would listen to “Batdance” 100 times over before I listen to Meco again. Because, despite how weird it is, it kinda rocks. It’s a good note to end on.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
It’s apples and oranges on this one.
Tim Burton’s Batman is a pretty great movie that redefined the character for a generation, and pretty much changed the way people see Batman to this very day. Batman is seen as a dark and broody character, which was a notion introduced to the general public by this film. It’s also a visually striking film full of a wonderful German expressionist aesthetic. It’s a superhero noir film. It is well loved if perhaps dramatically arch.
The Prince record, on the other hand, is a party record. It’s sexy, funky, energetic. It’s a great Prince record that only incidentally has a Batman logo on the cover. In a parallel universe, this record was called “Trust,” had something else in place of “Batdance,” and it was just as good, but less of a hit. The synergy between Batman and Prince flowed, one-way, in Prince’s direction. Prince did Batman no favors, and I’m guessing Prince had no interest in doing any favors. Prince, even to this day, has probably never read a Batman comic book. Nor should he. He’s a musician who staunchly follows his own muses. A stronger influence would have stood in his way.
So we have a great movie and a great soundtrack that go together about as well as a great savory salmon filet coated in a high-grade brandy-tinged cake frosting.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.