Desperately seeking Madonna


August 26, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic


In terms of record sales, the ubiquity of her image, and her impact on popular culture, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone of Bay City, Mich. has arguably had as great an impact over the last two decades as Elvis Presley in the'50s or the Beatles in the '60s.

But there is one key difference, besides the artist's gender: Madonna's success has never been based solely or even primarily on her music.

The dance diva's biggest talent has always been media manipulation. Not even in his most cynical, ultra-arch moments did Pop-art guru Andy Warhol ever envision a Superstar who would become so universally famous simply because she was so very, very good at being famous.

Couple that with pop music's biggest flair for the complete chameleonlike reinvention and the cannily timed ''appropriation'' (some would say ''rip-off'') of underground genres this side of David Bowie; the old-as-time-itself strategy of ''sex sells,'' and the concurrent rise of MTV and celebrity culture (without which Madonna would be unimaginable), and voila:

You have an artist known 'round the world by her first name, who has greedily commanded the spotlight almost non-stop since 1983, and who is able to demand $250 a ticket at Chicago's United Center Tuesday and Wednesday (with scalpers apparently grabbing up to 20 times that).

For all of this, Madonna must be admired--grudgingly or not. But what of the music? As rock critic Ira Robbins wrote in The Trouser Press Record Guide, ''Forget for a moment, if you can, all the personality, press and image that attends these albums and consider their contents.''

If you do pause to really weigh the songs instead of the videos, the productions instead of the poses, and the grooves instead of the controversies, you'll find an artist who has delivered exceedingly uneven results over the course of 11 studio albums in 18 years--a body of work that can be divided pretty neatly into four distinct eras.

Early Madonna: Chirpy warbling, underwear-as-outerwear, and refried '70s disco.

Carefully timed to capitalize on the latest wave of Madonna mania, her longtime record label has issued remastered versions of her first three albums: 1983's self-titled debut, 1985's ''Like A Virgin,'' and 1986's ''True Blue.'' But Warner Bros. hasn't done her much of a service: Removed of the context of their videos, the dance floor, and the pop charts of the time, the songs seem even sillier and more dated now than the grab-bag, thrift-store fashions that characterized the then-Material Girl.

Though the word fell out of favor at the end of the '70s, ''disco'' never really went away, as evidenced by the simple, insistent rhythms and cheap-sounding synthesizers of ''Madonna.'' Judged against greats of the genre like Donna Summer or the much more soulful house music that was being made in Chicago at the time, singles such as ''Lucky Star'' (with its infantile nursery rhyme chorus), ''Borderline,'' and the transparent, sub-Chic party tune ''Holiday'' come across as musical and lyrical fluff, with three producers (Reggie Lucas, Mark Kamins, and frequent sidekick Jellybean Benitez) failing to craft one original groove between them. And, oh, that voice! Can you say ''helium squeak''? Dogs in the same room as the stereo howl in misery whenever this disc comes on.

Star rating for ''Madonna'': *1/2

Like Bowie, Madonna turned to Nile Rodgers to humanize the grooves on her second album, and with solid playing from Chic bandmates Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson, ''Like A Virgin'' is a stronger effort. But the hits aren't the finest moments. While ''Material Girl'' and the title track crystallize her persona and modus operandi (presenting her as a self-aware businesswoman who's selling herself as a sexual fantasy while laughing all the way to the bank), Madonna had no hand in writing them--both were crafted by the outside hack hit songwriting team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, and both suffer from those dreaded helium vocals. The keepers come when Madonna sings in her more natural lower register and has a hand in writing her own (admittedly banal) romantic lyrics: ''Angel,'' ''Over and Over,'' and the string-driven ''Love Don't Live Here Anymore.''

''Like A Virgin'': **

Uh, oh: It was one step forward, two steps back, and Madonna's third album is a real clunker. Operating under the mistaken notion that it's a mega-pop star's obligation to offer something for everybody, the singer dabbles in goofy South American balladry (''La Isla Bonita'') and updated '50s teen melodrama (the ambiguous ''Papa Don't Preach,'' which may or may not be an anti-abortion anthem) in between more of the same uninspired, unoriginal dance-floor product (''Open Your Heart,'' ''Where's the Party'').

''True Blue'': *

Madonna's early era ends with ''Who's That Girl,'' which, despite the deceptive marketing, isn't really a Madonna album at all, but a soundtrack for the film that mixes a lot of irrelevant filler (Scritti Politti, Club Nouveau) with four new Madonna tracks. But, hey, starting with the title track, those four tunes rank alongside the best stuff on ''Like A Virgin'' to stand as the none-too-thrilling highlight of her early disco days.

''Who's That Girl'': **

The Queen of Controversy: Like A Heretic.

Having solidified her rise from a college dropout who could dance but barely sing to the most powerful female voice of the '80s thanks to her deviously skillful use of MTV, Madonna became a bona fide household word with 1989's ''Like A Prayer,'' provoking controversy by taking on the Catholic Church. But even here, she wasn't entirely original: One of her collaborators on this effort, Prince, had been exploring the queasy line between sex and religion for years, forwarding the work of Marvin Gaye before him. In contrast to the truly heavy music of those gentlemen, the catchy title track is as light as feather. More successful because they're less ambitious are the fake Motown ditty ''Express Yourself,'' the ersatz '50s pop tune ''Cherish,'' and the first inklings of Madonna's maternal side (''Dear Jessie'' and ''Promise to Try,'' a farewell to her late mom). Also notable as some of the strangest tracks she's ever recorded: ''Till Death Do Us Part,'' a bitter kiss-off to first hubby Sean Penn, and ''Act of Contrition,'' a wild psychedelic guitar blow-out that closes the disc.

''Like A Prayer'': ***

Nothing on the last album was musically original, but at least it was starting to get interesting. Unfortunately, it was time for another step backwards--1990's ''I'm Breathless,'' subtitled ''Music from and inspired by the film 'Dick Tracy.' '' Seemingly confused about how to scandalize next, Madonna turned to slaughtering show tunes, including three by Stephen Sondheim. Still unwilling to grant that her best singing voice is the one where she's pretty much talking, she alternates between the return of the helium chirp and a laughably bad imitation of Carmen Miranda. Or is that Lucille Ball?

''I'm Breathless'': *

Though it's essentially a greatest hits set, 1990's ''The Immaculate Collection'' also includes the two best new tracks from this period: ''Vogue'' (which was also tacked onto ''I'm Breathless'') and ''Justify My Love'' (which bridges the transition to Madonna, Mach III). Critic Robbins wrote that the former was ''just an empty shell of a song, style sans substance,'' but he missed the joke/postmodern conceit: This ''nothing'' song perfectly fits the hollow dance craze of voguing and the phony facade of the fashion world where it was born. And while ''Justify My Love'' represented a new low point in thievery--Minneapolis chanteuse Ingrid Chavez successfully sued to establish it as a raunchy rip-off of her own ''Elephant Parts''--it's a mini-masterpiece nonetheless. Over a languid groove and vaguely Middle-Eastern drone, Madonna breathlessly portrayed a dominatrix who coerces her lover into a sado-masochist tryst, bringing S&M into the mainstream, and offering the most appropriate metaphor yet for her phenomenal success.

''The Immaculate Collection'': ***

Sex, Sex & More Sex: Madonna As Super Seductress.

Sex had always been a given in Madonna's work, but now it was taken to a whole new level. Where 1992's 128-page, $50 Sex book failed for its vulgarity--as any stripper will tell you, body parts are never as alluring when they're thrust in someone's face sans artistry or mystery--the accompanying album ''Erotica'' has grown since emerging from the shadow of its tawdry tie-in. (I'll confess to seriously underrating the disc with a **1/2 rating at the time of its release.) Though the album essentially offers 11 variations of ''Justify My Love'' with Penthouse ''Forum''-worthy lyrics addressing sexual fantasies such as lesbianism (''Where Life Begins'' and ''Secret Garden'') and interracial encounters (''Did You Do It?''), the homogeneity is well suited to its status as make-out music (has anyone ever complained about Barry White being too samey-sounding?), and it effectively masks the limitations of Madonna's voice. Gone forever is the high-end warble, replaced by a seductive and throaty bedroom whisper. And it's about time.

''Erotica'': ***1/2

A victim of bad timing, ''Bedtime Stories'' arrived in 1994 at a point where America had finally reached Madonna Overload; after Sex and her foul-mouthed appearance on ''The Late Show With David Letterman,'' people were just plain sick of her. But while this disc went back to the well in reprising the steamy lyrical themes of ''Erotica,'' the silky R&B textures (courtesy of producers Babyface, Dallas Austin, and Dave Hall) presented a new and equally alluring sound--suave, seductive, and oh-so-smooth. If still not particularly original, it, too, suited Madonna's voice, and while she was no Mary J. Blige, she was at least a bigger vocal talent than Janet Jackson.

''Bedtime Stories'': ***

After every period of artistic accomplishment, Madonna seemed to retrench, and she often turned toward show tunes. I won't claim to have the expertise in this field that my colleague Hedy Weiss has, but you have to be able to sing to sing show tunes, right? (Even if they are by Andrew Lloyd Weber.)

''Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Soundtrack'': *1/2

Thoroughly Modern Madonna: The New Millennial, New Age Earth Mama.

Well aware of Madonna Overload, La Ciccone withdrew from the pop music scene for a while after ''Bedtime Stories.'' But having failed to find big-time success in the film world a la Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler before her, she couldn't stay away. At age 39, she went back to her roots in terms of hair color (brown) and music (disco, though now it was called ''techno''). She had plundered every other dance genre of the last two decades, so why not the rave scene? That her coldly calculated thievery yielded better results than other similar efforts at the time (including one by her obvious role model, Bowie) is probably to the credit of British producer William Orbit. But the disc would have been even better if the trippy grooves were paired with similarly surreal lyrics. Instead, Madonna got newly earnest and spiritual, crooning about her embrace of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism then newly trendy in Hollywood. ''She's got herself a little piece of heaven/Waiting for the time when/Earth shall be as one,'' she sang on the title track. Ugh.

''Ray of Light'': **1/2

On her latest album ''Music,'' Madonna was energized lyrically by a less mystical, more old-fashioned force--love--thanks to her relationship with her second husband, the English director Guy Ritchie. (''This Guy was meant for me,'' she croons on ''I Deserve It.'') Once again, there are some real howlers on the lyric sheet--''Selling out is not my thing,'' she actually sings at one point--but at least she's not warbling about the inner goddess anymore. Meanwhile, musically, her safe-for-mainstream-consumption techno is even better than on ''Ray of Light,'' since she turned to French electronica whiz Mirwais Ahmadzai, a master of the sort of retro-disco funk kitsch that Madonna was born to embrace. There are also elements of modern underground pop bands like Stereolab in the heavily effected vocals, mechanical rhythms, and synthesizer burbles. And while once again, none of it is new, it is at least intriguing and invested suited to Madonna's ironic sense of humor and divaesque personality.

''Music'': ***


No hits--what gives?





So, you've paid $250 plus Ticketmaster service charges (or much, much more, if you went to a scalper). And for all that serious dinero, you've read that Madonna delivers only two of her greatest hits from the '80s?

What gives?

The Material Girl has made a conscious decision to avoid a Rolling Stones-style stadium cash-in/greatest-hits tour, opting instead to focus primarily on material from her last two albums, ''Ray of Light'' and ''Music.''

The fact that these discs rely on her more natural, far less-strained lower register certainly doesn't hurt. But as always, Madonna's motives can't be read on just one level. More significant would seem to be her desire to underscore her position as a still-vital, ever-evolving artiste.

Cultural pundits have been pronouncing Madonna all played out since the early '90s, and they've consistently been wrong. She could certainly get away with resting on her laurels at this point: In 1992, before the release of ''Erotica,'' she re-signed to Warner Bros. for a record-setting $60 million. Part of the deal gave her a label of her own, Maverick, and rather than treating it as a vanity project, she actually built a successful company, scoring major hits with the likes of techno-punks the Prodigy and alternative diva Alanis Morrissette.

In the new millennium, a new class of blonde-bombshell dance divas led by Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears has stolen some of Madonna's thunder, both in terms of chart hits and sexual outrages. But at age 43, Mrs. Ritchie doesn't seem to be willing to concede defeat and retreat to Hollywood or a smaller role behind the scenes in the music industry.

The Drowned World Tour is Madonna's bid to show that she still delivers the goods. Her first major jaunt since 1993's Girlie Show, it is scaled for mid-sized indoor arenas as opposed to stadiums, in part so she can get ''up close and personal'' with her fans.

The question is: For such outrageously steep ticket prices, does Madonna owe concertgoers anything more than that? Do they have a right to expect her to play all or most of the hits that they know and love?

I say most emphatically, ''No!'' Whether an artist is performing at a dive rock club for a $5 cover charge or a massive arena like the United Center for considerably more, I contend that the only thing they owe their audience is that they'll show up and deliver a performance that is true to their artistic vision at the moment. Nostalgia is the kiss of death in any art form, and it's not only encouraging but downright brave to see Madonna refusing to give into it.

Of course, if you think otherwise, you could probably sell your ticket at a considerable profit. Or, if you're on the fence, you could check out HBO's broadcast of the Drowned World Tour at 8 tonight to decide if it's something you want to see in person.

Meanwhile, here is the set list that Madonna has followed at almost all of her American performances (almost all of which is included in the HBO broadcast):

''Drowned World/Substitute for Love''

''Impressive Instant''

''Candy Perfume Girl''

''Beautiful Stranger''

''Ray Of Light''

''Paradise (Not For Me)''


''Open Your Heart'' (teaser)

''Nobody's Perfect''

''Mer Girl''

''Sky Fits Heaven''

''Mer Girl II''

''What It Feels Like For A Girl'' (instrumental interlude)

''I Deserve It''

''Don't Tell Me''

''Human Nature''

''Oh Dear Daddy'' (country-western cover)


''You'll See''


''Don't Cry For Me Argentina'' (instrumental interlude)

''Lo Que Siente La Mujer''

''La Isla Bonita''