In this week's installment of the A.V. Club's "We're No. 1" series, which reexamines chart-topping albums from times gone by, Steven Hyden takes a look at Prince's Batman semi-soundtrack. While he acknowledges that it's minor Prince, hinting that it's the man's least-important 1980s release, he's surprised to rediscover that it's actually pretty good, in its way. What he doesn't come quite out and say is that if this is the worst Prince had to offer during the decade of his biggest impact, then he really is one of the greats.
I direct your attention to it because it happens to sideswipe a question that's bothered me for years: Whatever happened to "Batdance"? The song, like the album whence it hailed (and the movie whence it was spawned), was a No. 1 hit. It sounds like almost nothing else in the Prince catalog, and certainly like nothing else from his vast array of hits. And if Allmusic.com is to be believed, the only place you will find it is on Batman itself.
That's practically unthinkable. In 20-plus years, a chart-topping, platinum-selling hit has never once reappeared on either a greatest-hits collection (of which Prince has either three, four or five, depending on how you choose to count The Hits/The B-Sides) or a multi-artist '80s compilation (of which there are so many that their number has increased by one since you began this sentence)? And its presence has been essentially erased from YouTube? (Though to be fair, few artists have been quite so aggressively scrubbed from the site as Prince has.)
The closest you're going to get, short of getting Batman itself, is "200 Balloons," which provided the instrumental spine of "Batdance" and is available on The Hits/The B-Sides. If you're paying attention, you'll note that that means Prince (and Warner Bros., Prince's then-label) holds "Batdance" in less esteem than its B-side. If you're really paying attention, you'll note that even Chuck Berry's juvenile "My Ding-A-Ling" appears on a raft of best-ofs.
But "My Ding-A-Ling" was Berry's only song to top the pop charts. By contrast, the absence of "Batdance" on any of Prince's greatest-hits collections is less egregious, since the little guy scored five No. 1 hits throughout his career. So what does it matter that one's missing?
On the surface, Hyden suggests that it doesn't, saying that it's "ridiculous" and calling it "a novelty track, a jokey signifier of late-'80s cheese." But he also recognizes that it's fun and inventive, while showcasing Prince's always-astonishing prowess as a guitarist.
All true, and all of it (not just the second half) reason enough to be included in any reasonably comprehensive survey of Prince's hits. Of course it's ridiculous. So is "My Name Is Prince." Of course it would stand out like a sore thumb between, say, "Alphabet Street" and "Cream." And it's not as though "When Doves Cry" isn't thoroughly jarring no matter where you put it.
"Batdance" was essentially Prince remixing one of his songs and then scrapping the source material. It might not be one of his greats, but it was a fascinating, flawed, once-ubiquitous dead end that he promptly backed out of. It's hard to imagine Prince's creative trajectory without it, even if he and his record company have tried.