In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Imagine the person given the task of calling Prince and asking him to write some songs for the new motion picture Batman. Imagine the face of that person when that person learned that sure, Prince was game. Imagine the scene at a Warner Bros. board meeting where someone announced that Prince had, in fact, written an entire album that would tie in with the new Batman movie, that Prince was down to do the cross-promotional dance.
Prince said no a lot. When people brought ideas to him, he was not shy about shooting those ideas down. But when Warner Bros. revved up its promotional machine behind Batman, the biggest hit movie of 1989, Prince was simply happy to be part of the machinery. Prince made an entire Batman album, and that album served as a piece of Batman merch — one more thing that would help make the movie absolutely inescapable to anyone alive in the world in the summer of 1989. Functionally, a Prince Batman album wasn’t all that different from a plastic action figure of Bob the Goon. Whenever you went into any kind of store in 1989, you would see something that would remind you that Batman was in theaters. Prince’s album was part of that effort, and it stands today as one of the strangest cultural artifacts of a deeply strange cultural era.
“Batdance,” Prince’s fourth #1 single, isn’t a dance, and it’s only barely a song. “Batdance” is a stitched-together six-minute monstrosity, is full of Batman dialogue samples and clips from Prince tracks that Batman director Tim Burton had rejected. It’s virtually impossible to judge “Batdance” as a standalone piece of music because “Batdance” was never intended as a standalone piece of music. Instead, it’s a marketing tool. But it’s Prince’s version of a marketing tool, so it’s a weird marketing tool.
Batman was always going to be a huge movie. It was essentially too big to fail. Warner put an insane marketing push behind their 1989 blockbuster. I was a kid when that thing came out, and Batman was everywhere. The iconic poster design — just the Batman logo, with no further images — burned itself into people’s imaginations. For a minute there, people were getting the bat insignia shaved into the back of their heads. It was a whole thing. (I wrote a whole AV Club column about Batman‘s box-office success last year.) I don’t know how much of that marketing push was underway when Warner contacted Prince to participate, but Prince must’ve known that big things were in the works. Maybe that’s why he was open to the idea of being a part of it.
As an idea, a goal to be chased, Prince was all over the pop charts in the late ’80s. Tons of people wanted to record with him, or if they couldn’t do that, with the other Minneapolis producers who might’ve carried some of his pixie dust. A generous handful of the biggest and best hits of the late ’80s came out of Minneapolis, but Prince himself wasn’t directly involved in many of them. Instead, Prince was a ghost, an absence. Michael Jackson wanted “Bad” to be a Jackson/Prince duet; Prince said no. Prince didn’t say no to Madonna, but when he played some guitar on her “Like A Prayer,” he went uncredited.
It’s weird to think of this ever being the case, but in the summer of 1989, Prince probably needed a hit. At that point, it had been more than three years since “Kiss,” Prince’s previous #1 hit. Under The Cherry Moon, Prince’s second cinematic vehicle after Purple Rain, had been a disastrous flop, and his 1987 concert film Sign O’ The Times hadn’t done well at the box office, either. There were other causes for concern, too. Prince had dissolved the Revolution, his iconic Purple Rain-era backing band. He’d recorded a 1987 LP called The Black Album, and then, after it had already been pressed up, he’d decided that the record was evil and that it couldn’t be released. Instead, Prince came out with Lovesexy in the spring of 1988, and it was the first Prince album since 1980’s Dirty Mind that failed to go platinum.
Artistically, Prince was still capable of incredible things. In 1987, Prince came out with the sprawling, beautifully messy double album Sign O’ The Times. These days, when we’re talking about Prince’s best album, Purple Rain is the consensus pick, but Sign O’ The Times is at least in the conversation. Sign also had hits; it launched three singles the top 10. (“Sign O’ The Times” peaked at #3; it’s an 8. “U Got The Look” peaked at #2; it’s a 10. “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” peaked at #10; it’s another 10.) Even Lovesexy, a complete brick by Prince’s lofty standards, managed to generate one hit. (“Alphabet St.” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)
Prince was a mercurial figure who never seemed driven towards overwhelming commercial dominance. He’d famously skipped the “We Are The World” recording session to go partying, and he’d veered away from the stadium-status pop-funk of Purple Rain, into the florid psychedelia of Around The World In A Day, when he could’ve been cementing his status as a mover of records. Still, Prince had been one of the foundational figures in pop music during a time when pop music had existed at the center of the cultural conversation. Maybe he noticed that he’d slipped away from that spot. Maybe he missed it. Whatever the case, when the Batman opportunity arose, Prince took it.
A few years after Batman, Prince would be locked in a famously bitter legal feud with Warner Bros. In 1989, though, Warner considered Prince to be part of the family. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Warner Music president Gary LeMel says, “We started seeing dailies, and it so happened that the Joker character was dressed in purple. The cars were purple. It started to point to Prince.” Warner reached out to Prince through Albert Magnoli, the Purple Rain director who, at the time, served as Prince’s manager. Magnoli sold Prince on the idea. Later that same year, Warner would hire Magnoli as the replacement director on their troubled action flick Tango & Cash. (I really like that movie.)
Early in 1989, while Batman was filming, Prince flew to London, where he met with Tim Burton, another deeply creative weirdo who was on a serious hot streak. Prince and Burton got along, and Burton, who’d been using Prince songs as a temp score, found parts of the movie where new Prince songs might fit perfectly. Those scenes worked. The bit where Jack Nicholson’s Joker struts into an art museum, destroying priceless masterworks while dancing to “Partyman,” remains etched into my brain. (In the movie’s internal logic, it seems like the Joker might’ve directly commissioned Prince to write a song about him, which makes as much sense as anything else.)
While on the set, Prince also met Kim Basinger, who played Vicki Vale in Batman. Prince and Basinger quickly got into a torrid affair. According to a Page Six report from 2016, Basinger, whose first marriage hadn’t officially ended yet, moved to Minneapolis to be with Prince. At the time, Prince helped Basinger record an album, which never came out. Later on, Prince also released a remix of “Scandalous,” one of his Batman songs, which supposedly included the sound of him and Basinger having sex in the studio.
In any case, nobody expected Prince to record an entire album for Batman. In Bronson’s book, LeMel says, “Prince wrote a lot of songs. I went back to Minneapolis, and he played me all the songs. He had written songs that were in places that were really ‘score’ places, yet they were brilliantly done.” But Tim Burton didn’t want a Prince score for Batman. He’d already made two movies, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, with scores from Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman, and he wanted Elfman to be his guy. (Oingo Boingo’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Weird Science,” peaked at #45.) Burton made the right decision; the Elfman score is an absolute classic. In the end, Warner released two Batman soundtrack albums — one from Prince and one from Elfman.
Many of the songs on Prince’s Batman album don’t actually appear in the movie, and one of them is “Batdance.” Prince put together “Batdance” at the last minute, using pieces of songs that Burton had rejected. “Batdance” is essentially a smashed-together collage of stuff from the cutting-room floor. It’s full of samples of the Batman dialogue, which Prince took from a working print of the film. Those parts don’t really make sense together. As a piece of music, “Batdance” is utterly incoherent, even though some of those pieces are undeniably funky. There’s a head-spinning tingly-bell intro, a nasty guitar solo, and a horny, strutting groove that comes in when the song turns its attention to Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale. (Prince, regarding Vicki Vale: “Ooh yeah, I wanna bust that body!” He then busted that body.)
Prince barely sings on “Batdance”; in the video, he lip-syncs to the movie samples more than to his own voice. LaMel says that he and the other Warner execs knew that “Batdance” wouldn’t make it into Batman itself but that they considered the track to be “a great marketing tool.” Really, that’s the only way you can understand “Batdance.” It sounds like a coked-out 12″ remix, a few actual songs cut together with sound-effects. In this case, though, we don’t get the actual songs. The track ends abruptly, after six minutes, with a clip of Michael Keaton simply saying, “Stop.” He’s doing us a mercy. There is no reason for “Batdance” to last six minutes.
The fact that “Batdance” made it to #1 is some kind of strange testament to the hold that Batman and Prince both had over a whole lot of imaginations. Maybe we all really just wanted to hear Michael Keaton saying that he’s Batman a bunch of times. Or maybe everyone just liked the video, which is truly sick. Albert Magnoli directed the clip, in which Prince plays a character that he called the Gemini, a split-down-the-middle hybrid of Batman and the Joker. (He looks more like Two-Face, an actual Batman character, but this didn’t seem to bother Prince at all.) Prince throws himself into the absolute silliness with total commitment, locking into choreography with all the dancers dressed as Batmen, Jokers, and Vicki Vales. 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.
The Batman soundtrack was the smash that Prince needed. The album spent six weeks at #1, and it became the first Prince album since Around The World In A Day to go double platinum. Weirdly, “Batdance” didn’t ascend to #1 until August, after Batman had already been out in theaters for more than a month. (The week that “Batdance” was at #1, the biggest movie in America was Turner & Hooch. Two other family comedies, Parenthood and Uncle Buck, would rule the box office in the weeks that followed.) Prince brought back the Gemini character for the deeply silly video for second single “Partyman,” and that song peaked at #18. He didn’t make a video for “The Arms Of Orion,” a duet with previous Number Ones artist Sheena Easton, but that single still made it to #36.
Superstars write songs for big movies all the time. A lot of the time, those songs turn out to be big hits. Plenty of them have been in this column. But very few of those songs are as weird as “Batdance.” “Batdance” isn’t a good song, mostly because it’s more marketing stunt than song, but its freaky audacity is still something of a marvel. As a marketing stunt, it worked. It still works. I kind of want to watch Batman right now. Prince will appear in this column again, and so will the Batman franchise.
BONUS BEATS: The 12″ single of “Batdance” featured a couple of remixes from S’Express founder Mark Moore and from future Madonna collaborator William Orbit. The former disco DJ John Luongo also put together a “Batdance” remix, and his version featured Big Daddy Kane. Warner never released Luongo’s remix; Luongo claims that “Warner Bros. said they didn’t like it; it was too different.” But that remix with Kane leaked a few years ago. Here it is:
(Big Daddy Kane’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Very Special,” peaked at #31.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Sir Mix-A-Lot built his 1989 single “Beepers” out of a “Batdance” sample. Here’s the video:
(Sir Mix-A-Lot will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ultramagnetic MC’s’ perfectly insane video for their 1992 single “Poppa Large,” which also samples “Batdance”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chuck D’s 1996 solo track “Mistachuck,” which samples “Batdance”:
(Chuck D never made the Hot 100 as a solo artist, but he did get there with Public Enemy. Public Enemy’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Give It Up,” peaked at #33.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Coincidentally, the song that peaked at #2 behind “Batdance” was another funky track from the soundtrack of a big summer movie. It’s Bobby Brown’s deathlessly breezy and unimpeachably silly Ghostbusters II jam “On Our Own,” and it’s a 9.