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Batdance: What Prince’s Hit ‘Batman’ Song Did For Hollywood
Warner Music
In Depth

Batdance: What Prince’s Hit ‘Batman’ Song Did For Hollywood

The cinematic tie-in that couldn’t fail, Batdance was a sample-filled song that saw Prince respond to the Caped Crusader’s call for help.

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When Prince issued Batdance as the lead single from his Batman soundtrack album, it marked the start of a new era for blockbuster movie tie-ins while also pointing towards future developments for Prince himself. Built on samples from his own music, as well as snippets of dialogue from the film, the song made plain Prince’s growing interest in hip-hop. And yet, as a collage of ideas that also doubled as a promotional tool for the biggest film of the year, Batdance was undeniably the work of the Minneapolis maverick, bending even the Batman franchise to his own vision.

This is the story of how Batdance helped to create a pop-cultural moment not even Prince could have predicted.

Listen to the best of Prince here.

Why did Prince make Batdance?

Ever since scoring his own box-office smash, with the Purple Rain movie, in 1984, Prince had recorded increasingly complex albums which, in the case of 1987’s Sign O’ The Times and the following year’s Lovesexy, were promoted with high-concept tours that blurred the boundary between pop concert and theatrical production. Asked to provide songs for use in Tim Burton’s big-screen adaptation of DC Comics’ Batman, Prince, who already had eyes on returning to the silver screen with his Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge, saw an opportunity for a no-fuss Hollywood takeover that was too good to resist. A full album’s worth of Batman-related songs soon spilled out of him, culminating in Batdance.

“I said, you, the Bat, Batman,” Prince’s then manager – and the director of Purple Rain – Albert Magnoli, told The Ringer, recalling how he pitched the idea to Prince. “And he went, ‘Cool.’”

The recording: “It’s really crazy, and we probably won’t use it”

A longtime fan of Batman, Prince had taught himself the theme tune to the kitsch 60s TV show as a child, learning to play it on his dad’s piano. Drawn to the psychological complexities in Burton’s version of the story, he began recording new songs and reworking old cuts, crediting each track to one of the film’s three main characters: Bruce Wayne/Batman (as played by Michael Keaton); Batman’s nemesis, The Joker (Jack Nicholson); and Wayne’s love interest, Vicki Vale, whose role had been taken by Kim Basinger, the 9 1/2 Weeks star who would soon begin an intense relationship with Prince himself.

Of the mass of songs Prince recorded for potential use in the film, Burton selected six, among them the gothic funk of The Future, the boudoir ballad Scandalous and the James Brown throwback Partyman. Left on the cutting-room floor was 200 Balloons, an upbeat four-to-the-floor jam that Prince would rework into Batdance. Six minutes long, Batdance was a collision of chopped-up samples, quickfire grooves and furious guitar riffage that would be attributed to all three of the film’s characters, with interjections from studio technician Matthew Larson (“Get the funk up!”) and Prince himself, largely in the guise of his new-found alter ego Gemini (“Keep bustin’”).

Recorded in one all-night session in his Paisley Park studio complex, the song put a maximalist full-stop on Prince’s Batman project, throwing into the mix snippets of other unused cuts from the era, among them We Got The Power and House In Order. Soon to replace the album’s original closing song, a spiritual distress signal titled Dance With The Devil, Batdance was, even in Prince’s estimation, a bold gambit for radio play. Crossing paths with Albert Magnoli while leaving the studio in the morning, Prince handed the new recording to his manager, along with a warning: “It’s really crazy, and we probably won’t use it. It’s really long.”

“Not only do I like it,” Magnoli told Prince when they next spoke, “but it is going to be the opening single to the album.”

Was Batdance in the movie?

Although Batdance wasn’t used in Tim Burton’s Batman movie, it was issued as the soundtrack album’s lead single on 6 June 1989 in the US (a UK release would follow on 12 June), almost two months after the film’s premiere. Backed with 200 Balloons, the song that Prince had stripped for parts, the Batdance single edit, trimmed to a tight four minutes, jettisoned the guitar solo and original feverish outro, and hit No.1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles, Hot Dance Music – Club Play and Hot 100 charts. Prince’s first mainstream chart-topper since the release of Kiss three years earlier, it more than made good on Music Week’s prediction that Batdance was “sure to be massive, and not only in Gotham City, Batfreaks!”

Going on to achieve platinum sales – Prince’s second single to do so, after When Doves Cry – Batdance dominated the airwaves over the summer, boosted by a pair of 12” remixes: the house-indebted The Bat Mix, which lifted from yet another then unreleased song, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, and the low-slung Vicki Vale Mix. A third iteration, featuring extra vocals from Prince, plus verses from legendary golden-age rapper Big Daddy Kane, was created but remained in Prince’s vault.

“Warner Bros said they didn’t like it; it was too different,” remixer John Luongo later told the Los Angeles Times. “But that was on purpose… [Prince] loved it, that was enough for me. That was the greatest honour in the world.”

The legacy: “An aesthetic bridge between the campy 60s ‘Batman’ show and the Burton take”

Expanding to include sequels, threequels and prequels, along with character spin-offs for the big and small screens, the Batman franchise has since taken on a life of its own. A part of that legacy, Prince’s soundtrack album marks the point when Hollywood began to court the music industry for crossover promotional opportunities: Seal’s Kiss From A Rose would repeat the Batdance trick for Batman Forever (1995), while many of the best film songs, from Streets Of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen, Philadelphia) to You’ve Got A Friend (Randy Newman, Toy Story), have been written by voice-of-a-generation stars. A clear line can be drawn from Prince’s Batman record to Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther album.

For Prince, Batdance presaged a concerted move towards hip-hop with the Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds And Pearls albums. In acknowledgement of Prince’s own influence on the genre, the song would itself be sampled by Sir Mix-A-Lot (Beepers, 1989), Ultramagnetic MCs (Poppa Large, 1992) and Public Enemy’s Chuck D (Mistachuck, 1996).

Batdance would also inspire one of the best Prince promo videos of all time. From appearing as himself, soundtracking proceedings from deep inside the Batcave, to cavorting with a host of Batmans, Jokers and Vicki Vales while dressed as his own half-Batman, half-Joker character, Gemini, Prince used the Batdance clip to further develop the explorations of duality that characterised much of his music.

“The set is full of dry ice and gothic architecture, and it almost works as an aesthetic bridge between the campy 60s Batman show and the Burton take on the character,” Stereogum wrote, more than 30 years later, of what they called the “truly sick” clip. With approval, they noted: “Prince throws himself into the absolute silliness with total commitment.”

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