As if Madonna would ever let that happen. No sooner had her image as Cyndi Lauper’s slutty little sis formed in the public mind than she opted on her next album to subsume her musical identity: in came a crew of old pros who would hoist her to the next level, and help her to defy the built-in obsolescence of the pop diva. Both of the defining mega-hits from Like A Virgin — the swaggering title track and the brazen “Material Girl” – were written by seasoned songwriting teams, and the record was produced by Nile Rodgers (the eminence behind disco demigods Chic and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album). Though Like A Virgin was patchy in the extreme, the visual assault that accompanied the record ensured that Madonna would quickly attain the icon status she knew she was destined for. It says everything about the singer’s pragmatic will to power that she entered the pantheon with off-the-rack music and a gun-for-hire producer. Madonna was showing that rarest of qualities in a young pop performer: an understanding of one’s limitations. Still, she would take it from here, thank you very much.
Henceforth, Madonna would make a virtue of her voice, which was something of a throwback to the kind of adenoidal adolescents who once pouted and preened in front of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The record that gave modern context to that girlie archetype was “Into the Groove,” the anthem from Madonna’s one decent movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. This raw, exhilarating single also confirmed Madonna’s pop—classicist instincts, which have brought her l2 No.1 hits in the U.S. alone. Madonna’s singles have that ineffable quality that can transmute the most mundane moments of everyday life into something altogether more exalted. Whether you are in a shopping mall, parking garage, strip club, or video arcade, overhearing a Madonna chorus brings upon you a kind of urban satori. Like any great pop performer, she naturally embodies Wiliam Blake’s words “exuberance is beauty.” The critics’ diffident responses have tended to confirm Willie Dixon’s hoary aphorism: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”
It was on l986’s True Blue that Madonna kicked off the training wheels and emancipated herself as a versatile talent with few peers.
As co-producer and co-composer of each song on the album, Madonna showed the world she could do it all, though one is hard-pressed to ascertain Madonna’s precise creative role — aside from being the auteur of her own fame – in the collaborations that are her records. She is known to be a harsh taskmistress, and True Blue proved once again that she has an acute understanding of her limitations, since her still rather shrill voice was swathed in as much studio stardust as money could buy.
The album’s “Live to Tell” was a classic ballad by any standard, with an ascending chorus to put ingrained soft-rock songsters to shame. “La Isla Bonita” may have been an ersatz — as the lyric has it – “Spanish lullaby,” but it still has more charm than anything that strenuously witless “Latin explosion” stars such as Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias have ever recorded. The string-driven “Papa Don’t Preach” (to which Madonna only added some lyrics) was a little sonic movie that demonstrated the artist-producers perfect grasp of scale and feel. Even True Blue’s throwaway hits were impressive: the title song was a slick and spunky paean to the chaste girl groups of yore, and the unstoppable “Open Your Heart” restated Madonna’s clubland affiliations with a vengeance.
As her gleaming new singles bestrode the charts month after month, Madonna’s brash persona and sexed-up P.R. machinations were fueling antipathy in the media and among the non-record-buying public. But there was no way in, no visible chink in her armor.
ln the context of Madonna’s sundry misadventures in Hollywood, and her 1989 divorce from Sean Penn, that same year’s album, Like a Prayer, was cast almost as a comeback record. The chinks were beginning to appear, and the critics were sharpening their swords. (She’ll be over before you can say Shanghai Surprise!) As ever, the new Madonna album came with plenty of peripheral distractions – primarily the hastily withdrawn Pepsi ad, with its OneCal blasphemy, and the similarly naughty music video for the single “Like a Prayer,” in which the performer canoodled with a black Christ figure.