“The Future” – Batman (1989)

This is the opening song from Batman. The eleventh official album released by Prince. As the name suggests, this is the soundtrack to the Tim Burton directed movie – Batman. The album was released on 19 June 1989 by Warner Brothers records and the movie opened four days later for Warner Brothers studios. Now I’m no conspiracy theorist but I think there’s a link there. Apparently we have Jack Nicholson to thank for Prince’s involvement on this project. He suggested Prince’s participation to the powers that be and Jack gets what Jack wants. The movie was a certified blockbuster and like a lot of young boys and girls, I got swept up in all the excitement. I wore my “Batdance” cassette-single down into dust (we hadn’t yet invested in a CD player) and I even got my picture taken with the Batmobile (Mrs Thrawn too – just not together). It’s a shame that a lot of Batman fanboys weren’t super pleased with the movie. It just wasn’t as truthful to the books as they’d hoped. Batman, they argued, would never shoot at people or try to kill them. Alfred would never bring anyone into the Batcave (even Kim Basinger). And who the fuck is Jack Napier? It was a lot closer to the books than Adam West’s portrayal but it just doesn’t stack up that well against the Dark Knight movies. It was a fun and exciting movie for its time and the Batmobile and the Batwing looked exactly as you hoped they would. It just hasn’t aged too well as a movie even though it still looks pretty good.

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies it’s easy to forget just how much impact Tim Burton’s version had when it came out (despite the criticism). Batman had the highest-grossing opening weekend of 1989 and broke Superman II’s record for the highest weekend for a superhero movie.  It was the highest-grossing film in the US that year ($251,188,924) beating out Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ($197,171,806)[1] and there were at least two soundtracks released for the movie; Prince’s Batman and Danny Elfman’s Batman: Original Motion Picture Score. The score only made it is as far as number 30 on the Billboard 200 but as far as movie music goes, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of movie music ever made and has become synonymous with the Batman (definitely more than Prince’s music or the stuff in Nolan’s movies). So much so that it has been re-used in a number of other Batman related projects (Batman: The Animated Series, the Lego Batman series, etc).

Prince’s Batman made it all the way to number one (made it ma, top of the world!) and stayed there for six weeks; which is no surprise given how popular the movie was. You could have released an album of nothing but the Joker making fart noises and it still would’ve gone gold at least (purple and green fart machine). This was Prince’s biggest selling record since Purple Rain (eleven million copies worldwide) and it was essentially a one man band affair. There are other musicians and voices on the album but for the most part Prince has used these parts as samples; acting as DJ Gemini and putting together the songs at his mixing desk. The lead single from the album, “Batdance” is the best example of DJ Gemini’s work. It was Prince’s fourth number one single in the US but it never appears on any compilations or best-of albums. This is because the ownership of Batman is a bit of a hot and twisted mess so Prince essentially signed away all his rights when he agreed to make this album. From a legal perspective, it’s a Batman album, not a Prince album (and with all the vocal samples, no song is more linked to the franchise than “Batdance”). The bulk of the album was recorded over about 6 weeks through February and March 1989 (“Electric Chair” and “Scandalous” were from 1988, and “Vicki Waiting” is a reworking of “Anna Waiting”).

“The Future” was recorded during this period and the song is a cold, dark minimalistic funk house track featuring Prince (obvs) and the Sounds of Blackness. It also includes samples of Clare Fischer’s orchestra. Prince grabbed a sample of Clare’s strings from the song “Crystal Ball” and added them to the mix. Even the contributions from the Sounds of Blackness are a bunch of samples that DJ Gemini has put together. Which is a really interesting way to use their contribution. There are some “real” instruments on here too (guitar, bass, etc.) but everything has been put together in a way that makes it obvious that this is supposed to be a “dance” track. This is Prince riding the wave of electronic dance music that started to gain ground in the late 80s. The Peach and Black team made the observation that this song is a vision of the future of music in the way it’s constructed and the samples that it uses. Sampling certainly wasn’t a new thing at the time but it has become almost a genre unto itself in recent years. The future will be full of samples.

 

“I’m not gonna kill you. I want you to do me a favor,
I want you to tell all your friends about me.”
“What are you?”
“I’m Batman”

 

The first few seconds of this record are almost silent and the sounds of the movie are the first things you hear giving it an eerie feel. This is Batman’s introduction in the movie so it makes sense that this is how the album should open. It introduces our hero and reminds us that the album is tied to the future number one film in the country. The reason the voices of Batman and the bad guy (Nic) are so low in the mix is because Prince was using a rough cut of the movie to sample the audio before any additional dubbing was done. Interestingly, this opening fight scene also lets you know exactly what type of Batman you are watching. He doesn’t swoop in and save the family from getting mugged (he just watches) and he doesn’t even return the stuff that they had stolen from them. He just beats up on the bad guys and then flies away. At this point he’s just another thug having a good ol’ time wailing on some punks. This is just the first of the many bits of movie audio used throughout the album but in this song this is the main sample (there’s one other at the end, but we’ll get to that).

 

I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it works
And if there’s life after, we will see
So I can’t go… like a jerk

 

The future will be what? What will it be? Will it be pretty? Will it be rich? Tell us caped crusader! It sounds like the opening line’s a partial sentence but really what we are being told is that the future will just “be”. That is to say, the future will exist. Whatever else the Batman does, the future will still be. The apocalypse will come or not but the future will still happen (as Doris put it – whatever will be, will be). In that sense, the future works. It might even work well (maybe). This is starting to sound like a song of hope (perhaps). A hope for the future (?). Which implies that the present doesn’t work. Something in modern day Gotham City just isn’t working. But how do they get from where they are in the broken and busted present day to the future that works. The song book says that this song has a “lead vocal by Batman” (all the songs on the album are “sung” by characters from the movie). So this song is the Batman outlining his vision of the future after he’s finished cleaning up Gotham City. If today’s Gotham is broken and overrun with delinquents and vagabonds then the future will run like a well-oiled machine. Batman will fix what’s broken. This is Batman’s dream. This is why he puts the bat suit on every night. Don’t forget though, this is also a Prince song so we get the mention of the afterlife thrown in. A mention that comes with a very powerful “if” statement. Considering Prince’s firm belief that there are no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to the afterlife (it will be, period) this line is clearly intended for Batman’s mouth, so it makes sense that he’s a little more skeptical than Prince. There’s also the double meaning of “we’ll see if there is anyone left alive after I finish cleaning up Gotham”, if there’s life after I’m done. Given the amount of collateral damage inflicted on the city by Batman’s crusade there may not be many left at all. Remember that this is “year one” Batman. He’s new to this whole caped crusader game and isn’t too sure what he’s doing (he hasn’t even got a sidekick yet). Sure he has some dreams and expectations about what his role will be but he’s essentially flying blind (as a bat).


Systematic overthrow of the underclass
Hollywood conjures images of the past
New world needs spiritually
That will last
I’ve seen the future and it will be

 

In any revolutionary setting it’s usually the ruling class that gets overthrown but here it’s the “underclass”. Not middle class, not lower class. Underclass. Why is that? Has Prince/Batman misspoken? Is this a typo? Remember that this is Gotham. A wretched hive of scum and villainy that is crying out for a hero (or at least a guy who punches criminals for fun). Our Batman is singing about the underclass that is currently running Gotham. The criminal class. The mobsters, punks, vandals, corrupt police and politicians. One by one, he plans to take them out. Prince is making a comparison to the real world here too (double the meaning, double the value!). In the real world future the criminals and sinners will be overthrown and the future afterlife will be totally awesome. The heavenly future will totally “work.” Remember that Prince is coming off his most spiritual record to date (Lovesexy) prior to recording this album so he’s still trying to find new ways to preach. But what does all this have to do with Hollywood (other than assisting with the rhyming scheme)? Hollywood conjures all sorts of images about all sorts of eras. Past, present, future and  non-existent. So what’s the intent here then?  “Conjure – to affect or influence by or as if by invocation or spell… To summon a devil or spirit by invocation or incantation.”[2] Hollywood (i.e. the entertainment industry) is all about influencing and invoking people to come and watch their movies and buy into their point of view (as though under a spell). Movies aren’t always about the past but the ones about the past often plaster over the ugly parts (at least they used to) and make everything look super awesome (this album came out before the rise of the gritty reboot and trend towards realism). Even movies set in the present and future do this when looking back into history. Hollywood movies (and TV shows) about the past were/are usually all about nostalgia. The entertainment industry placates and subdues the masses regardless of the genre. But when it’s an historical hero story, it gives people a false sense of the greatness of their past and a way to happily ignore the present (and future). Politicians use this same type of messaging to garner votes (make America great again!). This is why in the movie the mayor is so focused on celebrating the 200 year anniversary of Gotham. Forget about the problems of the present and worship the past. But the Batman is looking to the future. Hollywood’s past is just a cheap conjurer’s trick (trying to summon the devil), whereas Batman’s future is something that is tangible (at least from Batman’s perspective). Prince is saying that the past that we idolise is not real (it’s just an image) and the Future is what we should focus on (getting to heaven). And how will we make the future great? With spirituality of course. There’s only one way Prince thinks the future will be saved and in this song he’s letting us know that Batman agrees with him. America (the new world) needs salvation. This generation (the new world – double meaning again) needs to find spirituality to save their future. That’s the only way they can make it work. Batman/Prince has seen this future vision in his dreams and this is what he’s working towards.

 

I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it works
And if there’s life after, we will see
So I can’t go… like a jerk

 

Batman wants to go to the afterlife but he doesn’t want to go “like a jerk”. He wants to do the right thing and help build a new world paradise (lest he end up in bat-purgatory). He’s going to do the good work so he doesn’t get punished in the afterlife. Prince is letting us know that the fear of damnation is what is driving him (and Batman) to do the work. Don’t go to hell like a jerk. Go to heaven like a bat.

 

Yellow Smiley offers me X
Like he’s drinking seven up
I would rather drink 6 razor blades
Razor blades from a paper cup
He can’t understand, I say 2 tough
It’s just that I’ve seen the future
And boy it’s rough

 

“New and improved Joker products! With a new secret ingredient: Smylex!” The “yellow smiley” was a symbol of the drug culture of the 80s during the Second Summer of Love. It became synonymous with acid house and dance music (especially in the UK). Funnily enough what appears to be a dig at the dance scene at the time appears on an album that at times sounds fairly “housey” (he even calls “Batdance” out as “house” if you listen closely).  Ecstasy (“X”) was (and still is) the drug of choice for club kids all over the world and in those days (much like today) drugs were freely available to people who knew where to be. And if you were famous like Prince then you probably had them offered to you as regularly as a tall glass of lemonade. I imagine that razor blades would not be offered so freely but a razor blade is also a cocktail so they might have been. But then again swallowing razor blades is a fairly well known suicide attempt (double meaning again!). Drinking cocktails from a paper cup is probably a greater sin than suicide but I think Prince is more likely referencing the suicide thing. I think in the context of this song the yellow smiley and the X are referring to the Joker and his art with the real world meaning crossing over into Prince’s experiences with drugs and dance music. “I make art until someone dies,” says the Joker. He’s offering a solution to the same problem that Batman is trying to solve. He’s trying to “clean up” Gotham too. It’s just his tools are different and he has slightly different (and more numerous) targets. Batman (our lead vocalist) is saying that the Joker can’t understand that he’s doing is wrong. Which is tough luck on the Joker because now Batman has to take him out. Because he knows the future won’t be able to handle the Joker’s solution. It’s a rough trip to get to Batman’s future and not everyone’s going to be there at the end.

 

I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it works
And if there’s life after, we will see
So U can’t go… like a jerk
No, no

 

“U” can’t go. No longer “I”. Who is the Batman directing this to? Us? The Joker? Whoever it is, he’s telling them/us to behave properly so as not to allow the future to become eternal torment and damnation.

 

I’ve seen the future and it will be
Wait a minute

Pretty pony standing on the avenue
Flashin’ a loaded pistol – 2 dumb 2 be true
Somebody told him playin’ cops and robbers was cool
Would our rap have been different if we only knew?

 

The Joker is a pretty pony isn’t he (that hair – swoon). In the movie he uses a pistol a number of times but the two times that really count are when he’s standing on the street (or avenue) and he (spoilers) shoots Bruce Wayne’s parents and then when he shoots down the Batwing with his pants cannon. That’s why the number 2 is repeated (twice) “2 dumb 2 be true.” It’s more than just Prince-bonics. The shootings are the two key events in the story; the first gives rise to the Batman and the second leads to the end of the Joker. Somebody might have told Jack Napier that playing a robber would be a cool thing to be. But for Bruce Wayne, this is serious business. This is his work. Would the relationship between the Batman and the Joker have been different if they had known the future? Undoubtedly. Batman is wondering why he and the Joker have to be enemies or that he has to even be the Batman at all (existential crisis unlocked!). If there was no such thing as crime. If his parents hadn’t been murdered. If, if, if. The entire universe would have to be practically re-written for the Batman not to exist. He may be questioning it but at the same time he can’t escape it. It’s been said that Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman puts on so that he can travel through normal society unnoticed. Here he’s trying to pretend that he doesn’t want to be the Batman, that somehow fate has brought him here but as a wise person once said “there is no fate but what we make” and Batman’s fate is of his own making.

 

I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it works
If there’s life after, we will see
Don’t go out… like a jerk

Systematic overthrow of the underclass
Hollywood conjures images of the past
New world needs spiritually
That will last
I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it will be

I’ve seen the future and it will be

I’ve seen the future and it will be
I’ve seen the future and it will be

“Think about the future!”

 

Now we are commanded. “Don’t go out.” Batman is becoming more forceful. This song is supposed to be sung by Batman but it’s based on one of the lines that Jack Napier (prior to becoming the Joker) yells out to Lieutenant Eckhardt just before shooting him – “Think about the future!” (for the movie geeks out there, the actor who played Eckhardt was the same guy who played Porkins in Star Wars and he was in Raiders of the Lost Ark as Major Eaton). This is no surprise because Jack Nicholson gets all the best lines and scenes in this movie (it was basically made around him). But from a character and story perspective it tells us that Jack Napier (before becoming the Joker) may have been one to think about the future which is why he and the Batman can agree during this song. But the Joker has no such thoughts. He will go like a jerk (straight off the top of a cathedral).

The song ends with Jack Napier telling us exactly what Batman wants to tell us. But Batman plans to do more than just think about it. He’s “seen” the future and it comes about as a direct result of his actions (or so he hopes). But as we’ve seen, this isn’t the perfect Batman that we know and love with his strict moral code and standard behaviour. He’s not 100% ready for the work that he’s trying to do and some errors are made but hey, how many mistakes did you make in your first month on the job?

Although he may try to claim that this song is from the perspective of Batman, this is really a Prince song. Prince, being who he is, has woven his own thoughts and feelings and beliefs into this track (and the album). Gotham City is an avatar for the real world and he uses it as his model to tell us what’s going on in the world right now. By extension, Batman is Prince’s avatar. The vehicle through which he can continue his Lovesexy message. He’s going to do the work that will bring about the future heavenly paradise on earth. I have a sneaking suspicion that this song and pretty much all the other “new” songs (apart from Batdance) were the scraps of an abandoned project that he scavenged for this record. Still, he’s managed to weave enough of the character of Batman into the song or enhance the parts of his own character to be Batman-like enough so that it fits the overall tone of the song. The Future is the light on the hill. The whole reason that the Batman exists is so that the Future can be better than the present. Which is Prince’s goal as well. The present is ugly and corrupt but if we keep true to our spirituality then the Future will work. Both wear their costumes and put on their masks to help them navigate through the world and hide their true identity from the public. Both use an array of tools and weapons to help them do their work (Batarang, Batmobile, bass, guitar, keyboards). Both are working towards an ideal Future that is their vision of what the world should look like. But for both of them it is a struggle with no end. The Future that they’re hoping for never really arrives. Or at least hasn’t yet. The criminals continue to flourish and spirituality continues to decline. But that doesn’t mean that the struggle ends for either of them because the struggle is what defines who they are and without it they would cease to exist. Neither one of them will ever go out… like a jerk.

 

 

Running time: 4:08

 

 

References:

Batman (released 1989)
Lovesexy (released 1988)
The Peach & Black Podcast
Wikipedia
Prince Vault
AZ Lyrics
Prince In Print
Prince.org
Box Office Mojo

 

 

[1] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1989

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/conjure

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