“Alternative” seems a strange description for a pop superstar who has achieved the status and global name recognition of a demi-god. But that particular shoe has continued to fit Madonna, not least because the fashions she’s worn have varied so spectacularly. Since releasing her first single in 1983, the Michigander has dodged the conventional industry wisdom of a fixed image plucked from a stable of stereotypes. Instead of choosing diva, tomboy, sultry chanteuse or fluffy kitten, Madonna decided to be them all, even guitar-slinging rocker. She’s reinvented herself in song and video countless times, providing listeners with an alternative to the usual pop replicants. Her steady transformation — from bejeweled, soiled ingénue to sleek sophisticate, with detours into peep shows, strip clubs and drag — has been as dramatic as her ascension from New York club kid to international industry.
Though she’s firmly ensconced in the pop mainstream, from MTV to the charts, the cultural artifacts that inspire Madonna separate her from the pop-product pack and earn her a firm, if contested, perch in the safe end of the avant-garde. She’s turned to — and exploited — the cultural margins to enrich her work and pique the interest of fans since her earliest days, parsing everything from the dancefloor rhythms of urban gay clubs to the visuals of bondage leather fetishists. Madonna’s “alternativeness” has insured her success. She’s never come to the table without bringing something new.
Forget for a moment, if you can, all the personality, press and image that attends Madonna’s albums and consider their contents. The first consolidates simpleminded singles (“Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Holiday”) and five other lengthy numbers for a bouncy program of dance music that owes a lot to the remnants of disco. The album is a bit slick; Madonna’s lack of a discernible style keeps it from being a creatively significant debut. Three producers (Reggie Lucas, Jellybean Benitez and Mark Kamins) give her different sonic settings, but in every case the beat and the voice — alternately soulful and coquettish — are the focal points.
Like a Virgin (a British reissue adds the alluring “Into the Groove,” recorded for the soundtrack of Madonna’s film debut, Desperately Seeking Susan) is a far more impressive affair, a full-blown self-invention that covers all the bases and made Ms. Ciccone a culture- rending global star. Nile Rodgers’ production packs the songs with hooks and gimmicks, finishing each off with a fine sonic shine. “Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin,” “Over and Over,” “Dress You Up” and others all served to build her character, fill dancefloors and remain in pop fans’ memories indefinitely. (Incidentally, Madonna was barely involved in composing the tunes: the dreaded Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly hook factory, for instance, whipped up the image-building “Like a Virgin” all by themselves.) Regardless of opinions about Madonna the Star, Like a Virgin is a classic album.
True Blue, on the other hand, isn’t very good at all. Mega-successful, yes, but the clichéd electro-dance production (Madonna, Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray) and half-baked songwriting keep it from serious creative contention. Madonna sings up a storm, but her dedication to musical variety makes for hit-or-miss records, and True Blue rarely connects. Only “Open Your Heart,” with an unforgettably hooky chorus, the atmospheric “Live to Tell,” on which she resembles Joni Mitchell, and the corny ’50s-like title track are any good. Maudlin rubbish (“Papa Don’t Preach”), mindless dancearama (“Where’s the Party”) and an embarrassingly amateurish cinematic salute (“White Heat”) are among the album’s missteps.
Who’s That Girl, although virtually billed as such, isn’t a Madonna album. The soundtrack of her best-forgotten 1987 film contains tracks by Coati Mundi, Scritti Politti, Club Nouveau and others; Madonna contributes a quartet of new tunes, although only the delightful “Who’s That Girl” is worth hearing.
Flexing her club muscles, Madonna then issued You Can Dance, a career-spanning retrospective of various producers’ mundane remixes. “Holiday,” “Everybody,” “Physical Attraction,” “Over and Over,” “Into the Groove” and “Where’s the Party” all get the treatment; the record also contains “Spotlight,” a previously unissued throwaway. The CD adds three more remixes for a full program of moving and (into the) grooving.
Madonna demonstrated her ability to craft flawless and hollow product on Like a Prayer, an album/event pretentious enough to be bathed in the scent of church incense and conscientious enough to include serious information about AIDS on a small insert. Musically, the record (written and produced by Madonna in collaboration with, individually, Patrick Leonard, Prince and Stephen Bray) has something for everybody: high drama (“Like a Prayer”), pseudo-Motown (“Express Yourself”) and bouncy ’50s pop (“Cherish”). But while Madonna is busy cashing in with those catchy hits (and a Prince tune, “Love Song,” that never gets off the ground), she also devotes much of the record to personal exorcisms that would be stronger if her voice bore even a trace of conviction. The grand ballad “Promise to Try” is a farewell to her late mother; “Oh Father” offers a lot of blame and a bit of forgiveness to her dad; “Till Death Do Us Part” is a bitter kiss-off to her ex-husband. Enigmatically, the album’s closing track, “Act of Contrition,” is a wild psychedelic joke that conflates religion and squalling guitar noise to no appreciable effect.
That I’m Breathless (subtitled “Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy“) is a bad record probably goes without saying, but it’s still a surprise to hear how grotesque the results of Madonna’s theatrical aspirations are. Using a frightening closetful of unsuitable voices (leave Carmen Miranda alone!), Madonna sings three of the great Stephen Sondheim’s worst toss-offs and a bunch of inept genre imitations, culminating in a smugly crude spanking number, “Hanky Panky.” The record’s only notable track, “Vogue,” is just an empty shell of a song, style sans substance. Madonna may have the power to do anything she cares to, but this record demonstrates that she doesn’t have the talent to get away with it. (In the next test of her abilities, Madonna wound up 1990 with the controversial “Justify My Love” single/video/sample.)
While omitting such huge charters as “Dress You Up” and “True Blue,” The Immaculate Collection rounds up 15 Madonna hits, from 1983’s “Holiday” through 1990’s “Vogue,” adding two new tunes: “Justify My Love” and “Rescue Me.”
House music and the rough iconography of ’90s sexuality are the clear influences on Erotica, the release of which coincided with the publication of a photo book, Sex, Madonna’s collaborative effort with fashion photographer Steven Meisel. Through an alter-ego, Dita, Madonna explores her version of the less pop-friendly faces of desire. “Once you put your hand in the flame / You can never be the same,” sings “Dita” on the title track. “There’s a certain satisfaction / In a little bit of pain.” Erotica‘s insistent, consistent rhythm creates a comfortable but kinetic ambience for Madonna’s vocal and lyrical whims, and Shep Pettibone’s production is squeaky clean. But a certain laziness is Erotica‘s weakness. Too often the rhythm tracks and mixing board soundbites that are the building blocks of club music stand in for genuine songwriting. For every intricate funhouse like “Secret Garden,” there’s a bland, by-the-numbers stinker like her version of the classic “Fever.”
Bedtime Stories cashes Erotica‘s check. Where Erotica was overly digital, this collection explores the soulful side of club music — perhaps a result of Madonna’s admiration of New York club DJ Junior Vasquez, who, like Miss M, was a devotee of New York’s famous Paradise Garage, where richer, vocals-driven mixing was the rule. Bedtime Stories‘ lush compositions balance melodious storytelling and dancefloor drive; the album’s producers (among them Babyface, Nellee Hooper, Dallas Austin and Madonna herself) can fit more instrumental layers on the head of a pin than most DJs could mix into an entire set. The emotional depth here is also unprecedented for her. Previously, even when Madonna reached for lyrical complexity, she wound up with simplified pap. But “Inside of Me,” which at first appears to be a plain old love song, turns out to be a lonely ode to someone irrevocably gone. “Take a Bow,” in the same guise, could easily be Madonna singing to herself: “You’re one lucky star / You don’t know who you are.”
Madonna again turned to the clubs for ideas in 1995, when she hooked up with Massive Attack and Nellee Hooper for an intriguing, sorrowful remake of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” The track is one of three new recordings on Something to Remember, a compilation sifting through the ballads (including “Live to Tell,” “This Used to Be My Playground,” “Crazy for You” and “I’ll Remember,” all coincidentally from soundtracks) in Madonna’s oeuvre. Though somewhat illuminating to historians, the retrospective is most useful for the void it highlights. It proves just how bland Madonna can be when not stimulated by the right people.
Madonna made her most ambitious grab at movie stardom with the title role of the 1996 screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. While she lusted after Oscar more openly than any other male she’s ever been associated with, her love went unrequited and she was not nominated. The dull movie was more reverential of its source material than the cheesy stage musical deserved, and the soundtrack album is likewise non-essential. It’s hard to imagine fans of Madonna’s own music having much use for Webber’s, and Webber fans most likely already owned recordings of these songs by much more capable singers than Madonna.
With Ray of Light, Madonna belatedly joined the mid-’90s electronica fad. As a performer who had been creating electronically based dance music for most of her career anyway, basically it meant a move toward more audibly synthetic sounds. Surprisingly, Madonna didn’t seek out the aid of a leading light of the genre — like the Chemical Brothers or the Prodigy, who were signed to her own Maverick label (Moby reportedly turned her down) — instead turning to the older and less noted William Orbit. It may have been the right choice. On Ray of Light, the sound is more manipulated than usual, less tethered to any residual rock sensibility, but not drastically different than anything she’s done before. In fact, it’s a small step backward from the ecstatic pulse and throb Nellee Hooper constructed for the title cut of Bedtime Stories. Lyrically, Madonna begins to turn her back on the sexual concerns that had explicitly dominated the previous few albums and instead delves into her growing interest in spirituality and mysticism. (Such themes had always been part of her work, but the next few years would see her pushing them to the forefront.) Ray of Light is not the major artistic statement it was meant to be, but it’s one of Madonna’s best overall albums and one of the few that hangs together as more than the sum of its singles (which include the deliciously pulsing title track).
Madonna made another good move by adding French techno artist Mirwais to her crew for Music. The song of that name is one of her most memorable in years, a percolating ode to the joys of music and dancing, sort of a long delayed companion piece to “Into the Groove.” On “Don’t Tell Me,” she lifts the lyric from her brother-in-law Joe Henry’s “Stop” (from his album Scar) and sets it in a different musical setting to excellent effect. “What It Feels Like for a Girl” and “Runaway Lover” are likewise ace tracks. With points off for laughably trite lyrics, Music reasserts Madonna’s place as the queen of the dancefloor.
Given the sonic success of Music, the utter failure of American Life on every level is a surprise. It’s like a computer-generated image of a beautiful woman’s face: the features are all there, but it completely lacks any credible evidence of life. The music is so sterile and airless that it’s next to impossible to derive any joy from listening. It might as well be sealed in a lucite. Most of the songs are built around Madonna’s acoustic guitar parts, none of which are particularly engaging. Her rudimentary instrumental skills wouldn’t be the issue if she were simply falling short of a clear creative goal, but she’s got no more imagination than technique. Mirwais’ production and arrangements are equally uninspired — he dresses up tracks in the most basic techno elements and rarely reaches for anything out of the ordinary. Especially dire is “Die Another Day,” theme for the James Bond flick of that title (in which Madonna makes a brief, laughable cameo) and one of the very worst songs ever associated with the suave secret agent.
Madonna attempts social commentary on American Life to extremely poor effect. Most galling is the sense of superiority and condescension Madonna barely suppresses throughout the album. Now a mother, pseudo-Englishwoman, children’s book author and clean-living Kabbalah spiritualist peers down at America from the lofty heights of her new respectability, and sniffs with disdain. Her observations on the emptiness of American culture are not necessarily wrong, just disingenuous. With her constant manipulation of fame and celebrity and her unending quest to push the cultural envelope, Madonna is arguably as responsible as any one person could be for the current state of America’s celebrity-obsessed meta-culture. In fairness, she sprinkles mea culpas throughout the album, but they resonate as a calculated element in yet another new pose rather than any kind of honest self-criticism. Perhaps she had to move abroad to see American culture as shallow, empty and greedy, but a look in the mirror would show Lady Madonna at least part of the reason why.
Madonna had suffered plenty of failures before American Life, but those were side projects like obviously bad movies or minor diversions like I’m Breathless. It’s doubtful even she worried too much when Body of Evidence was laughed out of theaters, since at least she got to act super-hot in it. But when it came to major albums, even the artistic failure Erotica put her atop the charts for months and generated endless amounts of media attention. American Life tanked both critically and commercially, leaving nary a dent in the public consciousness, which was something new and troubling for Madonna. The fact that American Life had obviously been intended to join Like a Prayer and Ray of Light as one of her “important” and “serious” albums likely added to the trauma. History shows that even the biggest megastars will one day release an album only to discover that the vast majority of the record-buying public no longer gives a damn and probably never will again. It’s happened to the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, R.E.M. and many others. Madonna had to wonder if American Life was her Undercover, Invincible or Reveal, and if her audience had permanently abandoned her for Gwen, Beyonce or Cristina.
Confessions on a Dance Floor is clearly meant to be Madonna’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a back to basics refocusing on what made her popular in the first place. For the most part it succeeds quite well in its single-minded pursuit of disco euphoria, but there’s definitely a whiff of flop-sweat emanating from it. She goes for broke on the lead-off track and first single, “Hung Up,” which is powered by an irresistible sample from ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” If you need a monster hook to grab people’s attention, you might as well swipe it from the very best. The rest of the album could best be described as one long mix tape consisting of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Blondie’s “Atomic” and Madonna’s own “Bedtime Stories.” One electronic dance groove fades into another without much ado. A few of the lyrics may deal with Madonna’s inexplicable Kaballah obsession, but words are mostly negligible here, or worse. Those that do jump out, most notably the appallingly bad rhymes of “I Love New York” (which will most likely cause even New Yorkers to cringe), are among the weakest in a career never noted for its verbal poetry. Confessions on a Dance Floor achieved its goal of returning Madonna to the charts, and it’s a good, enjoyable little album, just not an “important” one. Only Madonna knows if that’s good enough for her at this stage of her career.
If Confessions on a Dance Floor was calculated to re-establish Madonna as a chart presence, Hard Candy attempts to entrench her position there. In a sign of how badly the American Life debacle must still haunt her, Madonna abandons any pretense of scouting out the cutting edge of club culture and instead hires some of the most reliable hitmakers of the moment — the Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake — to deliver an album that is practically assured of several months’ chart presence but little else. (One might suppose that for Madonna at this stage of life nothing else about her music matters anymore.) Even her harshest critics have had to concede and admire the fact that Madonna has always called the shots on her albums in the past, even when working with such strong collaborators as Nellee Hooper, Babyface or Mirwais. On Hard Candy, she seems content to let her producers run the show, creating a strange paradox of an album. The material itself is at least adequate — Timbaland and Timberlake make the single “4 Minutes” one of the giddiest dance pop concoctions of the decade — but the supposed star of the show seems strangely absent from the proceedings. For example, even after hearing “4 Minutes” multiple times it’s hard to remember if Madonna even contributes any vocals to it and, if she did, what they sound like. A Madonna album on which Madonna is the most ignorable element hardly seems worth the bother.