In no particular order.
In no particular order.
A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:
“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”
Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.
It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.
Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.
In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.
Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”
The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.
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In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna
You can’t argue with that.
My first Bowie memory is of listening to ‘Life on Mars?’ which, as I wrote previously, “exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour”. In retrospect it feels like a moment when life itself burst into technicolour, when the narrow confines of my perspective collapsed around me and I found myself alert to exciting, daunting possibilities. Listening to that song, I caught my first glimpses of Oz.
As an artist Bowie tore up my notions of what popular music could be. I will remember sitting in that room, being carried somewhere completely alien, for as long as I still have my faculties. I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just the strange, wonderful music which grabbed me but also the aching alienation which pulses through ‘Life on Mars?’ I’m not sure I yet had a real understanding of sexuality but I knew I was different from most of the other kids. I knew I was lonely and I knew I wanted something more, even if I couldn’t begin to conceive of what that was. “Is there life on Mars?” spoke to that, a plaintive yet hopeful howl that there had to be something, somewhere else out there (…over the rainbow).
As with so many queers my age and older, Bowie spoke to something within me before I necessarily could even articulate what it was. He helped usher me through some very difficult years to a life I could never have imagined. I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be. The Oz I glimpsed in ‘Life on Mars?’ came roaring into view and it was magnificent, even that sense of alienation has never quite gone away; I’m not sure it ever does for people like us. Yet for that, there was always Bowie. Always Bowie.
When I woke on a dark, cold Monday in January to the news that Bowie had died, it felt for a few days as if the world had been plunged back into black and white. In what became a year of dismal shocks, his death remains the thing which most affected me. I cried a lot the day I found out. I cried in Berlin a couple of weeks later as I visited his old haunts.
I wept at Bowie’s appearance in the Oscars ‘In Memorium’ video; at the Brit Awards tribute where his band was largely made up of the same people I saw him perform with in 2003; at the end of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which I watched repeatedly when I was drunk:
I ended the year welling up at Bowie’s music making an appearance on the soundtrack for the London fireworks. Yet as I find myself in another cold, miserable January, about to enter the anniversary of that bleak Monday, I find my sadness lifted by the knowledge that the world didn’t become black and white again. I made a whole new bunch of Bowie memories: in Berlin he soundtracked a memorable encounter with a Syrian couple; I laughed with a room full of people at a BFI Bug special devoted to him; I went to see Lazarus on a glorious November afternoon; I headed down to the South Bank Centre one Friday after work to see Paul Morley speak about him and hear a choir sing some of his songs; I felt a visceral thrill when he appeared on the screens at a Placebo gig in December.
He’s not gone. He never will be. I don’t think I will ever feel fully at ease in the world and David Bowie will always speak to that. He helped me to accept it, even to celebrate it at times. I will always miss him but as the sadness falls away with time what is left is the sheer joy he has brought me, and which I now know he will always bring me. The world is still technicolour. Oz is still within my grasp. And yes, there is life on Mars.
Given singles are increasingly irrelevant, I’ve done a list of songs I loved this year.
In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:
George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.
2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.
I cannot believe we are here again. It feels like the cosmos is snuffing out the lights, one by one. Yet I know that Leonard Cohen would not agree. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. And oh how brightly, how magnificently, Leonard shone, illuminating and warming the world.
I came to Leonard very late, in his latter-day renaissance when he was a man in his late seventies. He was producing some of the greatest work of his long career and remained doing so right until the end. As I wrote then I felt, and I feel, enormously privileged to have been able to see him live (twice, as it turned out). Truly, in a world where the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around with abandon, we were fortunate to find Leonard:
Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation. At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.
The poem at the top is taken from a pocketbook of Leonard’s poems and lyrics which I have returned to many times over the years. Sometimes, like today, I put it in my bag and carry it with me. All of the wisdom of the ages seems contained in its pages. Only yesterday I was listening to Everybody Knows and thinking how apropos it was for the age we live in:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows – but few knew like Leonard. There is some comfort to be found in the awareness that he seemed to know this was coming and had made his peace with it. You didn’t have to parse his last album very closely to know what much of it was about. I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game. I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir. Hineni, hineni – I’m ready my Lord. In his final letter to Marianne Ihlen he wrote:
Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
These two lines, with their compassion, comfort, self-deprecation and deep, deep well of love capture Leonard wonderfully. Even as an old man he seemed to possess wisdom drawn from another place and a grace which took you gently into its arms and cradled you. Now he is going home and he has earned his sleep:
Leonard will always be with me. I know that I will return to his songs and his words, so without parallel, until the day I too am taken. For now, it’s closing time and I will raise a toast to a truly wonderful man before heading out into the cold.
The days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year, but always.
RIP Leonard Cohen.
Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:
…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.
Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.
Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.
Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:
Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.
Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.
In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:
…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.
It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us. Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!
This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.
In 2012 I wrote the following to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Madonna’s debut single. To mark her birthday today I present it here again, order rejigged to mark the passing of time and with Rebel Heart added. The loss of Bowie and Prince this year has made it clearer than ever how dearly we need to cherish these icons while we still can.
October 6th, 1982: I was 2 years old, “Pass The Dutchie” was No.1 in the charts (and Dire Straits in the album charts) and ‘E.T.’ was conquering the box office. With no fanfare, the world got its first chance to hear the debut single by an unknown artist with the striking name of ‘Madonna’. ‘Everybody’, written solely by Madonna, so convincingly blended new wave with r&b and an increasingly unfashionable disco sound that (as the now infamous story goes) listeners thought Madonna was black and Sire capitalised on this by keeping images of her off the sleeve. Although the single didn’t make many waves, it wouldn’t be too long before Madonna’s image was imprinted on our culture as part of a rarified breed of pop music icons.
2012 is a big year for Madonna – her first album in 4 years (the previous, ‘Hard Candy’, was incidentally also released in April), her first world-tour since the record-breaking ‘Sticky & Sweet’ and, perhaps biggest of all, the 30th anniversary of the start of her pop career. In typical Madonna fashion she has yet to acknowledge the landmark – no ‘M30’ or ‘30YO’ for her. Indeed, on the October date of ‘Everybody’s widespread release she is due to be playing a gig in San Jose – as a symbol of her restless hunger to keep looking forward, it’s hard to beat.
Yet if Madonna rarely takes the time to celebrate what has come before (even the self-explanatory ‘Celebration’ hits collection was largely ignored by her), it doesn’t mean no-one else should. Here, in honour of 30 (edit: 33!) years of Madonna, are my thoughts on her albums (presented in reverse order of my personal preferences – today!):
‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)
‘I’m Breathless’ is largely ignored, probably because it’s not viewed as a studio album. Indeed, it was noticeably absent from this year’s ‘Complete Studio Albums’ collection. Yet if ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Graffitti Bridge’ and ‘Batman’ are widely viewed as Prince albums, this (with 12 original songs and 6 Madonna co-writes) surely qualifies as worthy of sitting alongside Madonna’s 12 other albums.
The album’s tagline is ‘Music from and inspired by the film “Dick Tracy”’ and, as a result, it’s a bit of an oddity. The predominantly jazz and swing tone of the album suggests it as a precursor to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back to Basics’, yet it’s far more knowingly camp. It features 3 Sondheim songs which are, predictably, brilliant. They also inspire some of the best vocals of Madonna’s career (and if you haven’t seen her performance of ‘Sooner or Later’ at the Oscars, get over to Youtube immediately). The rest of the album is a mixed bag – fillers like ‘I’m Going Bananas’ and ‘Cry Baby’ sit uneasily alongside moody ballads like ‘He’s A Man’ and ‘Something to Remember’. Then, somewhat tacked on at the end, we have the legendary ‘Vogue’. Suffice to say its shadow looms large over the rest of the album as it demonstrates that Madonna is at her best when she’s doing Madonna, and not doing Breathless Mahoney. The album is a curious failure – one that, bizarrely, Madonna chose as her own favourite when promoting ‘Bedtime Stories’. Which leads us nicely to….
‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)
Madonna is so regularly and easily mocked these days that the notion of a ‘Madonna backlash’ seems rather quaint. Nevertheless, this album arose from the ashes of the biggest backlash she had faced in her career to that point. This context is key to the record, which must sound rather odd without it. Despite the combative ‘Human Nature’, this is a Madonna burned and cowed by relative failure. She worked with mainstays of the American charts like Babyface, Dallas Austin and Dave Hall, lending at least half the album a glossy, mainstream r&b sound which, at the time, seemed like a radical departure. Still, this is Madonna, so she contrasts the chart-ready material with some of the most unusual and ‘difficult’ songs of her career. Who else would blend r&b, Herbie Hancock and Walt Whitman (‘Sanctuary’) and, more than that, get away with it?! The more experimental efforts don’t always work – Bjork’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is ill-fitting – yet they lend the album a messy warmth that makes it far more interesting than the sales-chasing vehicle it could have been. Madonna doesn’t seem very fond of it herself – 7 of its 11 tracks have never been performed live.
‘Hard Candy’ (2008)
Whereas ‘Bedtime Stories’, Madonna’s previous courtship of Hot 100-pleasing r&b, came from failure, ‘Hard Candy’ arrived as she once again ruled the pop world. Many were confused, then, that she chose to work with ubiquitous producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. More than confused, even – there was a real sense of anger in some quarters, much of it founded in the mistaken belief that Madonna has always nurtured undiscovered talent (and, perhaps most importantly, talent rooted in European dance rather than American r&b). As a result this is a much maligned album. However, as the US counterpoint to the far more respected ‘Confessions….’, I find it a much better record. It’s far more personal, for a start – for all the complaints about her latter day lyrics, songs like ‘Miles Away’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Voices’ give a devastating insight into a relationship in meltdown. Even something like ‘Incredible’, which ostensibly seems to be a sweet celebration of love, carries the weary sense that an end is near (‘I remember when you were the one, you were my friend…I need a reminder so I can relate, I need to go back there before it’s too late’). The ballads are back too, with ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ being an instant Madonna classic, albeit one that suffers from Timbaland’s tendency towards generic production. I am definitely in a tiny minority in rating this above ‘Confessions…’ but for me, it’s far more rewarding and a perfect example of a relevant pop album made when the artist has reached middle-age.
‘Ray of Light’ (1998)
‘Ray of Light’ is without doubt one of the most spectacular ‘comebacks’ in pop music history, easily up there with ‘Achtung Baby’ with which it shares much. Like U2 in the run-up to that album, Madonna had remained a consistent commercial force but there was a real sense of decline hanging over her. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Erotica’ had sold less combined than ‘Like a Prayer’ did and, with ballads compilation ‘Something to Remember’ and the film/soundtrack ‘Evita’, there were worrying omens that she was positioning herself as an MOR artist to compete with then-huge artists like Celine Dion. The gap between this and ‘Bedtime Stories’ was also the longest yet between her studio albums, causing many to wonder if her heart was still in the game. By now we should know that every time we ask this question, she knocks it out of the park. Again like U2 with ‘Achtung Baby’, Madonna had gone away and rediscovered herself – in the process reinventing her music for the 21st century. This album is outstanding – an emotionally honest, sonically radical collection that, crucially, sounds completely liberated from the pressures that led to it. One of the most transcendent moments of her career comes midway through opener ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. The sumptuous electronica was already unfamiliar territory but when her voice takes off in the ‘No famous faces…’ section, it was a Madonna we had never heard before. Against all odds, she delivered the third-biggest seller of her career and this album laid the template for the latter half of her career.
I have already written about this here and, happily, the weeks since have not dulled my appreciation. As much of a crossroads album as ‘Ray of Light’, this could so easily have been a disaster. Instead it manages the tricky task of being an album largely packed with lyrics about being a wealthy, middle-aged pop icon who has recently experienced divorce – yet being immensely enjoyable and fun rather than alienating. Fun, in fact, in an endearing way which harks back to her 80s peak – songs like ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, ‘B-Day Song’ and ‘I’m A Sinner’ sound borne out of relaxed creativity rather than an eye on chart placements (though the presence of Nicki Minaj and MIA show that this is clearly not an absent consideration). She still manages to surprise – the camp noir of ‘Gang Bang’ sounds unlike anything she’s done before while ‘I Fucked Up’ is one of her most affecting ballads.
‘True Blue’ (1986)
Madonna’s biggest-selling studio album and essentially her own ‘Thriller’ – 5 legendary singles dominate and the other 4 songs feel like filler beside them (and, to be fair, ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ is one of the worst things she’s recorded). This is where many who had previously dismissed her as an ephemeral pop dolly sat up and took notice – ‘Live to Tell’ announced a new Madonna, with its sombre tone, allusions to child abuse and a singing voice far weightier than the previous coquettish come on. Decades of the singles being presented on hits collections has dulled their impact here and the album almost comes across as its own little greatest hits, yet its brilliance is undeniable. Many other artists would have fought tooth and nail for a pop song as carefree and exhilarating as ‘Where’s The Party?’, possibly the album track least deserving of the phrase ‘album track’ ever.
‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)
Like Ray of Light, this album came from a massive backlash. ‘American Life’ is probably Madonna’s biggest commercial failure and (for the hundredth time) detractors were wondering if perhaps her time as a major force was at an end. Madonna responded with her most successful single ever. ‘Hung Up’ is undoubtedly a classic – not only a Madonna classic, but a CLASSIC classic. What’s remarkable about this album is that there is rarely a sense of the other songs playing catch-up – at least ¾ of them could be singles. What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the advance publicity playing up its floor-filling qualities, it lyrically covers much of the same ground as ‘American Life’. Fan favourite ‘How High’ is essentially a much more digestible rewrite of ‘American Life’ (the song) while ‘Isaac’ is as unusual a dance song as has ever graced a 10 million-selling album. Nonetheless, some of Madonna’s persuasive spikiness is lost in a set which aims to please and the absence of a ballad (one of her real strengths) is a sore disappointment.
‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
In retrospect, this is where she began her rapid ascent to iconic status – at the time, it was probably just a massive pop album. It builds on her debut but goes ridiculously beyond it, adding Motown riffs, sugar-sweet ballads and that now-infamous knack for controversy. The more versatile sound no doubt has a lot to do with this being her first co-written album – the gorgeously clumsy ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ is the last solely-attributed writing credit on her studio albums. The ambition here – to rule the pop world – is clear but it doesn’t detract from the sheer joy that permeates the record. Songs like ‘Stay’, ‘Pretender’ and ‘Over & Over’ still rank amongst her best album tracks – ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is, however, one of her worst. It’s the sole misstep on what must be approaching a perfect pop album – indeed, if you remove it and replace with ‘Into The Groove’ (which was later added to the tracklist), the case is pretty overwhelming.
In light of what came after, it’s impossible to review this record as a debut; impossible to really see if the clues were there or guess how the record would now be perceived (if it was perceived at all) if it hadn’t led to a phenomenon. Reviews written years after the fact almost uniformly declare it a masterpiece yet, at the time, it’s safe to say that it had a mixed reception. It’s easy to see why – it’s largely unassuming, making no huge statements about Madonna as an artist and giving few glimpses into her inner life. However it’s worth noting that this is Madonna before she discovered co-writing – 5 of the 8 songs are written by her alone, including the iconic ‘Lucky Star’. What it does demonstrate, then, is the savvy talent for pop melodies and hooks that has largely stayed with her in the subsequent 30 years. Also present, in songs like ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Think of Me’, is a aggressively independent streak demanding that we pay attention. Perhaps most important is the fact that, despite her thin voice, Madonna owns these songs. No one else could do this.
‘Rebel Heart’ (2015)
As I wrote upon its release, Rebel Heart was as much as restatement of core values from an ageing icon as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Bowie’s Heathen or Prince’s Musicology were. This was a Madonna who understood that she didn’t rule the charts any longer but was determined to remind everyone why she is so special. The lyrics of the (bumped from the official release) Queen are particularly apropos following the death of Bowie and Prince:
Who will take her place?
It’s written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
Still, if the album’s maudlin undertone was a reflection of Madonna’s age and status as an ageing Queen, Rebel Heart contained its fair share of precision-tooled pop. Ghosttown especially was a glorious, haunting anthem which once again highlighted that few pop artists do melancholy like Madonna while infectious, airy tracks like the sitar-driven Body Shop and the Diplo-assisted Unapologetic Bitch showed she could, after all this time, still surprise us. The album’s sprawling diversity (24 tracks spread over various editions) was testament to a still-beating creative heart, though the messiness was reflected in both uneven tone and production. At a stage when most pop icons either fall into kitschy nostalgia or covers album hell, Rebel Heart found Madonna still very much in the game.
‘The Immaculate Collection’ and accompanying Blond Ambition tour in 1990 found Madonna in an imperial phase, with massive commercial success, huge critical acclaim and a general air of being impervious. It’s understandable, then, that she felt that she could afford to take increasingly radical risks – leading to this album and the ‘Sex’ book. Even in 2012, the thought of the world’s biggest pop star releasing a concept album and coffee-table book about sex, featuring many images of her and her famous friends in various states of undress, is staggering. Yet in the enormous backlash that ensued one crucial thing is lost – the fact that ‘Erotica’ is an utterly brilliant album. It was easily the most intelligent, complex and demanding work she had yet released. The cold production almost deliberately pushed the listener away while Madonna’s delivery on many songs is so detached that it brings to mind a drug-addled drag queen singing someone else’s pop hits. The questions raised about sexuality, commerce and personal identity were almost completely missed (and indeed remain so). It doesn’t all demand effort – ‘Deeper and Deeper’ marries a peerless narrative about coming out with an effortless disco ferocity, while the plaintive ‘Bad Girl’ is just gorgeous (and led the 12 year old me to write a letter to Michael Stipe asking him to sing with Madonna…!) It’s intriguing to wonder what would have come next if this had been a massive success. Instead, we’re left with a record that was her first commercial failure but is undoubtedly one of her biggest creative successes.
‘American Life’ (2003)
A similar context preceded ‘American Life’ – two commercially and critically successful albums of sometimes radical electronic music and a world tour which managed to sell-out despite largely ignoring all her hits, Madonna probably felt she was taking millions of people on a journey. It’s easy to comprehend how pushing further must have looked like a logical step. Nevertheless, this odd album – with its blend of electro and folk, its sometimes self-important and sometimes disarming personal examinations and its over-arching theme of a naval-gazing culture – was a step too far and lost 2/3 of the listeners who had embraced ‘Music’. It was also the first Madonna album not to produce a worldwide hit single – the kiss of death for any global popstar. It’s a shame because this was a Madonna leaping into the void, showing a fearless creativity which her detractors don’t believe exists. It takes either massive chutzpah or titanic delusion to believe that the awkward, absurd title track could be a lead single, though the hilarious rap shows a sense of humour usually missed by listeners (though some missed it even here!) It’s interesting that the fearlessness did not extend to the original, provocatively anti-war video for the song, a stance that was at the time liable to kill careers yet is now the consensus view. Nothing could save the album’s sales after that, though God knows Madonna tried with an air of desperation that was entirely missing from the record itself. For all the headline-grabbing politics, it’s a largely intimate and very adult affair, with little for pop fans of the period (the biggest pop albums of the period were Beyonce’s debut and Britney’s ‘In the Zone’) to grab hold of – and it’s all the more admirable for it.
The singles from this certainly didn’t sound quite like anything on the charts at the time – yet they succeeded in re-shaping tastes in a way which ‘American Life’ could only dream of. With characteristic restlessness Madonna largely ditched William Orbit and instead collaborated with the (still) relatively unknown Mirwais. So successful were the results that a slew of imitators followed. Madonna is at her very best here, bringing innovation to the mainstream with a gold-plated commercial nous and combining the sounds with peerless pop lyrics. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ is a perfect representation of why she’s so valuable, accessibly communicating complex ideas regarding gender identity and roles in a moving, warm pop song that sounds quite unlike any other pop ballad of the period. The title track, her last American number one, is as much a manifesto as ‘Everybody’ was 18 years later while ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is surely one of the most interesting massive pop hits ever? ‘Impressive Instant’ is a great lost single, rightly chosen for release by Madonna but thwarted by her label who wanted the fun-but-derivative ‘Amazing’ instead. Here also marks the beginning of the ‘Guy Ritchie songs’ which have recently climaxed with ‘MDNA’.
‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
Every pop fan by now surely knows the famous Rolling Stone quote claiming that this album was ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I couldn’t put it any better myself. ‘True Blue’ may have made critics start to take notice but with ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna surpassed even the kindest of expectations and ensured that she would never again be seen as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. It’s here that she first exposed the brutal honesty that has largely dominated her best work since and saw her lyrically more comparable to rock singers of the period than to Michael Jackson or Prince. It is, in fact, her most ‘rock’ album in that it is largely based on a traditional band sound and not disco or dance music. The legendary title track’s blend of gospel and rock, the sacred and profane is obvious. She called the wonderful ‘Oh Father’ her ‘homage to Simon & Garfunkel’ while the influential ‘Express Yourself’ was conceived as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Prince himself pops up on ‘Love Song’, as unassuming a duet between icons as you could ever hear. ‘Cherish’, meanwhile, is a gorgeously sincere frolic of the kind she has (sadly) rarely returned to since. Aforementioned ‘Oh Father’ together with ‘Promise to Try’ (about her mother) and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (about an abusive marriage – never explicitly commented on but rumours abound that Sean Penn assaulted her) form the emotional core – popstars of Madonna’s level simply weren’t expected to turn their inner lives into pop songs. It’s an album she will never surpass – but in her defence, almost no-one will.