I am a girl. Born in 1977.
Seriously? You knew she’d show up eventually, right?
So much has been written and said about Madonna that I feel rather idiotic attempting to add anything. I feel the same about the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Nirvana- cultural touchstones representing a time in music history. These artists have been picked apart by both the vultures of the music press and the raccoons of historical journalism. They continue on being looked at, every day, due to the shifts they made in history.
Madonna came along in the early 1980s, a club kid with a mediocre voice and some quality dance skills. But she was, however, blessed with tenacity and a good head for business, and the business she understood was music. I don’t know if she knew that when “Burning Up” was released as a single. She was certainly ambitious, she was never shy about that. Frankly, she was never shy. She wore lace tops and crucifixes, both an affront to her devout Catholic upbringing. And when the Church came a-hollering, she told them to fuck off. After the success of her self titled début record and the massive follow-up, Like A Virgin, she controlled the world.
I was seven when Like A Virgin hit big, and my conservative, religious father was appalled at the sight of his seven-year old daughter singing lyrics like “Touched for the very first time” while dancing around the kitchen. My mother, while also a conservative and religious person, was blessed with a sense of perspective, and would often remind him that I was seven and possibly had no clue what I was singing about. She was right, at seven I was clueless. However, I was not allowed a copy of this record. My friend Larissa, though, had a copy, and I would got to her house and listen to it there.
As the 80s continued on, I remained a devoted acolyte. “Crazy For You” remains one of my favourite, soppy love ballads. True Blue was home to my favourite Madonna song ever, “Live To Tell”, a song blessed with her best early vocal. It also had the Shirelles inspired title track and the dad-stroking-out classic “Papa Don’t Preach”. But it was her last 80s album that confirmed what I always thought- she was a better songwriter than we expected. She was also a better singer than anyone gave her credit for.
The title track for Like a Prayer remains, again, one of her best songs. The gospel-tinged pop soars and inspires. The lyrics, clever in touching upon the spiritual and the carnal, are among the best she has ever written. Aided by a full gospel choir, Madonna sounds better than she ever had at that pint. THe notorious video remains a bold artistic and musical statement twenty some years on. Danceable, thought-provoking, sexy, and inspirational all at one, “Like a Prayer” is a modern masterpiece.
The religious leitmotif of the album continues, as does one of empowerment. “Express Yourself” again sees Madonna in top form, in good voice, and stomping all over expectations. Encouraging women to test limits and to never settle “For second best”, it is a theme she would continue to return to at various points of her career.
The album is a mesh mash of various music styles. “Love Song” was co-written by Prince and it shows in the then atypical Prince funk hiccups of the top line melody. “Cherish” calls back to sixties girl pop, the Shirelles well that Madonna loved to return to time and again. “Promise To Try” is a simple, elegant piano ballad with strings . “Keep It Together” in based out of seventies lite funk. “Dear Jessie” has touches of psychedelia. The music of Madonna’s adolescence becomes the base of an amazingly diverse but wholly coherent song set. The music styles may jump, but the lyrical content keeps the album from being fractured. As Madonna deals with her failing marriage (“Till Death Do Us Part”), her difficult relationship with her father (“Oh, Father”), and the rejection of Catholicism as her personal religion (“Act of Contrition”, which plays “Like A Prayer” backwards as she mutters on about this and that before screaming “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?”), she begins to firm up her own centre. Madonna, for all of what she did in the 1980s as a woman in music, often came across in interviews as a nice Catholic girl trying desperately to throw off the expectations of the men in her life. While affirming herself and being so confessional in her lyrics, she ended up creating one of the most honest and perfectly pure pop albums ever.
And I have to say, “Dear Jessie” is a gem of a song. I just love it, as do my young daughters. Every little girl should have mix tape with affirming pop songs. My daughters all received their first mix tapes at the age of five, and “Dear Jessie” led off all three of them. Just so sweet.
Madonna continues to this day to shake expectations. She would write some amazing songs in the early 90s, but her albums suffered. She took vocal lessons to bolster her voice for Evita and came out a better singer than ever before. The late 90s gave us two classic records, and she continues to put out great singles in the new century. Now into her 50s, she remains the apex of pop super stardom and female empowerment. That’s why we still all want to be her. Right, Lady Gaga?