She’s been worshipped, mocked and vilified. She’s been written off more times than she’s changed her hair colour yet has outlasted most of her contemporaries. Paul Burston pays homage to a true pop survivor.
There’s a new Madonna album on the way and opinion is divided between those can hardly contain their excitement, those who never cared for her and those who say she’s too old and no longer relevant. And not for the first time. In 1993, less than a decade into her record-breaking, headline-grabbing career, British pop magazine Smash Hits urged her to, “Put it away, Grandma!” Madonna was all of 35 at the time. Thanks to her strict diet and exercise regime, she’d never looked better. That same year she told the BBC’s Jonathan Ross that ageism was another battle she was prepared to fight. She had no intention of growing old gracefully. And she’s been true to her word ever since.
Given that this is a woman who has delighted in causing controversy from the moment she became famous, this should hardly come as a surprise. Madonna has never done anything by the rule book. Why start now?
The unstoppable rise of Madonna was partly about timing. In 1983, Debbie Harry of Blondie was taking time off to nurse her partner, Chris Stein. Often described as “the punk Marilyn Monroe”, Harry’s absence left a gap in the pop market for a sultry blonde with a Marilyn fixation. Early in her career, Madonna famously compared herself to Monroe. She even paid tribute to her in the video for Material Girl, with its visual echoes of Marilyn’s iconic performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “But Marilyn was a victim and I’m not”, Madonna added, lest anyone be in any doubt. Asked by an interviewer to tell him her dreams, she quipped, “To rule the world”.
Timing isn’t everything, of course. Nor is unbridled ambition. You also need the talent to back it up. Madonna was the first to admit that she wasn’t the world’s greatest singer or dancer. What she had was perfect pop instincts and a work ethic that led feminist scholar Camille Paglia to nickname her “Our Lady Of Hard Work”. This was in evidence from the start. Madonna’s eponymous 1983 debut album spawned dance hits like Lucky Star and the enduringly infectious Holiday. Released the following year, her second album, Like A Virgin, raised her profile even further with chart toppers including the title track, Material Girl and Into The Groove.
But it wasn’t until her third album that she went from being a pop star to a global phenomenon. Released in 1986, True Blue revealed a new, gym-toned Madonna and one who was determined to use her fame to, in her own words, “push people’s buttons”. And did she ever. Papa Don’t Preach dealt with teenage pregnancy and abortion rights. Live To Tell was a song about female survival and still ranks as one of her finest ballads. And the video for Open Your Heart showed that this was a woman who understood the power of pop iconography and its potential for making bold statements about sexuality. Here was Madonna the showgirl, performing inside a peep show. But there’s a twist. She’s the one calling the shots. The video is a knowing comment on the male gaze. And not all the men watching her are straight. At one point, a gay couple are seen peering through the glass.
Three years later, with her short and tempestuous marriage to actor Sean Penn on the rocks, Madonna released what was widely considered her first truly substantial album. Like A Prayer marked a significant change in people’s perception of her as an artist. Yes, her voice was still thin – but feel the depth of the material. A soul baring album in many ways, the songs dealt with Catholic guilt, the death of her mother, her troubled relationship with her father and the breakdown of her marriage. Rolling Stone said the album was “as close to art as pop gets”. It was also hugely commercial, topping the charts in countries worldwide. Madonna’s Imperial Period had begun.
Had it been recorded by a man, Like A Prayer would surely have won awards. Here was an artist digging deep and coming up with some of the best songs of her career – not just the gospel-inspired title track, but classics like the feminist anthem Express Yourself and the joyful Cherish. A landmark album in many ways, Like A Prayer proved the doubters wrong. Here was incontrovertible proof that Madonna wasn’t all style and no substance. She was and still is a serious artist. As if to drive the point home, the video for Express Yourself referenced Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis and the artist Tamara de Lempicka. Madonna appears in androgynous garb reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich and grabs her crotch like Michael Jackson.
Then came Vogue. Borrowing heavily from the underground black gay dancehall culture of New York, Madonna brought voguing firmly into the mainstream. Described by one reviewer as “Madonna’s finest single moment”, the song topped the charts and offered further proof of her ability to fuse subcultural credibility with commercial success. A highlight of her career-defining 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour, it’s been a firm concert favourite ever since.
With costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and elaborate choreography combining Catholic imagery with overt sexuality, Blonde Ambition was famously denounced by the Pope and protested by Christian groups. Scenes of female masturbation and displays of male homosexuality were not considered suitable viewing for pop audiences. The controversy added further drama to the documentary released the following year. Madonna: Truth or Dare (or In Bed With Madonna, as it was called outside North America) featured exhilarating colour footage of the live show, plus black and white behind-the-scenes footage of the star having her throat examined; squabbling with boyfriend Warren Beatty; visiting her mother’s grave and hanging out with her mainly gay male dancers. At one point, she dares two of the dancers to French kiss and whoops with delight when they oblige.
It may seem tame now, but scenes of two men kissing were not commonplace in 1991. Nor was it the done thing for a star of Madonna’s magnitude to talk openly about HIV stigma and to champion gay rights. But Madonna has never been shy about expressing herself. She has always openly acknowledged her gay fan base and paid her respects to the gay mentors who helped shape her as a person and as a performer. Is it any wonder that gay men were quick to justify their love for her?
In October 1990, having completed her Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna queered her pitch even further with the release of Justify My Love. Co-written with Lenny Kravitz, the song was delivered in an intimate, spoken word-style Madonna would also employ on her next album. Filmed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino in grainy black and white, the video for the single featured scenes of gender-bending, bisexuality, sadomasochism and voyeurism – and was subsequently banned by MTV and other TV networks. Never one to miss an opportunity, Madonna released the video on VHS and it quickly became a bestseller. This was the first time an artist had released a single in this format, making it a groundbreaking decision as well as a commercially lucrative one.
By now, people were getting used to Madonna’s talent for causing a commotion and turning it to her own advantage. But her next move would test the extent to which she could continue to push people’s buttons and still enjoy mainstream success. When it was revealed that her 1992 album Erotica would coincide with the release of a coffee table book called Sex, the knives were out. A collection of photographs of the star in various stages of undress and a variety of sexual scenarios with men and women, Sex attracted criticism from both conservative groups and feminist campaigners, who objected to the book’s pornographic rape fantasies. Author and Madonna fan Lucy O’Brien saw the book as “a curious act of self-destruction.” Others complained that the images were derivative, lacked warmth and revealed Madonna as nothing more than a sexual tourist, flirting with queer imagery while enjoying all the benefits of heterosexuality. Personally, I think it was an incredibly brave thing for a woman in Madonna’s position to do in the sexually anxious early 90s. Yes, Sex was often cold, sometimes silly and verging on the ridiculous. But it was also sex-positive at a time when sexuality was linked with a deadly disease and sexual minorities were under constant attack. As for the question of authenticity, since when did a shapeshifter like Madonna ever lay claim to being authentic? After the various personas she adopted from Like A Virgin to Like A Prayer, I think of the early ’90s as her Like A Lesbian period.
Sadly, the controversy surrounding the Sex book overshadowed Madonna’s 1992 Erotica album, which received good reviews but sold poorly compared to her previous two releases. It did however spawn several hit singles, including the title track, Rain, Fever, Bad Girl and Deeper and Deeper. In hindsight, it’s easy to see Erotica as Madonna’s most experimental album so far, combining elements of dance, disco, rap and hip hop. It has certainly grown in stature of the years, with some even claiming it set the blueprint for modern pop with its blending of genres and the emotional rawness of the material. Yet even Madonna later admitted that her biggest disappointment was “the fact that my Erotica album was overlooked because of the whole thing with the Sex book. It just got lost in all of that.”
It wasn’t until 1998’s Ray of Light that her record sales recovered to the levels she enjoyed pre-Erotica. A commercial and critical success, Ray of Light spawned several hit singles, including Frozen and the title track. It also saw the star finally receiving the recognition she so richly deserved, winning a total of four Grammys and earning praise both for her songwriting ability and her vocal performance. A mix of electronica, dance, ambient, techno and trip hop, Ray of Light was produced by William Orbit, who also worked on her next album, Music.
Reviews of Music (Madonna’s eighth studio album released in 2000) were less favorable than Ray of Light, but the album was another commercial success, reaching the number one spot on both sides of the Atlantic.
Confession time. I’m a sometimes devotional, sometimes lapsed but ultimately unrepentant Madonna fan. Parts of Like A Virgin left me cold. I was never a huge fan of True Blue. After a run of four or five albums I still listen to regularly, she lost me with American Life. Released in 2003, in the wake of the Iraq war, it tries hard to be politically relevant but lacks depth. Nothing Fails is magnificent – a rare transcendent moment on an otherwise uninspiring album. Elsewhere, Madonna’s observations about the hollowness of Hollywood and the emptiness of the American dream sound facile. And the cod English accent she adopted during her marriage to Guy Ritchie grates almost as much as hearing a mega-rich pop star bemoaning her privileged place in the world.
But then came Confessions on a Dance Floor. “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free” she sang way back in 1985 on Into The Groove. Twenty years later on her 2005 Confessions album, Madonna got her groove back. The ABBA sampled Hung Up was a monster hit, topping the charts in 41countries, and there were more where that came from. The singles Sorry, Get Together and Jump all made the top ten. The album won a Grammy Award, sold over ten million copies worldwide and went to number one in 40 countries, earning a place in the Guinness World Records. The following year’s Confessions Tour became the highest grossing concert tour ever undertaken by a female artist – a record Madonna subsequently broke with her next live tour, Sticky & Sweet, in 2008.
None of the albums she’s released since has had quite the same impact as Confessions. But there have been some great singles – 4 Minutes (featuring vocals by Justin Timberlake and Timbaland), Give It 2 Me featuring Pharrell Williams from 2008’s Hard Candy, and Ghosttown from 2015’s Rebel Heart. There’ve also been some less than memorable moments – Girl Gone Wild and Bitch I’m Madonna (as one wag noted, a great song title in search of a song).
Despite Madonna’s storming May 2019 performance at the Billboard Music Awards, reaction to her latest single Medellín has been muted, to say the least. It’s too soon to say if the uplifting, anthemic I Rise will fare much better. But don’t write her off just yet. It’s no accident that her 2004 live tour was called The Re-Invention Tour. Like David Bowie before her, Madonna has a talent for reinventing herself and has bounced back more times than any of her contemporaries. Her new album Madame X is out on 14 June. And who knows? She may just surprise us yet. Bitch, she’s Madonna.
Paul Burston’s new novel The Closer I Get is out on 11 July 2019 www.paulburston.com