But Madonna couldn’t have gotten anywhere without her music, a point often lost amid her outlandish machinations. Her song craft has steadily improved with each album (not counting the throwaway Dick Tracy tie-in). She has best been described by The Village Voice’s Robert Chrisngau: “[She’s] a trailblazer in a careless dance music with discernible roots in postpunk and Eurodisco, who is also flirting terms with such white-bread subgenres as Vegas schlock, show tune, and housewife ballad.” Praising her songs’ “corny cool, postfeminist confidence, pleasure-centered electronic pulse, and knowing tightrope dance along the cusp of the acceptable,” he suggested that they will endure long after the attention-grabbing, kitchen-sink videos have died. What’s interesting in the clips about her is how she actually makes her records.
In the past, she would sometimes adapt professional songwriters’ efforts (as with “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Like A Virgin”). But with Like A Prayer and Erotica, she has written from scratch with her producers. The producers come up with musical riffs, usually starting with a bass line and drums (actually synthesiser-played samples of live instruments), she listens, looks through the journal she keeps, and matches an idea to the tune. “I’ll work with a certain number of songs and get them to a certain place, then go back to others,” she says. “It’s boring to work on a complete song from start to finish, because your ears get tired.” She likes working with several producers on each album because they provide different strength; she has moved on from longtime collaborators Patrick Leonard and ex-boyfriend Stephen Bray, just as she switched photographers from Herb Ritts to Meisel. She says of her Erotica cohorts, “Shep [Pettibone] and Dre [Andre Betts] come from two different worlds. Dre has more of street vibe, a jazz influence, and hip-hop, Shep’s more commercial, dance oriented.”
She likes to use her demo vocals on the songs’ final versions. “As soon as she comes up with a melodic idea, we record it,” says Pettibone, a surfer-handsome thirty-three-year-old who got his start remixing underground records at clubs, “because it has that feeling, which usually gets watered down the more you sing it.” Madonna likes to sing close to the microphone, “so it sounds like I’m talking in your ear,” she says. “And I use cheap microphones so it sounds dirty and raw – like the bottoms of my feet!” After working up rough versions in Pettibone’s home studio, they move to a larger studio to “print” the synth tracks and then add the rest of the instruments and effects.
Though she’s often been portrayed as simply the beneficiary of producer’s wisdom, in the studio she seems very much in command; remixing “Erotic” with Pettibone, she sits at the console fiddling with the fader controls. “I want the bass taken out during the spoken part,” she tells him. “And I’d like my vocal to be drier when I’m speaking, but wetter when I’m singing.” She hears a repeated electronic beep and grimaces. “I hate that sound!” She says. “I like the metal hit better. It’s sicker!” Pettibone tried adding some strings; she listens and shakes her head. “I want to keep it sparse.” But they still fill in every available space with everything from a sitar to a Middle Eastern singer. “We think differently when it comes to mixing,” Pettibone later says. “To me, it’s a two-day process, into the wee hours, thirty, forty hours straight, and she doesn’t always have the patience. It has to work out right there and then.”
Madonna says she considers a song finished only if “it’s still good five days later. By the end of the day, I always hate it and hate everyone who works in the studio. Then the next morning I love them again. The studio is my lover -suit!”
For all of Madonna’s warm and funny and soul-baring moments in Truth or Dare, you couldn’t escape the sense that this was just another temporary guise, that at some level even her vulnerability is something of a put-on. Asked what she was thinking about while striking one of Sex’s more provocative poses, she answers frankly, “what was I going to have for lunch, the sweat dripping down my sides, how many phone messages I was gonna have when we got finished it. It’s like a love scene in a movie; you do it over and over, it gets very mechanical. All that’s important is the picture, what the audience sees and what they feel.”
Madonna contends that she didn’t do Sex for any sense of pride in her anatomy, which she finds imperfect; she likens her poses to the work of Cindy Sherman, playing characters. Maybe she did it because, as Sandra Bernhard suggested, “on some level she’s bored, and she has to do something to scare herself.”
Yet she seems willfully obvious to the fallout from all the nipple flashing. She complains vehemently about the omnipresent fans outside her apartment building who prevent her from being able to do anything without a bodyguard. “I tell them, ‘What do you want from me? If you think I’m so fabulous, what do I say? Be an indivisual, have your own life, do your own thing!’ And they get dumbfounded – I mean, let’s face it, they’re not that bright.” She doesn’t seem to have any sense of how her images can overwhelm her words, how she leads people on visually.
And with Erotica, she also explicitly leading them on verbally. But when it’s suggested that her new songs seem less introspective than Like A Prayer (which contained emotional rebukes to Sean Penn and her father), she bristles and replies that one of the songs she didn’t preview for me, “In This Life,” is about the friends she lost to AIDS. (The lyrics later provided don’t seem very profound – “Some say that life isn’t fair / I say people just don’t care / They’d rather turn the other way / While we wait for this thing to go away” – but it’s hard to judge a Madonna song without hearing her delivery.) She later fuses me another lyric sheet, “in case you thought it was all about seduction – an important subject, by the way, but not the only one I’m interested in… Love, Madonna.”
The song is called “Goodbye to Innocence” (!?), and the lyric sheet misspells anonymity as “anonominity.” (Granted, it’s not a word one would expect her to use frequently.) Its key verse is “My life is not a game that I play to entertain you / And if you can do it better / Then you’re welcome to my fame / I’m not gonna waste my time correcting myths and rumors / You believe what you wanna believe / And I’ll pray to keep my sense of humor.”
The last line seems to completely contradict the utter humourlesness of the rest. But then, that’s Madonna.
© David Handelman / Vogue