Batman Rocks! In the Key of B, Part 2

In case you missed it, Part 1 of this write-up posted yesterday.

It’s 1998. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini have a new Batman show in the works, set in the somewhat near future. They need a theme song, but it has to be different from the Batman theme songs that came before it. They need one that breaks the mold. So they turn to Shirley Walker, the day-to-day composer behind Batman: The Animated Series, and her trio of protégés, Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis. Shway!

Who can say why the producers of Batman Beyond decided on a Nine Inch Nails/Rob Zombie interlude as their theme song? Probably they were looking for something that sounded edgy, and also unlike any Batman theme that had come before. But despite trying their best to break the mold, they ended up following a path already trod by the dark knight many times before: the Batman rock song.

Forget Batman ’66’s na-na na-na theme song. The caped crusader was rocking out from Day One of that show – consider, for instance, The Batusi. This performance didn’t come after the series was already established. The world’s greatest detective rocked out to psychedelic surf music (with Bond girl Jill St. John plaing a gal named Molly!) in the first half of the first episode. How come Batman doesn’t dance any more?

Despite the embarrassment and later ironic appreciation that eventually morphed into an authentic embrace of Adam West Batman’s ridiculous tendencies, Batman movie producers in the ’80s and ’90s, like most Hollywood types from that era, had the idea that summer blockbuster movies should feature a hit single on their soundtracks. At Warner Bros., Jon Peters wanted a record full of Prince and Michael Jackson songs to accompany Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Just fucking imagine.

Looking back now, after both their deaths, I’m a little bummed we never got the Prince-MJ duets that were planned for this soundtrack album. But also, cocaine’s a hell of a drug, and frankly, the album we did get was batshit enough as it is. PUN INTENDED.

This was a No. 1 single somehow. Despite how poorly it aged, “Batdance” gave Warner Brothers a taste for blood, and from that point on, no Batman movie was going to make it out of the gate without some giant pop act crammed disjointedly into its soundtrack. There are billions of dollars invested in the global Caped Crusader-industrial complex, so when 1992’s Batman Returns came around, Warner Bros. guaranteed themselves chart-topping record sales by hiring superstar hitmakers (checks notes) … Siouxsie and the Banshees.

In retrospect, this sounds ridiculous, because we now see Siouxsie & Co. as a product of a specific scene during a specific era, and not a band that was ever going to automatically generate huge record sales. But at the time, they were hot off a Top 25 single (“Kiss Them For Me”) and appeared to be going mainstream. At least, that’s what I assume Tim Burton and Danny Elfman told the studio. In reality, they were a great band that would never come even close to Prince-level success.

This song did OK, though I’m fairly certain I never heard it before now. Still, this Siouxsie-shaped speed bump did nothing to derail future attempts to generate Batman-box office-Billboard chart synergy. Up next: megastars U2 and Seal.

I find U2’s contribution to 1995’s Batman Forever soundtrack to be pretty meaningless, so I’m exercising my right to skip right over it. Seal’s song was already released on a previous album, but it ended up being one of those tracks that suddenly becomes a smash after it shows up on a soundtrack and has the full apparatus of a major movie studio marketing machine behind it. Weird how you didn’t get any recognition for that song when it came out in 1994, then suddenly it wins Record of the Year and Song of the Year Grammy awards two years later when it’s on a Batman soundtrack, right, Seal? Yeah, funny how that works out.

It’s a solid slow jam, I guess; has literally nothing to do with Batman or the movie, but that never stopped rogue music supervisors, so whatever. Partly it still feels like luck that this song blew up, because the list of artists who lent tracks to this film’s soundtrack album is a very ’90s kind of “Let’s get nuts”: U2, Seal, PJ Harvey, Brandy, Massive Attack, Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Method Man, The Flaming Lips, Sunny Day Real Estate, Michael Hutchence covering Iggy Pop, and The Offspring covering The Damned. It’s like you threw the Judgment Night soundtrack into a Wherehouse and hired every band the CD collided with.

The same is true for the soundtrack to 1997’s Batman and Robin, the final, coffin-nailing film of the Schumacher Batman era: a grab bag of once-hot acts ranging from Jewel to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, picking up R Kelly and Smashing Pumpkins along the way. Somehow, the above song won a Grammy and the soundtrack went platinum. If there’s a silver lining in the utter collapse of the record industry, other than how much more music I can listen to for much less money, it’s that hit movies no longer have to find a way to fit some completely incongruous pop song into their narratives. If Avengers: Endgame came out in 1998, it would’ve had a Shania Twain-Matchbox Twenty duet playing over the end credits.

What does any of this have to do with Batman? About as much as rubber nipples on the batsuit – some jackass thought it would be cool. Thankfully, this trend abated, along with shitty Batman movies, such that by the time Christopher Nolan started brooding in the batcave, the requirement that films move records off the shelves had basically expired.

On television, however, it was another story.

What possessed U2’s The Edge to write a chillaxed Batman theme song? Did they drive a truckload of money up to his house? And why does it sound like an instrumental version of Berlin’s “Riding on the Metro”? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I assume Edge just grabbed some outtakes from a U2 warm-up rehearsal and spliced them into a 60-second track for 2004’s The Batman.

Gotta say I’m feeling roughly the same about the Dum Dum Girls’ contribution to 2013’s quickly canceled Beware the Batman. This was one of my favorite bands, and while the song is fine, I don’t get much out of it and it doesn’t fit at all. Is bedroom indie rock right for Bruce Wayne?

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers behind 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie wanted an “Everything is Awesome” moment for their spin-off movie. And who can blame them? I want an Oscar nomination, too. Since this film turned our hero’s crippling narcissism and lack of self-awareness up to eleven, they needed a song that could reflect that emotional state, while also demonstrating that he is, in fact, the goddamn Batman. So they called … Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump? (starts at 0:30)

Hell yeah, that was the right choice! Consider my face melted. During the course of this movie, Will Arnett sings, raps, and beatboxes as Batman; the soundtrack quotes Batman ’66; and we get multiple references to Batman’s guitar-playing prowess. It’s almost like music plays an important role in the cinematic Batman mythos!

Do I think Batman really plays guitar? Not likely; he’d rather spend that time pumping iron or choking out shoplifters. Still, the image of Bruce Wayne alone in the batcave, shredding some sick finger-tapping licks with nobody else around to witness them, rings true in a specific way. Even if the comics tell us Batman’s fighting techniques are all about the efficient delivery of maximum brutality, there’s clearly a performative aspect to being Batman. (As if the cape and cowl didn’t give that away.) It’s certainly possible that Bruce keeps his guitar chops up to snuff. You know, just in case.

So keep on rockin’, Batman. Gotham City needs you.