Tracks of her years:
1. Into The Groove (Sire single, 1985) : Madonna’s visceral attachement to the dancefloor made exhortational art
Long singled out as the main justification for Madonna’s acting career, screwball thriller Desperately Seeking Susan is closely bonded with its soundtrack hit. If Susan Seidelman’s film catapitalised on its star’s natural charms (“an indolent, trampy goddess,” said Pauline Kael), Into The Groove also encapsulated Madonna’s big-city, club-kid sexuality. Less coyly titillating than Like A Virgin yet still a world away from the explicit show-and-tell of the Sex book and Erotica album, the single’s disco insistence hints at sultry yet ungroomed New York bohemia. Scenes from the film were shot in Danceteria, and Into The Groove’s synth lines seem to reach for the atmosphere of the club where Madonna played her first show, promising music as revelation, dancing as freedom.
Written on an Avenue B fire escape while watching “a gorgeous Puerto Rican boy” opposite – the perfect Madonna back story – it combines that Rear Window-style voyeurism (“at night I lock the doors where no one else can see”) with a hungry desire for contact: “Tonight, I wanna dance with someone else.” She would strip away that mystique in the ’90s, but on Into The Groove she’s the kind of free-spirit who might well use a public toilet’s hand-dryer to dry her armpits; and a potent advocate for the dancefloor that made her.
2. Live To Tell (from true Blue, 1986) : Epic, bruised, mysterious – Madonna parlays childhood pain into her first tour de force
Before Live To Tell, Madonna had ambition, style and brace of hits but not the mystique or emotional weight necessary for the staying power she craved. Enter new musical director Patrick Leonard with a dramatic instrumental he had composed, unsuccessfully, for teen drama, Fire With Fire. Leonard’s shadowy grandeur elicited from Madonna the first glimpse of the complicated woman she was rather than the bulletproof icon she aspired to be.
Live To Tell allows Madonna to slow down and be vulnerable, especially when it almost stops halfway through dwindling to a hold-your-breath synth drone before her unexpected confession, “If I ran away. I’d never have the strength to go very far.” But her lyric isn’t exactly confessional, it’s a promise of candour postponed, revealing only that she has something to reveal, veiling the figures of her dead mother and disapproving father in the teasing language of secrets and lies. Towering over both the album (True Blue) and movie (At Close Range) that featured it, and startling in concert (in 2006 she controversially sang it from a mirrored crucifix). Live To Tell exposed a side of Madonna that she’s perhaps not explored enough: strong enough to admit weakness, confortable with mystery and uncertainty, magnificently alone.
3. Mer Girl (from Ray Of Light, 1998) : A ghostly psychodrama in which the bereaved daughter becomes the Immaterial Girl
From the eerie, glitchy opening to its devastating closing lines – “I smelled her burning flesh / Her rotting bones / Her decay…” Mer Girl is a stunning collision of Madonna’s personal history and musical inspiration. Digging deep into childhood grief and the memory of her mother, she harnesses producer William Orbit to build a trancelike elegy out of electronic chill and silence. In an scenario in which she is buried alive, the singer realises that by choosing fame she has in fact been running away from the terror of her mother’s death.
When Madonna first met Orbit in the ’90s she had just given birth to her daughter and was transformed by motherhood, exploring spiritual themes and taking creative risks. Orbit helped push her another step further, culminating in this unprecedentedly raw, emotional performance – a fitting end to the epic Ray Of Light album, already home to Frozen’s witchy soundscape of hardcore breaks and Egyptian melody and the apocalyptic Drowned World / Substitute For Love. The album won four Grammys, and re-established Madonna’s musical credibility – the perfect storm.
4. What It Feels Like For A Girl (from Music, 2000) : Pointy-bra feminism wrapped in “sexual gothic strangeness”
Like a one-woman enigma particle or a particularly fascinating species of moth, Madonna fulled a thousand academic thesis in the ’90s, though few could agree as to whether her fondness for talking about sex and gender constituted bold, third wave feminism or just a winning combination of brassneck and great abs. By the turn of the millennium she had entered her more genteel ‘English’ phase, married director Guy Ritchie and was pregnant with their son Rocco while recording Music, from where the song comes.
British producer Guy Sigsworth sent her a rough sketch of the gently trancey track complete with a sample of Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film of The Cement Garden, dressing her younger brother as a girl, to the distaste of their older brother. It’s sexual gothic strangeness (“Secretly you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you?” asks Gainsbourg) and evisceration of double standards (“For a boy to look like a girl is degrading / ‘Cos you think that being a girl is degrading”) was right up Madonna’s street, but rather than ironic re-reappropriation or hence rejection there’s a heartfelt sadness to this mother of a then four year old daughter’s account of the way young girls grow up sublimated by gender expectation. “When you open up your mouth to speak / Could you be a little weak?”
5. Hung Up (from Confessions On A Dance Floor, 2005) : Madonna reboots disco, shows the way for Daft Punk et al
Following underwhelming response to 2003’s American Life, madonna sought a rebrenchment of values. In her case back to basics meant New York at the height of Danceteria, when a new $10 pill called ecstasy mutated the beat into a soft, synthetic pulse. But for Madonna’s flashback to restore her to supremacy, it would also need to work as state-of-the-art pop in 2005. Once those conditions had been laid down, only one collaborator was up to the job, Stuart Price (aka Jacques Lu Cont from Les Rhythmes Digitales) knew where Madonna had come from and where she needed to go.
Early in the sessions for Confessions On A Dance Floor, Price “borrowed” the “tick tock” vocal/clock combo that ushered in his remix of Gwen Stefani’s What You’re Waiting For and grafted in into a lyrics that Madonna had written. But Hung Up’s stumbling block was the sample of Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) that sat at the very centre of the song.With just one exception (The Fugees’ Rumble In The Jungle), Abba had never consented to the use of a sample.
In the event, a handwritten letter from Madonna and an agreement cede 50 per cent of the royalties of Hung Up sealed the deal.
Presumably, the Abba guys were impressed. Relocated to the chorus of Madonna’s song, the semple is better integrated than its original home. Together with a sublime vocal of unsated longing, Hung Up proved that there was a way to celebrate disco’s past while sounding utterly contemporary. Daft Punk were listening.