Saturday, August 18, 2018

Madonna at 60

Madonna has tnrned 60, and if you should never mention a lady's age, I guess this has been hailed as a milestone as much because with her reaching (what once was) pensionable age, so much of our own youth goes with her; but also because of all the massive superstars, few embody youth like Madonna. Where did the years go? And more importantly, what's the party going to be like? Understandably, the Guardian has published a couple of pieces both bemoaning the press that she has got over the year - seeing her as a woman who won't be quiet and an underappreciated genius.  Sure, Madonna has had her fair sure of criticism over the years, and has caused more than an average amount of outrage, but ironically, there are few artists who have had such consistently good reviews for their art - and more importantly, very few of those have continued to sell albums and singles in the millions.

The world that Madonna came out of was the New York club scene, predominantly gay and black. Musically, New York was not only home to many record companies and recording studios, but its backstreets and warehouses held an underground. When Sonic Youth covered "Into the Groove(y)" as Ciccone Youth, it wasn't an alt.rock band taking pop music ironically, but as one time peers on the New York underground scene. Just as Blondie had done half a decade before, Madonna came out of an underground club millieu and took herself to the top of the charts. Her biography is a well known one - arriving in New York from Michigan, waitressing, getting work as a backing dancer, and doing the later infamous nude photo shoot to make ends meet. But there was another side to this. She signed pretty early on - albeit to a singles deal - to the astute Sire records, an indie that had ideas above its station and with bands such as Talking Heads, had turned art rock into hits.

The dance music scene of 1983, when she would release her first single, was an interesting one. On the one hand, new wave and new romantic bands were increasingly hitting big with danceable tracks, like Tom Tom Club's Wordy Rappinghood or Yazoo's Situation, or Thompson Twins' In the Name of Love, on the other black music was increasingly moving away from its soul roots, and production based music - often anonymous one offs - were hitting big. Madonna's first album has the same kind of electronic looping that Jam and Lewis were playing with SOS Band and Change. Her first number one on the U.S. charts - "Holiday/Lucky Star" - would be knocked off the top by Shannon's sublime "Let the Music Play." But whilst this would be a career high for Shannon it would only be the start for Madonna.

Hits with "Holiday", "Borderline" and "Lucky Star" had given her a platform to be more than just another producer's replaceable lead singer. Her second album, trialled by its flirtatious, "Like a Virgin", turned her into a superstar. I was at sixth form at the time, and had liked "Holiday" but this, and particularly the cynical "Material Girl", with its aspirational video, were anathemic to the bands I was listening to - the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen. The girls understood, as they would throughout her career. Madonna mania - though I don't think it was every called that - saw "Holiday" back in the charts, and as well as the singles off "Like a Virgin", film tracks such as the middle of the road ballad "Crazy for You" were also massive. An astute performance as a version of herself in the film "Desperately Seeking Susan" saw Madonna's "look" appearing on the high street. Talking with a friend the other night, I pointed out that it takes a special kind of talent and empathy for a megastar to make music that can worm all the way into suburban lounges via Top of the Pops and Smash Hits. Madonna spoke directly to every girl who had dressed up, every teenager who'd aspired to something. In retrospect it looks astute, but I think it has always had the value of being real. Cyndi Lauper, the other platinum artist who emerged from America at that time was too studied, too kooky, too much a stage performer even if she had a better voice and (at first) better songs.

For me, it was another soundtrack song, "Into the Groove", that turned me into a Madonna fan. In the forward-looking UK it became her first number one, despite being initially only on "Desperately Seeking Susan" soundtrack. It was quickly added to the "Like a Virgin" album, though its pure dance exuberance was a little out of sync with the rest of the album. In retrospect, Madonna's early career seems incredibly well planned - like Bowie before her, and Prince at the time - each appearance of Madonna had a new look. Whereas Prince would lose half of his fan base after "Purple Rain" with musical about turns, Madonna kept and grew hers with each record. "True Blue" gave her the confidence to channel that obvious influence, Marilyn Monroe, whilst musically it was her most commercial record, Blindingly modern, but retro - and tastefully so - in its influences, it belied the idea of Madonna as someone always out to shock. "La Isla Bonita" channelled ABBA, whilst "Papa Don't Preach" was like a Raymond Carver story in miniature, more acute about young people in trouble than anything that Bruce Springsteen has ever penned.  The album also includes her best ballad, "Live to Tell", and this willingness to show different sides of her, and to tell these different stories - each video being a mini-movie - was at the heart of her imperial period success.

The next album, "Like a Prayer" was her finest, with the title track causing controversy again, through a video that used Catholic iconography (the church had never much liked that Madonna now meant this pop star as well as Mary), but it was also a brilliant, widescreen album, inventive and imaginative. Only the collaboration with Prince was a let down. For those who question Madonna's star status she always comes off as the brightest one in the room - and her occasional collaborations with others have never been amongst her best work. The album also seemed highly personal with the evocative "Oh Father."  As ever she kept one eye on the dancefloor, with "Express Yourself" one of the best that she did with frequent collaborator Stephen Bray, but her newer songwriting partner Pat Leonard was at the helm of much of the album. She's always been very careful in her choice of collaborators, as songwriters or producers, and Leonard and Bray both acted as brilliant foils to her.

As an eighties superstar, perhaps something had to break - her world record breaking "Blonde Ambition" tour, her performance alongside Warren Beatty in "Dick Tracy" (and subsequent soundtrack album, "I'm Breathless") and finally, her brilliantly timed and assembled "Immaculate Collection" double album saw 1990 as the peak of her powers.

Yet, whereas Prince, Springsteen, Janet Jackson and others would have tailspins in their careers, Madonna's next stages were simply less stellar. Life got in the way sometimes - highly publicised marriages to Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, alpha males who didn't really seem to have her range and class. With Ritchie being a Brit she would relocate to London, which would please out tabloids. Yet the hits and albums would keep on coming. If "Erotica" and "Bedtime Stories" felt less essential, it always seemed because Madonna's eyes were elsewhere. Her film career, again like Bowie she is almost too much of a presence to make it as simply an actor, did well enough when the role suited. Of course she would play Eva Peron in "Evita" the movie, even though her voice, a pleasing, but limited instrument, would struggle with Lloyd Webber's epic tunes. The "Sex" book, a massively selling art-porn book that brought S&M into the mainstream was a sensation of the wrong kind in the early 90s. Madonna's ability to sell sex had always been done with it being on her terms, and I guess it was here as well - but neither this, the raunchy "Body of Evidence" movie, or the sighs of the "Erotica" single were anything as sexy as the work she'd done before. In retrospect, this slightly transgressive period - flirting with both bondage and bisexualism - was probably something she needed to do as a person, but as an artist it seemed only guaranteed to create controversy.

The last thing we expected on a comeback was an album as good as "Ray of Light" - where her new producer William Orbit - gave her a whole new more mature sound. When Madonna gets critical acclaim, as she did for this, she also sells lots of records. A mature record - but still with one foot in the dancefloor. With perhaps the exception of the ill-chosen "American Pie" cover, Madonna has never really embraced rock the way that maybe Prince and occasionally Michael Jackson did. Instead she has always taken elements of other musics, and placed them firmly in her own style, so that the country-stylings of "Don't tell me" on the "Music" album are through the lens of a DJ and dancer. Its easy to have lost track of her over the last twenty years as albums have become less frequent - but both "Music" and (especially) "Confessions on a Dancefloor" are superb records whilst singles such as "Hung Up" and "4 Minutes" continued to give her massive worldwide hits. Over her last two records, "MDNA" and "Rebel Heart", there have been more collaborations, and the payback has been less successful. In the meantime she moved from acting to directing with the film "W.E", about Wallace Edwards, another American woman who found herself in the full glare of the press. The Madonna influenced artists have kept coming in waves, whether its Britney Spears or Nicky Minaj. She's always remained supportive of women coming along in her wake, yet mostly by carrying on doing what she's doing. Controversies have also followed her, because she is Madonna, whether adopting a child from Africa, her relationships with younger men, or probably a dozen other things I've missed. A business woman as well as an artist, she signed Alanis Morrisette to Maverick, the imprint she ran through Warner Brothers until the early 2000s.

With her children growing up and coming into the spotlight, I think the glare of publicity for simply being sixty, is one that she would look wryly on. After all, she has always been in the news - because its Madonna its newsworthy. One of those artists known by a single name, she's never really looked back despite some astute compiling of her music on compilations. Just playing all her singles would take you the best part of a day.

So happy 60th Madonna, and like you sang, Where's the Party?

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