Part Six: Pop Goes the Country Universe (Madonna)
The genesis for this feature came from a discussion between Jonathan and I about the baffling inclusion of Like a Virgin as one of the two Madonna albums on the list. Today, we discuss both NPR selections, and we each propose three Madonna albums that would better represent the remarkably consistent musical output of the Queen of Pop.
13. Like a Prayer (1989)
Through interweaving gospel, funk, soul and pop, the album’s songs raise questions about religion, sexuality, gender equality and interdependence. For one thing, the title song opens with a few seconds of a hard rock guitar that stop abruptly and make way for a gospel choir and an organ. The lyrics suggest a girl who might experience God as a lover — or is it a girl who loves a man as if he is God? While “Oh Father” was in many ways about Madonna’s own father, it goes beyond her relationship with him and instead alludes to someone who abuses power. And when all those activists weren’t agitating in the streets they were dancing to “Keep It Together,” Madonna’s tribute to her family. While most critics saw this as the album where Madonna went from bubblegum pop to true artistry, that wasn’t the only thing she did with Like a Prayer. With this album she also led the way for a new generation top female pop stars to express themselves. —Laura Sydell
Kevin: Like a Prayer delivers on all of the songwriting promise that True Blue proposed. “Express Yourself,” which would be the definitive pop moment of most careers, still manages to be overshadowed by the title track. No serious discussion of the greatest pop singles of all time can overlook “Like a Prayer.” But if you’ve never gotten beyond the album’s smash singles, do so. “‘Til Death Do Us Part” is a harrowing portrait of a marriage disintegrating into domestic violence, while “Oh Father” poignantly captures a grown child’s need to both escape and forgive the parent that abused her. “Promise to Try” is the album’s most riveting track, as Madonna sings over a lonely piano to both the mother she lost as a small child, and that shattered little girl she once was.
Jonathan: I really like the write-up Laura Sydell gave Like a Prayer here, and I think it’s a logical choice for NPR to have included as Madonna’s highest-ranked album on the list, even though, depending on the day, I might not always rate it as her strongest.
63. Like a Virgin (1985)
Co-produced with Nile Rodgers, its buoyant, confectionery dance-pop glossed with a modern, new wave sheen helped usher in the golden age of MTV, an era that still feels defined by her ecstatic writhing, wrapped in acres of bridal tulle, dangling crucifixes, and rubber bracelets, on the stage of the first VMAs two months before the full album’s release. She went on to show savvy, intuitive mastery of the new form (and marketing platform) to build a dazzling, ever-shapeshifting 360-degree persona — sound, image, art, text — which she manipulated with an iron fist clad in a fingerless lace glove. Like a Virgin, and all that came with it, made it clear that there would never be a pop music landscape without the impact and influence of Madonna again — and it made it hard to imagine how there had even been one without her in the first place. —Alison Fensterstock
Jonathan: I didn’t know what to do with my face when I saw Like a Virgin listed (1) more than halfway up the NPR list of 150 albums or (2) at all, and I still don’t. The title track is one of her most iconic singles, sure, but it makes absolutely no sense to include this album for Madonna when literally every other album she’s ever released is superior to it.
Kevin: Like a Virgin is a really great Nile Rodgers album, as it was intended to be. . Virgin is a great pop record, largely assembled on her behalf. Her pure talent still shines through – seriously, who else could’ve made “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” work on the multiple levels that they did? But even her self-titled debut was more of a self-directed exercise than this one, and her career as a credible artist started after Virgin with the stopgap singles “Crazy For You” and “Into the Groove,” followed by her first great album, True Blue.
Jonathan: If the phrase “slut-shaming” had been part of the lexicon back in 1992, it could have been the driving force around the reactions to Erotica, an album that many judged out-of-hand based on its associations with Madonna’s sex book. While the album is hardly explicit in its content, it’s pointedly and purposefully provocative in its imagery and tone, while its overall sound drew heavier R&B and club influences into her pop aesthetic. But Erotica remains a significant album for its message: 25 years later, there are still plenty of people who bristle at the very idea that a woman can and should champion her own sexual agency and pleasures.
Kevin: The imagery that surrounded this era is more shocking now than it even was 25 years ago, simply because a woman having that agency and using it in this way is so subversive: it’s about power as much as pleasure. Erotica is a cold record, a stark contrast to the earnest warmth of her earlier work. She’s singing in a lower register, and exploring darker emotions. An air of melancholy hangs over it all, even when she’s singing a pure love song (“Rain”) or an exuberant disco number (“Deeper and Deeper.”) Erotica does suffer from early nineties bloat, where a CD having seventy minutes of running time made artists feel they were required to fill it up. But as always, the songwriting is solid and the talent continues to grow. Without the power of both her pen and point of view, she’d never have survived the backlash of this time period.
Bedtime Stories (1994)
Jonathan: What I’ve always loved about Bedtime Stories is how the album sneakily pushed the sexual politics of Erotica into a set of songs that were more palatable to a mainstream pop audience. “Secret” remains the sexiest Madonna has ever sounded on record, while “Human Nature” addresses the criticisms of Erotica with biting wit and a sinister hook. The album may have served as a course-correction in terms of scoring top 40 airplay, but Bedtime Stories was no apologia.
Kevin: Bedtime Stories is the one Madonna album that I respect from a distance without truly enjoying, aside from four incredible singles. I don’t think she ever had a better quartet of singles from one album in the nineties, and each music video was iconic in its own right. “Secret” and “Take a Bow” were the big hits stateside, even returning her to the R&B charts for the first time in years. But it was the underground dance outlier “Bedtime Story” that previewed where she would go from here.
Ray of Light (1998)
Kevin: Several pop and rock artists had attempted the whole “techno” thing, as we used to call it. Madonna was the first to nail it and to fully mainstream it, which shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it was really just modernized dance music, as natural to her as breathing. And it’s a good album, to be sure, though I contend that it was as much Madonna’s embrace of traditional womanhood as it was the quality of the album that shot her to the top of all the critic’s lists and won her four Grammys. The quality of work was always there. It being accompanied this time by a Maternal Material Girl allowed the male-dominated rock press to see it for the first time.
Jonathan: I agree. The content of Ray of Light made it safe for the mainstream press to embrace Madonna for the first time without ever having to engage with the reasons that they had previously dismissed her work: It cast her in a role that male rock critics were comfortable with. Still, that isn’t to say that Ray of Light isn’t a strong album on its own merits: She took the forward-thinking EDM of “Bedtime Story” and ran with it into territory that mainstream pop hadn’t yet imagined.
Jonathan: Music stands as perhaps the most unabashedly escapist albums of Madonna’s career, and it’s one of her very best. Rather than attempting to expand upon the spiritual bent of Ray of Light, Madonna looked to push farther into EDM territory with a set of pop-for-the-sake-of-pop songs that still impress– the folktronica of “Don’t Tell Me” sounds as fresh now as it did 17 years ago– for their simplicity and their killer hooks.
Kevin: I love this album to pieces. The songwriting is sharp, and the contrast between the electronic sounds and her naked voice – no reverb! – works brilliantly. The combination of folk and electronic sounds was innovative at the time, and it’s still a concept that hasn’t been explored nearly enough, even as EDM as reached record heights of mainstream success.
Confessions On a Dance Floor (2005)
Kevin: Madonna’s albums are known more for their eclecticism than their cohesiveness in sound, but Confessions On a Dance Floor is an exception to that rule. The lovingly retro beats reminded the world why they fell for her in the first place, a great palate cleanser for its challenging, but poorly received predecessor, American Life. Opening track “Hung Up” became her biggest worldwide hit of all-time, and while Confessions never reaches those dizzying heights again, the album still keeps things interesting and entertaining throughout, particularly when the proceedings get spiritual (“Isaac”) and philosophical (“Jump,” “Like it or Not.”)
Jonathan: It’s still baffling to me that this album didn’t find a bigger audience in the US. The singles are among the catchiest of her career– that ABBA sample on “Hung Up” works better than anything so shameless has a right to– and it’s simply a phenomenal collection of dance-pop that’s more thoughtful than it appears on its slick surfaces.
Rebel Heart (2015)
Kevin: Madonna’s strongest effort of the past fifteen years. Rebel Heart broke new ground for her thematically by grappling with her own legacy (“Rebel Heart,” “Veni Vidi Vici (featuring Nas)” and her own mortality (“Wash All Over Me,”) while also revisiting her ongoing themes like self-empowerment (“Living For Love,” Iconic (with Chance the Rapper),” and the contrast between the sacred (“Devil Pray”) and the profane (“Holy Water.”) “Ghosttown” and “Messiah” rival the beauty of her epic nineties ballads, while “Unapologetic B****” and “B**** I’m Madonna (featuring Nicki Minaj)” proved she can still deliver a fresh beat to fill the dance floors – or get her older audience members up out of their seats at her live show.
Jonathan: The narrative around Madonna’s singles over the last fifteen years is that they’ve all sounded like desperate, even strident bids for mainstream acceptance. I’ve never particularly bought into that, and the singles from Rebel Heart all encapsulated why: Nothing on the album, aside from a few guest rap verses that come across as tacked-on, sounds like what was dominating pop radio in 2015.
We could’ve easily written about Madonna, True Blue, I’m Breathless, American Life, Hard Candy, or MDNA taking the Virgin slot as well. Which Madonna albums do you think belonged on the NPR list? Let us know in the comments!
I agree, ‘Like A Prayer’ was a good call; and I probably would’ve chucked ‘Like A Virgin’ in favor of ‘Ray of Light.’ :)
As for the others, except for ‘Erotica’ (maybe it’s because I was only 13 when it came out, but I just couldn’t warm up to it), I have all the albums up through ‘American Life’; plus, ‘The Immaculate Collection’ was the first album I ever bought (on cassette — I later had to replace it on CD).
Madonna is one of those artists who I can’t stand on a personal level (whether it’s an act or not, she comes across as such a rude and rotten human being) but also can’t deny how much I love her craft.
Ray Of Light is my favorite Madonna album and I never tire of hearing it. The first three tracks (Drowned World/Substitute For Love, Swim, and the title track) just floors me every time I listen to them. Sky Fits Heaven, Frozen, Power Of Goodbye, and To Have And Not To Hold are all stellar standouts. Little Star is just precious.
I like Erotica more than most people do. I will admit that I always change the order when I listen to it. It sounds better that way IMO. I don’t care for the song In This Life because it’s way, way too long and slow. So my order is Erotica, Bye Bye Baby, Deeper And Deeper, Waiting, Words, Rain, Why’s It So Hard, Fever, Where Life Begins, Bad Girl, Thief Of Hearts, and Secret Garden.
True Blue is one of my favorites. She scored three #1s with this album (Live To Tell, Papa Don’t Preach, and Open Your Heart). She probably could’ve had another #1 had she smartly released Where’s The Party instead of the dreadful title track or La Isla Bonita.
Like A Prayer is hit or miss with me. It’s probably her most popular album but I wasn’t a fan of about half the songs. Loved the title track, Express Yourself, Cherish, Promise To Try, and Keep It Together. I wish she had released Promise To Try instead of Oh Father. It’s a far superior song IMO. I’m pretty sure Prince played that rocking guitar at the beginning of the album.
Like A Virgin is an okay album, but I didn’t buy it for years because Crazy For You and Into The Groove were far superior songs yet were not on the album. I’ve grown to like the title track and Material Girl more over the years, but to me, the best songs were Dress You Up, Angel, Over And Over, and Stay.
Bedtime Stories was an amazing album and her work with both Babyface and Dallas Austin is far superior to all the other acts that worked with them during that time. Take A Bow is amazingly beautiful. I also loved Secret, Don’t Stop, I’d Rather Be Your Lover, and Sanctuary. Note: My copy of the cd has her picture reversed/upright. Not sure if it’s a rarity or if she released it both ways.
Music was a huge drop in quality from Ray Of Light. The three singles are probably the only songs I liked from this album. Music brought her back to upbeat dance music – it’s addictive. Don’t Tell Me is amazing and I love the stop/start beat of the song. What It Feels Like For A Girl was a beautiful song and I was shocked that it missed the top 20 on the charts.
With the exception of her self-titled debut, all of her other albums are pretty mediocre. She no longer was cutting edge or unique. She just seemed to roll out hit or miss work. Not sure what happened, but she definitely peaked with Ray Of Light.
Madonna is the greatest female pop star ever. My personal favorite albums from Madonna is her self-titled debut, True Blue, Erotica, Like A Prayer, Ray Of Light, and Music. My favorite out the bunch is Ray Of Light. Ray Of Light showcased Madonna in a different light that no one thought she can do and pull off effectively. Ray Of Light was self-aware, mature and had Madonna’s best vocals ever recorded on a album. Ray Of Light was ahead of it time and it’s one of the greatest female albums of all time.
CAJ, love your first paragraph. No denying her talent, but why can’t she strive to be a nice person? When it comes down to the end, isn’t being a good person the most simple important thing one can achieve?
I was going to pass this one over, but since it’s bewilderingly getting traction, I’ll engage in the whole Madonna needs to be/isn’t a nice person debate.
First, can we talk about the gender politics loaded into even having this conversation at all? What male artist is discussed in these terms? Madonna being the most successful female artist of all time with a critically acclaimed catalog stretching back 35 years, never having succumbed to the addictions that claimed the lives of all of her peers isn’t enough to garner unqualified praise?
“Sure, Elvis Presley is the King of Rock & Roll, but why couldn’t he strive to be a nice person?”
“Sure, John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,” but did he have to be so rude to people?”
It’s a framework that white males are rarely subjected to, as they are judged just on their work. (Even when the criticism is valid, like domestic abuse, look at how Chris Brown is forever associated with that, as he should be, but white men like Glen Campbell and Sean Penn are not.)
But since it was brought up anyway, Madonna actually might be…wait for it…a nice person, even if the evidence is provided in spite of her, because she doesn’t look for credit in the first place.
When AIDS was a phrase President Reagan refused to utter, and funding was nonexistent because of its outsize impact on marginalized populations, guess who took the lead in raising funds and awareness?
She did this even as the press ruthlessly inquired if her interest was because she had AIDS herself:
Here’s a story about how when one of her former dancers fell on hard times, she let him live in one of her homes for free:
Here’s a story about how she called a fan dying of cancer every day in the last four months of her life:
Here she is returning to Malawi with the six children she has adopted from there, for the opening of the hospital that she built their with her foundation:
Madonna’s refusal to apologize for not conforming to society’s expectations means she’ll always have a target on her back, and what I’ve included above doesn’t necessarily define her character. But if it has to be discussed in the first place, a fuller picture is only fair, even if asking the question at all is completely irrelevant to her value and worth in the public arena.
Loved your Madonna nice person comments. Maybe because I’m old. Could be because I’m sick of heartless congressman doing a reverse robin hood on the poor and lying like a trumper about what their proposals will do.
My knowledge of Madonna is limited to she had a big hit called “Like a Virgin”. Her career began after I had already begun my slow shift from rock to country. The enthusiasm for her music in the articles and comments above will probably get me to check out some of her music for the first time.
Kevin, I will have to respectfully disagree with your assumption that anyone accusing Madonna of not being nice also gives a pass to male artist. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.
For me, I am a gay man and it does not matter to me if the artist is male or female. It is at least somewhat important to me that the person comes across nice and respectful. As a gay man, I have never put Madonna up on a pedestal due to her support of gay rights. I DO appreciate it but she has the resources to do so, so its not a huge sacrifice (not that it needs to be). To me, the number one thing any person can do (male or female) it to treat people respectfully in their DAILY life, not just for a cause. Again, I don’t really know. She may be the NICEST person ever in her personal life as far as I know, but I still don’t understand why and what is appealing about ATTITUDE. It has and never will be something that I will understand. Just my personal thoughts.
I don’t want to get into a big debate over this, but for every person she’s paid their hospital bills or allowed to live in one of her houses, there are ten more that she’s told to ‘f’ off. Sure, she’s passionate about some things but she’s also very close-minded about so many other things.
Sure, men aren’t scrutinized as much as women, but there’s no denying that Madonna out and out despised any successful female singers during her peak years that she saw as a threat. She could not stand Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, or Mariah Carey. She only befriended women who were not a threat to her dominance, such as K.D. Lang (who is brilliant but wasn’t mega-popular).
I will say I agree that women are scrutinized more than men. Elton John, Axl Rose, Sean Penn, and others are just as rude and obnoxious. R Kelly’s underage sex allegations continue to mount. Madonna’s boy-toys were at least of legal age (at least I think and hope).
But despite the fact that Madonna never felt a need to apologize or admit having any regrets (Human Nature), most people like me continued to buy her albums as long as they were superior in quality. She is one of the all-time best entertainers ever, her videos were far and away better than anyone else’s, and she has proven over and over that she is an extremely intelligent person. She definitely earned her place in entertainment history. And like everyone else, she has her good and bad qualities.
The media coverage itself that presents Madonna as having an attitude/not being a nice person is dripping with misogyny. The framework is flawed.
I do think her advocacy for AIDS and equality in the eighties deserves a lot more credit. It’s a given now that artists will be vocally supportive, but when she was doing it, it wasn’t. Hence the backlash that she must have AIDS to be doing all that work for the cause. It’s not so much about having the resources as it is being willing to deal with the backlash that came with being vocally supportive at that time.
I don’t really want to continue a debate. We all have opinions. I will just add that my opinion of the so called Attitude is based on interviews and appearance I have seen her speak at. It doesn’t matter to me what the media says or does. Mine is based on my observations of her. As far as talent and work ethic. I agree she is top notch.
Thank you for taking the time to put together that comment, Kevin. I was trying to think of what I could say about this perception of her and you worded it perfectly. I had not heard some of those stories before and was only going to mention Malawi.
Regarding the music, I think Confessions and Ray of Light are the best alternatives to Like a Virgin that you and Jonathan presented. I think “Vogue” and “Like a Prayer” are her (and some of pop music’s) best singles. Other personal favorites include “Nothing Fails”, “Love Profusion”, “Live to Tell” and “Revolver”.
Bob, I think it’s so great that you’re going to check out some more of her music. I’m super curious to hear your thoughts after doing so!
Also, I just pre-ordered the Rebel Heart Tour live album which comes out in a few weeks in case anyone else has been waiting for that to come out.
Michael A – Love Profusion and Revolver are two of my favorite more recent singles from Madonna. So glad you mentioned them. I also loved Jump from Confessions, which Kevin mentions above.
And any of you who are fans of her William Orbit/Ray Of Light music, if you’ve never heard Time Stood Still from the movie soundtrack Next Best Thing, definitely stream it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous song.