Normally, this series takes on an artist who’s a bad person and whose “badness” has tempered his or her ability to make quality albums with consistency — in other words, those who have more or less stumbled onto a good album or two in their careers. If someone is too busy getting arrested, treating people like crap, letting his ego get in the way of other people having creative input, and spending his time punching gift horses in the mouth, it follows that his musical career will suffer. With this as my starting point, there shouldn’t be any write-up about Prince, namely because he’s remained generally successful for more than 25 years and was a superstar for most of the ’80s and the first half of the ’90s. On top of that, he put out a number of very good to excellent albums during that time, from Dirty Mind in 1980 to The Gold Experience in ’95.

But then something struck me in the past week: it’s been more than ten years since Prince has put out anything really decent. I don’t agree with the gushing praise some people (I’m looking at you, All Music Guide) have given his last two albums — they’re paint-by-numbers bland. Maybe this is due to Prince getting older and “running out of things to say,” not to mention funky ways of saying it, but maybe it’s because his badness (as opposed to His Purple Badness) has finally caught up with him after all this time.

Á¢€¢ There’s really too much to cover when talking about Prince’s ridiculous behavior, so I’ll just elucidate on two things: that damn symbol and the way he treats his fans. As for the first, I’m sure most of us are aware of Prince’s decision in the mid-’90s to change his name to an unpronounceable and typeface-unfriendly symbol (which, laid on its side, looks sort of like this — O{+> — leading most media outlets to refer to the Minnesota native as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” or “TAFKAP”) as well as performing with the word “slave” written across his cheek. Supposedly the former was a sign of his “rebirth” as a new artist and the latter was because he was being treated by his record label, Warner Bros., as … well, as a slave. What people may not know is that both of those actions were directly tied to one specific and calculating reason that makes Prince look like little more than a petulant brat.

In 1992, after Diamonds and Pearls became the second-biggest-selling album of his career, Prince signed a new five-album, $100 million contract with Warner Bros., his home since 1978, which had two main clauses upon which each new album turned: (1) he was to be given an extremely large advance per album, and (2) the amount of the advance was subject to renegotiation if his previous album did not hit an agreed-upon sales number. Well, the first album in that deal, whose title was the unpronounceable symbol (it was nicknamed “The Love Symbol Album”), failed to meet that sales baseline. So Prince did what anyone would do in his situation: he changed his name to the symbol, declaring that his Warner Bros. contract was null and void because it was signed by a man named Prince Rogers Nelson, who no longer existed. When that rock-solid legal argument didn’t work, Prince, who now asked to be addressed as “the Artist,” wrote “slave” on his face and railed about how record companies were unfair because they owned their artists’ masters. Now, this is an important point that raises a legitimate concern regarding an artist’s control over his work in the modern corporate environment, but in this case Prince left out the fact that he didn’t say shit about the subject during his first 15 years with Warner Bros., and only became interested in the matter when the label asked him to take the pay cut he had already agreed to!

If one needed any more proof that both the name and the slavery argument were nothing more than narcissistic cash grabs, remember that as soon as Prince finished his five albums for Warner Bros. he removed “slave” from his face and seemingly stopped addressing how other recording artists were being treated. Then, in 2000, after his songwriting/publishing contract with the label finally expired, Prince immediately changed his name again — to Prince. What happened to the new musical direction? The artistic rebirth that necessitated another identity? Yeah, not so much.

Á¢€¢ In 1998, toward the tail end of the symbol-name part of his career, Prince said in an interview that “when people made fun of my name change … it was mostly white people, because black people empathize with wanting to change a situation. My last name, Nelson, is really a slave name … and it was white slave owners who gave it to their slaves, so why should I go by that name now?” It would be dishonest to say there isn’t a bit of truth to the statement about his surname, but it was far from prudent to make such sweeping generalizations about the races that make up a large majority of his fan base. How did white fans react when told they weren’t empathetic? And how did black fans, who Prince painted as being in solidarity with him due to a shared history and the bond of slavery, react when he returned to his “slave name” two years later?

Prince has a troubling history of attacking or dismissing those who care about him and his music the most, including long periods of estrangement from his parents, especially his father. But the fans — the ones who, especially nowadays, pay his salary — come in for the worst of it. Partly through a desire for complete control after the fiasco of his record deal in the early ’90s, Prince regularly cracks down on any fan site on the Web that uses his image. In the last couple of years he’s also become notorious for threatening YouTube with lawsuits for allowing any videos on the site that use his image or music, whether it be a film clip, a live performance, or a baby dancing to one of his songs for 30 seconds. It wouldn’t be out of line to think that both the quality of Prince’s output in the last 15 years and the reduction in his sales figures for the better part of that period are linked to his increased paranoia over control of his works, his image, and other intellectual properties, and the repercussions that he’s had in his dealings with his fan base.

But getting back to my past week’s reflections, the second thing that struck me was how the madness surrounding the recent release of The Dark Knight is very much in line with the madness that surrounded Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, whose “soundtrack” was by Prince. I put “soundtrack” in quotations because even though the packaging contained the words “motion picture soundtrack” as well as the Batman insignia and pictures of Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger, it really wasn’t one — only the songs “Partyman” and “Trust” actually appeared in the film. It was really a Prince album through and through, using the film as an influence more than anything else. (A second soundtrack, Danny Elfman’s “original motion picture score,” was released in August of ’89.) Supposedly Prince was asked to contribute a song to Batman and was shown a rough cut in early ’89 to gauge his interest. He must’ve liked what he saw, because he proceeded to come back the next week with about ten songs that were already near completion.

While the Batman album and its first single, “Batdance,” rode the wave of Batmania to #1 on the Billboard charts, Prince — and many of his fans — look very unfavorably on this movie tie-in nowadays. In fact, the only Batman-related song that appeared on Prince’s three-disc set The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993 was “200 Balloons,” the B-side to “Batdance.” (On the other hand, Wikipedia says that “ownership of the ‘Batman’ franchise is complex, and the hit singles from this album were not permitted to appear on any of Prince’s ‘hits’ collections. Even on the concert t-shirts which listed all Prince’s album titles to date had the song ‘Scandalous’ rather than Batman. Despite this, Prince has performed a number of the album’s tracks in concert over the years.”)

This is a shame, because the Batman album is an underrated work in Prince’s catalog, containing some highly enjoyable and creative compositions. Throughout the album he takes productions of the Sounds of Blackness Choir, an orchestra, and his own voice and guitar work, then digitally manipulates them and “plays” them through a synthesizer, creating some interesting effects that match well with the dark atmosphere of the film. He also throws in dialogue from the film (Keaton, Nicholson, and Basinger are listed as “special guest presences”), editing it in a way that makes the first eight songs Prince’s loose retelling of the film’s narrative as a love triangle between Bruce Wayne/Batman, the Joker, and Vicki Vale, with Prince casting himself in the additional hero/antihero roles of himself and a dual Batman/Joker character named Gemini. The ninth and final song, “Batdance,” is in a way a retelling of the retelling, a deconstructive breakdown and reassemblage of both the film and the album using additional dialogue, samples from both the album and nonalbum outtakes, and spurts of almost Dada-esque sexual nonsense, such as “Hey, ducky, let me stick the seven-inch in the computer.” The fact that an abbreviated version of it topped the U.S. pop charts may have been due to the hype and excitement that surrounded the film, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that “Batdance” was a #1 song, and one of the strangest ones to ever occupy that slot.

Additionally, even within the limitations of writing for a particular movie and trying to make the music “fit” what’s on the screen, Prince comes up with a diverse collection of songs that are mostly tuneful and well constructed. In fact, the two songs Burton (or, more likely, Batman coproducer Jon Peters) used in the film may be the most “generic” Prince songs in the batch — both “Partyman” and “Trust” are straight-ahead, danceable pop-rockers with funk touches here and there. On the other hand, among the tracks available for download here, there’s a nearly straight-up rocker in “Electric Chair,” an atmospheric pop ballad in “The Arms of Orion,” the midtempo R&B grinder “Vicki Waiting,” and the fast, sexy funk of “Lemon Crush.” It’s unfair that the Batman album has slipped through the cracks of late-’80s nostalgia, and in fact it looked to be out of print until recently, as there were no new copies available of it on Amazon. One of the entries for the CD version still doesn’t have the album cover on display, and since the cover is just the Batman insignia, it couldn’t be missing because Prince wanted it taken down … or could it?

Electric Chair

The Arms of Orion (with Sheena Easton)

Vicki Waiting

Lemon Crush

About the Author

Matthew Bolin

Matthew Bolin discovered popular music could be a good thing at age 13. During a field trip to a local college library, he found Rolling Stone's "100 Best Albums, 1967-1987" issue, and a great and glorious world opened up. In the years since, Rolling Stone has shrunk, but Matthew has moved up in the world, and will eventually claim his title as "America's Librarian" sometime in the next decade.

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