For all that, the song itself stands as perhaps the high point of Madonna’s career, using a gospel choir to elevate her heavenly pop chorus to near-orgasmic heights, “Like a Prayer”‘s instrumental track was as powerful as anything else being made at the time, in any genre you might name. Abandoning an electronic approach to dance music, the record shook with organic energy, from the gospel choir to the asymmetrical bass line to the strangled, hard-rock guitar solo. As always – in a year when New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul were ruling the charts – Madonna was at least one think ahead of everyone else.
Staking Madonna’s claim to further MTV time were the retro—soul dance hit “Express Yourself,” and “Cherish,” another succulent piece of gourmet bubblegum. Like a Prayer’s patches of faux-psychedelic Princely weirdness were a rare lapse in taste from a woman known for jumping on the right bandwagons and leaping off without getting caught under the wheels. This knack was reaffirmed by her l990 No.1 hit, “Vogue,” which became that summer’s anthem by co-opting house music and a dance style long entrenched in New York’s black gay culture.
Madonna’s next full studio album was l992’s Erotica, which brought her to an interesting juncture in her career. Rarely has a pop musician invited more opprobrium than Madonna did when she accompanied this sex-themed album with the show-all book Sex and an appearance in the shoddily exploitative movie thriller Body of Evidence. Critics gloated as they toe-tagged and body-bagged the career of the now aging Material Girl, who was said to have finally and fatally miscalculated the Zeitgeist.
As the strident consensus reached a crescendo, Geraldo Rivera even devoted an episode of his talk show to the issue: “Madonna: Is She Still on Top or Over the Hill?”
And yet. However questionable the wisdom of baring one’s nethers in the company of Vanilla Ice, Naomi Campbell, and Willem Dafoe. the musical portion of Madonna’s carnal buffet was actually quite good. Erotica may not have made as great an impact as some of her earlier work it sold a comparatively modest two million copies — but its velvet and leather boudoir textures were clearly the product of a mature musical mind. Erotica could even be Madonna’s lost classic (then again, let’s not push our luck).
Undaunted by the tide of public opinion, Madonna returned to the boudoir with l994’s Bedtime Stories, a mature and confident album which, had it been made by a newer or more “credible” artist, would doubtless have been lavished with praise. But Madonna? Wasn’t she finally over? Well, no. Not as long as she had the sure-handed songcraft to compose — with hot R&B producer Dallas Austin — the spare and slinky “Secret,” or to collaborate with platinum R&B don Babyface on the sweetly dolorous ballad “Take a Bow.” Plus, Madonna’s ever attuned cultural antennae picked up the normally irritating techno-sprite Bjork, from whom Madonna commissioned the song “Bedtime Story,” which she spun into a lush and seductive dreamscape.
Although its cultural significance was not deemed to be profound, Bedtime Stories contained enough sublime moments to receive decent notices. Madonna may have fallen short of her own iconic standards, but it was becoming apparent even to skeptics that her music could not be ignored.
Mistakes, she’s made a few. And they usually come when Madonna attempts to graduate from the pop playground to a more respectable stage, a stage where seasoned Broadway composers will provide the material and let one get on with the serious business of being a true superstar in the manner of, say, a Barbra Streisand. However, just as Madonna’s arboreal acting performances have denied her a legitimate Hollywood career, her stabs at music that is sophisticated by mid-century pop standards have led to artistic dead ends.
In 1990 she recorded the soundtrack to Warren Beatty’s pointless and overblown Dick Tracy remake, a movie in which she also starred. Madonna’s attempt to morph her theatrical pop persona into that of a sultry radio-age chanteuse was abetted by Stephen Sondheim, who pitched in a couple of “classy” torch songs. On paper, this was an interesting combination. On CD—agony. The songs were not only contrived but also badly executed, and Madonna’s voice was exposed for the light-weight instrument that it was.
Then there was Evita, a movie role for which Madonna campaigned long and hard and publicly; she even took her 98-pound vocal cords to the gym, the better to wade through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s treacle pudding of a score. The thought of those docile, moneyed, theatergoing masses – or perhaps an Oscar — must have clouded Madonna’s musical judgment, because she herself is a better writer than the run of modern Broadway drones. Evita may have been a technical and even financial success, and earned Madonna a Golden Globe in the bargain, but for all that the moribund musical did for her, Madonna’s energies would surely have been better employed trawling the clubs for the next hot remixer to baptize in the mainstream.
The lesson here is that there are no bespoke songwriters today who can get Madonna where she wants to go. Pop music is now a game for the very young, and for the technicians who inflate them to life-size-it is a demographically closed set, just as in youth-addled Hollywood. Amid this fast-food climate, it is Madonna, now 42. who paradoxically-harks back to pop’s golden age, when hit records were made for kids by clever adults.