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On June 20, 1989, one of the most significant pieces of American pop culture criticism was published. It wasn’t in the form of a book or an essay, though — it was an album. Prince’s Batman soundtrack stands to this day as much more than an underrated entry in a catalog full of classic LPs. It’s also an essential commentary on not one but two of America’s greatest pop culture icons.
Since being created in 1939 by DC Comics’s Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman has gone through numerous costume changes and personality transplants: fun and campy as played by Adam West in the 1960s TV series, violent and emotionally unstable in Frank Miller’s 1986 comics miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, brooding and melancholy on the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins. But none of those guys got Batman like Prince did. As an icon, Bats has been reinterpreted too many times for anyone but a man who’s done the same to truly understand him.
Before filming began on 1989’s Batman, Tim Burton reportedly listened to Prince classics like “1999” and “Baby I’m a Star” as he reimagined Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Prince returned the favor by creating an entire cycle of songs inspired by Burton’s vision of Batman as his 11th studio LP. Most of the songs didn’t make it into the film, but that doesn’t make them any less cinematic.
The album begins with a sample of Michael Keaton’s voice as Batman, telling a Gotham criminal, “I’m not gonna kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.” The line doubles as a reintroduction and entreaty from Prince himself after the critical and commercial misstep of 1988’s Lovesexy. Dumping his usual flamboyant garb, he went moody and gothic with his look — or, at least, as gothic as Prince was ever able to get. The music felt darker, too, but it was still laced with funk; it still had love songs you wanted to fuck to, still had songs that made you get up and dance whenever you heard them.
Prince and Batman both took inspiration from a string of stunning, sexually dominant muses — women like Vanity, Apollonia, and Anna Fantastic in the real world, or like Vicki Vale, Batman’s love interest in the film. Prince sings about Vale on “The Arms of Orion,” a duet with Sheena Easton: Shielded by a mask, he’ll never be able to fully commit to her, but the arms of the constellation Orion are wide enough to keep them linked. I’d like to imagine Prince played that song for the many women who had his heart over the course of his career. He might love you, but his mask is the stage, his art, his performance. If he doesn’t have time for a civilian identity or a settled life, then, baby, just imagine that you and he are still linked when you look up at the stars at night. The album’s centerpiece, the chart-topping “Batdance,” features another ode to Vale in its extended breakdown. When you hear the repeated refrain of “Stop the press — who is that? / Vicki Vale,” you know you’re hearing an echo of conversations Prince must have had about the women he loved.
Batman allowed Prince to hold a mirror up to Batman and see himself. The world liked what he saw: The album became his first No. 1 since 1985’s Around the World in a Day, ending a four-year chart slump and opening up new horizons for his career in the 1990s. In later years, Prince seemed to position himself opposite pop culture’s cutting edge, laughably declaring “The Internet’s completely over” in 2010 and dispatching lawyers to ban his music, his videos, and his live performances from easy online consumption. But with Batman, he engaged with pop culture in strikingly modern fashion — remixing and reinventing a classic character exactly the way we do in 2016. If you saw Batman v Superman this month, you probably ran to Twitter to share everything you loved and related to or hated and scorned onscreen. In 1989, Prince did the same thing with the Batman blockbuster of his day, giving us a wildly creative album that’s more relevant than ever.