Initially, the persona Madonna presented was a saucy post-teen-age rebel togged out in lingerie, baring her midriff and adorning herself with crucifixes. The flap she kicked up in 1984 with “Like a Virgin,” in which she flouncingly mocked the traditionally chaste stereotype of a blushing bride while also affirming the value of true love, was comparable to John Lennon’s offhand remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In “Material Girl,” a joke that went over many heads, Madonna drily satirized Reagan-era materialism by parodying a shallow glitzy gold digger.
Those who didn’t get the joke confused Madonna with the material girl, and for them she became a cultural symptom, a brazenly opportunistic performer substituting exhibitionism for talent. Playing a gum-chewing, leather-jacketed blue-collar Juliet in the music-video for “Papa Don’t Preach,” in 1986, the star appeared to encourage teen-age pregnancy. And in the music-video for “Open Your Heart” that same year she portrayed a seductive peep-show siren observed by a young adolescent boy.
As her star ascended, Madonna’s urban-rebel pose has softened and matured into a more sleekly glamorous and aerobicized look without losing its hard-edged sensual provocation. Her music also metamorphosed from simple blaring dance pop to the somewhat sweeter post-Motown valentines of “True Blue” to the rich, fully rounded pop of “Like a Prayer.”
The new album is ultimately more important to Madonna’s future than any acting role, and it should lay to rest any lingering doubts about her musical talent. It teems with 60’s and early 70’s echoes – of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sly and the Family Stone – all pumped up with a brash, if occasionally klutzy, 80’s sense of showmanship.
“The theme of Catholicism runs rampant through my album,” Madonna said. “It’s me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds it. My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. When I left home at 17 and went to New York, which is the city with the most sinners, I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life. But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.”
The album is dedicated to the singer’s mother, a devout woman who died when her daughter was 7. Its songs, she said, intertwine her search for faith with her search for her mother.
The album’s most unsettling song, “Till Death Do Us Part,” is an anxious jumpy ballad that describes a marriage wracked with drinking, violent quarrels and a possessive, self-hating husband. Its ending finds the couple locked by their unbreakable marriage vows into a miserable cul-de-sac That’s what might have happened to her, Madonna said, had she and Sean Penn followed Roman Catholic church doctrine and not filed for divorce as they did in January.
Madonna’s two songs to her parents are aching hymns – one sad, the other defiant – that look back in mood to the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Couched in a lovely chamber-music arrangement, “Promise to Try” finds the singer tearfully imagining her mother observing her as a little girl and offering advice and consolation. In “Oh Father” the grown-up child berates a harsh paternal figure – husband, father, religious authority rolled into one – whose domination she escaped but only at great personal cost. “You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you, I never thought I would,” she cries in angry triumph, bolstered by a grandiloquent orchestration. A third childhood song, “Dear Jessie,” a musical fantasia about pink elephants, lemonade and the land of make-believe, offers a stylish swatch of late Beatles-style psychedelia.
“Love Song,” a smoldering duet with Prince that the two created by sending the tape back and forth through the mail and adding bits and pieces, is a yowling come-hither duet. And “Keep It Together” resurrects the edgy pop-funk style and hippie optimism of Sly and Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
If the album has one song in which Madonna expresses a 30-year-old’s view of life unshadowed by rebellion and lingering lapsed Catholic pain, it is “Express Yourself,” in which she repudiates the philosophy of “Material Girl” and advises women not to settle for a less-than-wonderful relationship. “You don’t need diamond rings or 18 carat gold / Fancy cars that go very fast you know they never last,” she proclaims.
“The message of the song is that people should always say what it is they want,” Madonna said. “The reason relationships don’t work is because they are afraid. That’s been my problem in all my relationships. I’m sure people see me as an outspoken person, and for the most part, if I want something I ask for it. But sometimes you feel that if you ask for too much or ask for the wrong thing from someone you care about that that person won’t like you. And so you censor yourself. I’ve been guilty of that in every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. The time I learn how not to edit myself will be the time I consider myself a complete adult.”
“‘Like a Prayer,'” said Madonna, “is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life. From around 8 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.” What follows is a description in Madonna’s own words of what happens in the video: “A girl on the street witnesses an assault on a young woman. Afraid to get involved because she might get hurt, she is frozen in fear. A black man walking down the street also sees the incident and decides to help the woman. But just then, the police arrive and arrest him. As they take him away, she looks up and sees one of the gang members who assaulted the girl. He gives her a look that says she’ll be dead if she tells. The girl runs, not knowing where to go until she sees a church. She goes in and sees a saint in a cage who looks very much like the black man on the street, and says a prayer to help her make the right decision. He seems to be crying, but she is not sure. She lies down on a pew and falls into a dream in which she begins to tumble in space with no one to break her fall. Suddenly she is caught by a woman who represents earth and emotional strength and who tosses her back up and tells her to do the right thing. Still dreaming, she returns to the saint, and her religious and erotic feelings begin to stir. The saint becomes a man. She picks up a knife and cuts her hands. That’s the guilt in Catholicism that if you do something that feels good you will be punished. As the choir sings, she reaches an orgasmic crescendo of sexual fulfillment intertwined with her love of God. She knows that nothing’s going to happen to her if she does what she believes is right. She wakes up, goes to the jail, tells the police the man is innocent, and he is freed. Then everybody takes a bow as if to say we all play a part in this little scenario.”
© New York Times