The critics have buried Madonna’s career more times than she’s changed her image. What they don’t seem to get – and what her latest album, Music, makes clear – is that, thanks to an acute grasp of her own limitations, she is one of the greatest songwriter-producer-performers in recent history.
In the beginning there was the Boy Toy, the Material Girl, the born-again virgin with the wedding dress hitched up around her waist: then came the Sean Penn tabloid inferno, the ambiguities with Sandra Bernhard, the Warren Beatty imbroglio, Dennis Rodman; and, of course, the conical Gaultier bras, the Sex book, the $5 million Pepsi-ad debacle, the Letterman implosion; lately we’ve had the painted Kabbalistic novitiate. the Harrodsbought accent, and the spectacle of “Material Mom” Madonna as Style Queen of All London.
Each and every one of Madonnds dramatic shape-shifts could almost have been designed to distract us from the essential truth about the woman: not some tawdry secret from her seedy East Village past, not gruesome sexual proclivities or repellent personality traits, but rather the curious fact that Madonna Louise Ciccone stands as one of the great songwriter-producer-performers of recent times. And yet, where this particular disco strumpet is concerned, “music” is the love that dare not speak its name.
In keeping the tabloids and the fanzines frothing, Madonna has managed to veil what is, in the final reckoning, her prime asset. Because even at those Madonna Moments when her name is on everyone’s lips, people rarely speak of the star’s musical alacrity – her masterly way with a hook, her uncanny ability to pick the perfect collaborators, her unerring instinct for the next pop—cultural mood swing. More likely they’re calculating how many months she has before she is “over.”
Yes, this artist can be cynical; she is more concerned with marketing her image than is your average Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; and her career may even have been, as music critic Greg Kot once noted, “one long hustle.”
But if that were all Madonna had to offer, would she have outlasted every one of her early-80s chart contemporaries – from Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran to Prince and Michael Jackson and still be making music more vital than that of kids half her age?
Had Madonna been a male performer blessed with the same assets, she would surely have critical respect to burn at this stage in her career. Look, for instance, at George Michael before his sudden descent into musical obscurity: the second he ditched his early-80s boy band Wham! to write a couple of decent tunes and the odd semi-smart line, Michael was being mentioned in the same breath as classic rock stalwarts like Elton John and Paul McCartney.
Whenever guardians of pop-cultural taste decide who next to ratily as a bluechip musical talent. Madonna’s name never gets mentioned. Her credibility is found lacking on two counts. As a woman she fits into no acceptable stereotype: Madonna is neither pitiably self-immolating nor conventionally defiant: she is neither an earnestly strumming Pottery Barn folkie nor a blues mama in recovery. Plus, most of Madonnas best work has been dance music, a frivolous form with roots in gay, latino, and black culture. The rock establishment has never had an easy time with dance music – think of the “Disco Sucks” backlash, with its homophobic overtones – and is suspicious of the genres hunger for constant innovation. Rock has become a pension scheme where predictability is interpreted as reliability; Madonna operates in a far more dangerous world, where overnight your groove can become a rut.
The early signs were not, it is true, promising.
Yes, this Michigan-born trooper did show impressive chutzpah when in l984 at the age of 26 she flounced across the stage of Solid Gold performing “Lucky Star,” which would become her initial top-live hit, and she was adept at co-opting all the street styles and dance moves of the day. Still, a few beat—box pirouettes and some thrift-store glad rags borrowed from London club kids (who, incidentally, disdained her) did not a long career portend. The hits from her debut album and there
were three of them, all self-written — were reasonably toothsome dance-pop fodder, but it seemed as if Madonna’s own lucky star would surely be on the wane before you could say “Bananarama.”
As if Madonna would ever let that happen. No sooner had her image as Cyndi Lauper’s slutty little sis formed in the public mind than she opted on her next album to subsume her musical identity: in came a crew of old pros who would hoist her to the next level, and help her to defy the built-in obsolescence of the pop diva. Both of the defining mega-hits from Like A Virgin — the swaggering title track and the brazen “Material Girl” – were written by seasoned songwriting teams, and the record was produced by Nile Rodgers (the eminence behind disco demigods Chic and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album). Though Like A Virgin was patchy in the extreme, the visual assault that accompanied the record ensured that Madonna would quickly attain the icon status she knew she was destined for. It says everything about the singer’s pragmatic will to power that she entered the pantheon with off-the-rack music and a gun-for-hire producer. Madonna was showing that rarest of qualities in a young pop performer: an understanding of one’s limitations. Still, she would take it from here, thank you very much.
Henceforth, Madonna would make a virtue of her voice, which was something of a throwback to the kind of adenoidal adolescents who once pouted and preened in front of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The record that gave modern context to that girlie archetype was “Into the Groove,” the anthem from Madonna’s one decent movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. This raw, exhilarating single also confirmed Madonna’s pop—classicist instincts, which have brought her l2 No.1 hits in the U.S. alone. Madonna’s singles have that ineffable quality that can transmute the most mundane moments of everyday life into something altogether more exalted. Whether you are in a shopping mall, parking garage, strip club, or video arcade, overhearing a Madonna chorus brings upon you a kind of urban satori. Like any great pop performer, she naturally embodies Wiliam Blake’s words “exuberance is beauty.” The critics’ diffident responses have tended to confirm Willie Dixon’s hoary aphorism: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”
It was on l986’s True Blue that Madonna kicked off the training wheels and emancipated herself as a versatile talent with few peers.
As co-producer and co-composer of each song on the album, Madonna showed the world she could do it all, though one is hard-pressed to ascertain Madonna’s precise creative role — aside from being the auteur of her own fame – in the collaborations that are her records. She is known to be a harsh taskmistress, and True Blue proved once again that she has an acute understanding of her limitations, since her still rather shrill voice was swathed in as much studio stardust as money could buy.
The album’s “Live to Tell” was a classic ballad by any standard, with an ascending chorus to put ingrained soft-rock songsters to shame. “La Isla Bonita” may have been an ersatz — as the lyric has it – “Spanish lullaby,” but it still has more charm than anything that strenuously witless “Latin explosion” stars such as Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias have ever recorded. The string-driven “Papa Don’t Preach” (to which Madonna only added some lyrics) was a little sonic movie that demonstrated the artist-producers perfect grasp of scale and feel. Even True Blue’s throwaway hits were impressive: the title song was a slick and spunky paean to the chaste girl groups of yore, and the unstoppable “Open Your Heart” restated Madonna’s clubland affiliations with a vengeance.
As her gleaming new singles bestrode the charts month after month, Madonna’s brash persona and sexed-up P.R. machinations were fueling antipathy in the media and among the non-record-buying public. But there was no way in, no visible chink in her armor.
ln the context of Madonna’s sundry misadventures in Hollywood, and her 1989 divorce from Sean Penn, that same year’s album, Like a Prayer, was cast almost as a comeback record. The chinks were beginning to appear, and the critics were sharpening their swords. (She’ll be over before you can say Shanghai Surprise!) As ever, the new Madonna album came with plenty of peripheral distractions – primarily the hastily withdrawn Pepsi ad, with its OneCal blasphemy, and the similarly naughty music video for the single “Like a Prayer,” in which the performer canoodled with a black Christ figure.
For all that, the song itself stands as perhaps the high point of Madonna’s career, using a gospel choir to elevate her heavenly pop chorus to near-orgasmic heights, “Like a Prayer”‘s instrumental track was as powerful as anything else being made at the time, in any genre you might name. Abandoning an electronic approach to dance music, the record shook with organic energy, from the gospel choir to the asymmetrical bass line to the strangled, hard-rock guitar solo. As always – in a year when New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul were ruling the charts – Madonna was at least one think ahead of everyone else.
Staking Madonna’s claim to further MTV time were the retro—soul dance hit “Express Yourself,” and “Cherish,” another succulent piece of gourmet bubblegum. Like a Prayer’s patches of faux-psychedelic Princely weirdness were a rare lapse in taste from a woman known for jumping on the right bandwagons and leaping off without getting caught under the wheels. This knack was reaffirmed by her l990 No.1 hit, “Vogue,” which became that summer’s anthem by co-opting house music and a dance style long entrenched in New York’s black gay culture.
Madonna’s next full studio album was l992’s Erotica, which brought her to an interesting juncture in her career. Rarely has a pop musician invited more opprobrium than Madonna did when she accompanied this sex-themed album with the show-all book Sex and an appearance in the shoddily exploitative movie thriller Body of Evidence. Critics gloated as they toe-tagged and body-bagged the career of the now aging Material Girl, who was said to have finally and fatally miscalculated the Zeitgeist.
As the strident consensus reached a crescendo, Geraldo Rivera even devoted an episode of his talk show to the issue: “Madonna: Is She Still on Top or Over the Hill?”
And yet. However questionable the wisdom of baring one’s nethers in the company of Vanilla Ice, Naomi Campbell, and Willem Dafoe. the musical portion of Madonna’s carnal buffet was actually quite good. Erotica may not have made as great an impact as some of her earlier work it sold a comparatively modest two million copies — but its velvet and leather boudoir textures were clearly the product of a mature musical mind. Erotica could even be Madonna’s lost classic (then again, let’s not push our luck).
Undaunted by the tide of public opinion, Madonna returned to the boudoir with l994’s Bedtime Stories, a mature and confident album which, had it been made by a newer or more “credible” artist, would doubtless have been lavished with praise. But Madonna? Wasn’t she finally over? Well, no. Not as long as she had the sure-handed songcraft to compose — with hot R&B producer Dallas Austin — the spare and slinky “Secret,” or to collaborate with platinum R&B don Babyface on the sweetly dolorous ballad “Take a Bow.” Plus, Madonna’s ever attuned cultural antennae picked up the normally irritating techno-sprite Bjork, from whom Madonna commissioned the song “Bedtime Story,” which she spun into a lush and seductive dreamscape.
Although its cultural significance was not deemed to be profound, Bedtime Stories contained enough sublime moments to receive decent notices. Madonna may have fallen short of her own iconic standards, but it was becoming apparent even to skeptics that her music could not be ignored.
Mistakes, she’s made a few. And they usually come when Madonna attempts to graduate from the pop playground to a more respectable stage, a stage where seasoned Broadway composers will provide the material and let one get on with the serious business of being a true superstar in the manner of, say, a Barbra Streisand. However, just as Madonna’s arboreal acting performances have denied her a legitimate Hollywood career, her stabs at music that is sophisticated by mid-century pop standards have led to artistic dead ends.
In 1990 she recorded the soundtrack to Warren Beatty’s pointless and overblown Dick Tracy remake, a movie in which she also starred. Madonna’s attempt to morph her theatrical pop persona into that of a sultry radio-age chanteuse was abetted by Stephen Sondheim, who pitched in a couple of “classy” torch songs. On paper, this was an interesting combination. On CD—agony. The songs were not only contrived but also badly executed, and Madonna’s voice was exposed for the light-weight instrument that it was.
Then there was Evita, a movie role for which Madonna campaigned long and hard and publicly; she even took her 98-pound vocal cords to the gym, the better to wade through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s treacle pudding of a score. The thought of those docile, moneyed, theatergoing masses – or perhaps an Oscar — must have clouded Madonna’s musical judgment, because she herself is a better writer than the run of modern Broadway drones. Evita may have been a technical and even financial success, and earned Madonna a Golden Globe in the bargain, but for all that the moribund musical did for her, Madonna’s energies would surely have been better employed trawling the clubs for the next hot remixer to baptize in the mainstream.
The lesson here is that there are no bespoke songwriters today who can get Madonna where she wants to go. Pop music is now a game for the very young, and for the technicians who inflate them to life-size-it is a demographically closed set, just as in youth-addled Hollywood. Amid this fast-food climate, it is Madonna, now 42. who paradoxically-harks back to pop’s golden age, when hit records were made for kids by clever adults.
And still they come, the wave upon annual wave of barely pubescent girls who want to be Madonna. And year after year, in their ever more adept hiring of hairstylists and makeup personnel and production staff, they come a little closer to equaling their role model. Most of these canaries do remember to pay homage to Mama Madonna, praising the business sangfroid, image management, and marketing savvy that have kept her on the top perch these many years. Yet they, too, miss the point. One does not engage the public’s interest for 16 years by simply second-guessing it and efficiently reheating the pop modes of the day. One has to connect with the audience – there has to be jouissance to go with the puissance. And there has to be above all, an instinctive grasp of the pop aesthetic. And thanks to happy accidents of birth, timing, and training (particularly in the ways of gay culture), Madonna has that commodity in spades. The rest do not — which is why they will always be The Rest.
It was on l998’s Ray Of Light album that Madonna finally recognized her own strengths, and returned to the dance floor that had borne her. Even as she entered her fifth decade, Madonna realized that she could still connect with clubgoers, the most demanding audience of all. Always more astute in her choice of musical partners than in her choice of swains and armpieces, she exercised her droit de senorita by hiring producer William Orbit, known mainly on the British techno scene and for an album with Britpop avatars Blur. The real stroke of genius was to pair Orbit’s digital dexterity with the proven pop expertise of her longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard (“Like a Prayer.” “Open Your Heart,” “Live to Tell”).
As ever, the trimmings around Ray of Light were just right for the times: Madonna in “natural”-look mode, haunting her assets in a plain white tank top, thrashing her low—maintenance mane around in the hyperkinetic video for the title song, and elsewhere vamping in Gothic and “spiritual” drag (none of which was to be taken any more seriously than her Boy Toy belts of yore). The collective chemistry among Orbit, Leonard, and Madonna truly sparked — this was perhaps the first Madonna album where the music managed to overshadow the visual ancillaries. Orbit’s pulsing electro skeleton was girded with scratchy New Wave guitars and resonant melodies to create a soundscape that was more capital-M Modern than next month’s Wallpaper. Led off by the joyously hard—charging title track and colored by Eastern modalities and future-tech filigree, Ray of Light was received as a triumph, an artistic coming-of-age, a consummate suite of adult mood music.
Even so, all the praise and the Grammys (for best dance recording, best pop album, and best music video, short form — her only previous win had been for a l99l concert video) came almost despite the artist who made it.
On Madonna’s latest album, the just-released Music, the dominant producer is Mirwais Ahmadzai, a late-30s Parisian knob twiddler of obscure, exquisitely hip provenance. The record’s barnstorming and eponymous first single recalls the kind of tacky electro-funk that characterized the era of Madonna’s original self-invention. Only this lime, as the singer coos sexy dance-floor clichés – “I like to boogie-woogie” — over brash and funky synthesizer riffs, she is cowled in quotation marks as big as angels’ wings. She is only flirting with banality, like the true pop artist she is.
“Music” is Madonna’s self-portrait done Warhol-style.
Elsewhere on the new album, in seemingly random fashion, Ahmadzai stretches and bends the star’s vocals through his digital kaleidoscope, spitting them out in rainbow-colored jump-cut shards. The next minute he strips everything down to acoustic guitar, bone-dry vocal, and drum machine for an effect that is almost sonically naive, in the way that only sophisticates can be naive. Music engenders that particular reaction without which the pop industry and the fashion scene would stagnate and die: “God, that sounds/looks ugly… She must know something? To quote the title of another new Madonna song, she has once again conjured up an “Impressive instant.” It’s hard to think of a mainstream artist who would take as many gleeful risks at this stage in her career.
By calling her latest work Music, Madonna might well be issuing a pointed rebuke to the boy-zone rock critics who have shortchanged her to these many years, a final reminder to those who’ve interpreted her every new beat as a death knell. So, as Madonna nurses her second child and watches le tout Londres kneel to kiss her ring, no one is saying she’s over.
If anyone decides when that moment has come, it will be the erstwhile Material Girl herself.
© Vanity Fair