It’s curious that while so much has been made of Prince’s total creative vision, Madonna is credited mostly for her shimmy and style.On her current world tour, she had her hand in everything from the music to the sets to, presumably, the contraversial dismissal of Karole Armitage. (Though it’s fun to picture Madonna and her dancers hopping around to Armitage’s karate-chop choreography, her replacement, Vince Petterson – who transformed stiff jointed Whitney Houston into Diet Coke’s groove machine — more represents Madonna’s commercial sensibilities.)
The lack of attention paid to Madonna’s progression as a songwriter might have something to do with her own self-consciousness on the subject. “I think of a character and a situation before I write a song,” she begins slowly. But after five minutes of explaining the genesis of “Live To Tell” (“I thought about the relationship with my parents and the lying that went on”). she abruptly concludes: “I know this sounds very pedestrian and boring. It’s not.”
Such sudden vulnerability is unexpected, especially in light of how her songwriting partner. Patrick Leonard, marvels over her precise efficiency: “You can play just about anything and she’ll say, ‘This represents this to me.’ and write something very quickly.” In fact, the pair has never spent more than three hours composing a song, in which time Madonna not only dashes off the lyrics but often records a lead vocal track as well. With over 30 million albums sold, Madonna’s song-per-minute paycheck computes to a mind-boggling sum.
The seven songs she and Leonard co-wrote (over a three-week period) for Dick Tracy and her I’m Breathless album were shrewdly composed to give psychological oomph to her role as the slinky Breathless Mahoney. The Gershwinesque ballad “Something To Remember” is about Breathless’ heartbreak over Tracy’s brushoff. “Hanky Panky” is a campy Big Band take on S & M (“Ain’t nothin’ like a good spanking!”), the naughtiest version of which Disney Studios reportedly ordered sanitized.
Of course, she and Disney executives ultimately share the same grand scheme: that Dick Tracy will be the box-office hit of the summer. Madonna’s slew of post-Desperately Seeking Susan flops seemed less about her lack of invention than about directors too intimidated by her celebrity to shape her manic performances. But it makes perfect sense that Warren Beatty — a strong-minded filmmaker who also has a personal understanding of her charisma — would be able to draw out her best. Does she think Dick Tracy will make her into a movie star? “Uh-huh.” Madonna says with casual authority. “And if it doesn’t, something else will. Just give me some time.”
© Harper’s Bazaar