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
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
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.
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
''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.
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?
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,
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
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
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''
''Candy Perfume Girl''
''Ray Of Light''
''Paradise (Not For Me)''
''Open Your Heart'' (teaser)
''Sky Fits Heaven''
''Mer Girl II''
''What It Feels Like For A Girl'' (instrumental interlude)
''I Deserve It''
''Don't Tell Me''
''Oh Dear Daddy'' (country-western cover)
''Don't Cry For Me Argentina'' (instrumental interlude)
''Lo Que Siente La Mujer''
''La Isla Bonita''