Artist: Prince Title: Batman Year: 1989 Tracklist: The Future 04:08 Electric Chair 04:08 The Arms Of Orion* 05:03 Partyman 03:11 Vicki Waiting 04:52 Trust 04:24 Lemon Crush 04:15 Scandalous 06:15 Batdance 05:13

BY JOHN PARALES
SOUNDTRACKS: YOU KNOW THE DEAL. When the average rock musician takes on a soundtrack gig, it means that he or she has (a) broken up with longtime collaborators; (b) fallen on cash-flow problems; or (c) just run dry and needs someone else's images, story and deadline to jump-start the old creative engines. Said musician will also issue public statements on how challenging it is to write a contract, not to mention how hip the film's director is musically and the remarkable rapport director and rocker now enjoy. Sure, rockers turn out wallpapery noodlings like the soundtrack pros or knock out the quick-bucks single to roll with the credits. But in a visual culture like ours, it takes a real subversive to turn someone else's movie into a vehicle for one rocker's private obsessions.

 

This is what Prince wanted to do with Batman. Doubtless the one-man band from Minneapolis knew from the get-go that Batman -- or as I've started to call it, Logo -- was going to be the biggest tie-in this side of shoelaces ad wouldn't be an unremunerative way to spend two weeks in the studio. He didn't even have to do the boring part -- write dramatic crescendos timed to fit the action; Danny Elfman, who wrote the Batman score, did that.
From the beginning, Prince has played with dualities: black-white, straight-gay, male-female, sacred-profane, and, of course, good-evil. His publishing company, Controversy Music, is named after the song that sets out some of those alternatives; his Lovesexy set was divided into two sets, with nasty songs to start and nice ones to finish. And since the plot of Batman revolved around the paired opposites of Batman and the Joker, with Vicki Vale as the sex object lest anyone get perverse ideas, Prince had a perfect setup.
Prince's Batman soundtrack is packaged as songs written for the movie's characters. Bruce Wayne-Batman gets the good ones and the Joker gets the bad ones, though Prince sings both, and Vicki Vale (sung by Sheena Easton) gets the mushy one; the lyric sheet notes who's who. But you can toss it out, because except for the samples of dialogue from the film, Batman is a Prince album all the way.
It's hard to avoid the suspicion that some of the songs on Batman were already sitting around Paisley Park as part of Prince's vast outpouring of music. Batman may be one hip caped crusader, but somehow I can't imagine him visiting an acid-house music club in "The Future," where he sings, "Yellow Smiley offers me X/Like he's drinkin' seven up/I would rather drink 6 razor blades/Razor blades from a paper cup" -- or telling Vicki Vale a naughty joke in "Vicki Waiting." Ditto for the Joker, who would hardly display the guilty conscience of "Electric Chair."
As a Prince album, Batman is uneven, but it starts and ends with some of Prince's most radical funk. "The Future" has a cool, ominous tone, using the layered chords that turned up on the Black Album and Lovesexy; bitonality is Prince's latest dualism. A breathy, circular synthesizer line, dissonant strings and a peculiar guitar lick -- backward? sampled? who knows? -- all drift alongside Prince's voice, wandering in the urban desolation conjured by lyrics about "systematic overthrow of the underclass."
"Electric Chair" has a harder, rock-funk beat, with wailing lead guitar and power chords piling up; the arrangement holds Yes-like meshed guitars, a bass line (from "Bob George," on the Black Album) and anything else Prince wants to throw in. The lyrics contemplate capital punishment for a dirty mind, but that doesn't stop him from making his proposition, only to screech, "I'm guilty!"
Other uptempo dance songs won't clear any dance floors, even though Prince has done better. "Partyman" is filler; "Trust" and "Lemon Crush" are filler with hooks. The midtempo "Vicki Waiting" is a little quirkier. Structurally, it's a blues number with a bridge, and it's layered with the familiar stringy, slidey sounds of Lovesexy, but while the lyrics are intriguingly off the wall, the song is unfocused. Skip "The Arms of Orion," a duet with Sheena Easton only and Academy Awards nominating committee could love, and think of "Scandalous" as a lesser, racier version of "When 2 R in Love."
That leaves "Batdance," Prince's own funk master mix. It jumps all over the place, from a sample of the Batman TV-show theme, through snatches of "The Future" and "Electric Chair," quickie plot summaries and fuzzed-out lead-guitar solos, to looped Kim Basinger screams. The beat changes three times, Prince gets in a few leers and yells, "Don't stop dancin'!" It's Prince free-associating, like someone recalling the movie as a series of sex-and-power sound-bite climaxes.
As the Joker's hollow, looped laugh carries the rhythm to the end, "Batman" is no crime-doesn't-pay morality tale. Like traditional soundtrack scores, it's open-ended, shifty, and shreds pop structure in favor of pure momentum and cheap thrills. "Batdance" may be the raunchy, snappy movie Prince would have made if he had final editing rights. Happy with his dualisms, Prince knows that virtue without vice, good without evil, just don't tell the whole story.