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Madonna Interview : The Face

Madonna - The Face / September 1983

Prayer for Madonna

Unlike the others I’ll do anything
I’m not the same, I have no shame.
“Burning Up”

Is there a new Arthur Baker record? A self-penned slice of dance intensity? We know it’s going to be a hit. We know because having just spent this and every previous lifetime listening to nothing but black American music, and being absolutely fluent in the language of soul, passion and put on, we understand – totally, immeasurably. And so does Arthur.

We understand that in the latest tide of drippy, rock-critic manifestos for The Funk there are other factors. One being that these days every other black record is written, produced and performed by a white person. Another being that since these record spring more from the novelty-turnover mentality of the rock industry than the quieter tradition of soul they have the gloss of the new.

That is, you’d be hard pushed to describe Prince Charles as new. Whatever his virtues, the Prince doesn’t seem to have listened to the radio since 1978 – which, Americans like to snigger, is why he’s popular in Britain. The same goes for “Juicy Fruit”, which could have come out of any mid-Seventies studio session. Its lyrics, pleased to resurrect such mouldy racial and sexual stereotypes, can only have come from my friend Al Goldstein.

The point here – somewhere – is that apart from Michael Jackson, who’s special case, and Prince, who soon will be, the selling of black-black music takes place largely on white-black terms. A few years back, while the gay-disco-drugs scene was the cutting edge of a certain culture, rather than the dungheap of culture in general, the situation was in almost exact reverse. There were few faces then. To break through now – to cross over from dance to R&B chart to pop chart – you’re more likely to need a novelty, if not an image, if not a power-mad producer, if not all three. It’s actually very simple, as elementary as MTV.

When “Burning Up”, Madonna’s first single, came out on Sire last autumn initial word of mouth had her as some downtown ingenue who’d managed to hustle her record into the clubs and a couple of radio stations. The song itself was good trash disco, wrapped up in a bright, modern production – no more. But there were other factors. She was young, pretty, white and she could dance. She was in fact a trained dancer who’d come to New York from the mid-West four years earlier, aged 17, to prance seriously. This she did, before, at the tail-end of disco, being picked up by the management company of Patrick Hernandez, a singer best known for a dismal record called “Born To Be Alive”. They took her to Paris, she came back in a sulk. She formed a rock band, they broke up. She made a demo, and so forth.

“Burning Up” went on to sell 80,000 copies, which is good but not spectacular. The follow-up, a double A side of “Everybody” and “Physical Attraction” – her best song – sold about the same. We know it could have been a hit, in Britain if not America. “Warner’s said they wouldn’t put it out in Britain unless Rusty Egan remixed it,” she says. “He took all the bass out and imagine what a horrible remix he did.” I think we can.

So the record never moved off the American dance chart, and Madonna stayed on the disco circuit playing weekend track dates. Pioneered by Grace Jones a few years back, track dates are an effortless means of making money for a 30 minute set and the cost of a backing tape. They’re also an obvious line of business for artistes who never met the musicians on their record. Most – Freeez come to mind – are a shambles; Madonna’s are a riot. Aggressively dressed in last year’s clothes, backed by three prancers, they’re a wild mixture of sexual tease, odd acrobatics and preening vanity – that is, image, novelty and attitude.

Madonna - The Face / September 1983

“Most dance record now are just sounds, they’re not songs that go with the group that go with the feeling that go with the fashion,” she says. “I think that was the whole downfall of disco – that it didn’t represent anything to anyone. It’s changing slowly but you still have to eventually get away from the disco circuit to be taken seriously, or have any kind of a long life. I think Grace Jones should be getting over more than she is, but she refuses to tour with a band. After a time that becomes essential.”

In the autumn Madonna will, of course, be touring with a band, to promote her new, first album, “Madonna”. She doesn’t think it’s absolutely the best thing she’s ever heard and neither do I. The highlights are the three singles, bold if ever so slightly banal vignette of lust and night action. The rest mines a post-Chic vein of light, self-referential disco – pleasant but hardly scintillating.

“I didn’t realize how crucial it was for me to break out of the disco mould before I’d nearly finished the album. I wish I could have got a little more variety in there. The musicians were all guys who are making a thousand dollars a day in the studio so we couldn’t rehearse much. Halfway through we all started doubting each other.”

The record does at least prove the existence of A Voice. Like Evelyn King, or early Diana Ross, it has a frailty and girlie sweetness to compensate for what it lacks in guts: crossover potential to the max.

“When I first started I think it offended a lot of people to find out I was white. Especially black radio programmers in the South. So many black artists won’t get played that they don’t want to give airtime to someone who isn’t black.”

“It’s not like I’m ripping them off. Some of these new white producers are just scientists in a laboratory, making something they know all the little kids in the ghetto will want to buy. I’m at least sincere. I don’t feel guilty about not being black. i think ultimately I will be able to cross over bigger because I’m not.”

We expect her to cross over big, Fredy DeMann and I. Fred DeMann is her new manager. His only other client is Michael Jackson.

© The Face