(I was very much at an impasse as to whether I was going to choose an upbeat, poppy album or a droopy, self-reflective offering. The onset of certain unavoidable hormonal changes swung me towards the former.)
I’ve always been a big Madonna fan, since I was a little girl. Possibly less so in recent years- and it’s not that her newer albums are not innovative, just too ‘urban’ for my liking- and it’s the material from the 80s and early 90s which for me truly epitomises the game-changing innovation which Madonna brought to the charts. This period is covered fairly definitively by The Immaculate Collection.
There’s a different kind of appeal to each of Madonna’s ever-changing phases and styles, moving as she did through overly made-up party chick, sophisticated yet cheeky ‘Boy Toy’, 50s retro madam, contemplative and mildly sacrilegious genre-buster, conical bra-espousing sex maniac and Kabbalah-spouting earth mother. A common strand running through this period of her work is the ability to weave catchy tunes into whatever trend she happens to be following; you might not particularly be a fan of the vintage girl group sound, for instance, but you’d probably agree that True Blue was a fine pop song for drawing on those influences.
Holiday is as good a place to start as any, being as it is oft-played round about the summertime for the annual getaway. This is a track where the sum of its parts is truly better than the components; Madonna’s young voice is not particularly strong, and the synth accompaniment is basic, but as a whole the song works its way into your head and lodges itself there until you’re forced to admit that the formula just works. Likewise with Lucky Star, which funks it up a little bit more with staccato disco guitar and twinkly keyboards. Borderline continues the momentum with teen girl-friendly lyrics and a catchy synth hook; it’s a stylish introduction to dance pop, and the album as a whole is full of memorable songs. A debut not to be overlooked.
With Like A Virgin, Madonna transforms into a more self-assured vocalist with more moral indignation-baiting content. Shrewdly bringing in Chic’s Nile Rodgers for a groovy edge, the album’s singles shine with the dogged intent to conquer the world that would forever be associated with Madonna. Whether cavorting in a bridal gown in Venice, or giving a cheeky nod to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in Material Girl- the definitive anthem of greed-is-good 80s life-the sound is vibrant, fresh and slickly produced.
Crazy For You slows the pace, with some ‘Jellybean’ Benitez-produced luscious synths and genuinely compelling vocals showing that Madonna is not just a candy-coated popstar. Backed by girl band-style ‘ahh’s, woodwind and a perfectly-framed lyrical vision of the sort of forward female sexuality she would go on to represent. However, there’s a youthful shyness to the longing in Into The Groove, from the Desperately Seeking Susan soundtrack. A rare critical film success for Madonna, it urges a young man onto the dancefloor, but she’s not quite as overt as the song implies:
Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free
At night I lock the door where no-one else can see
It walks the line between childish nervousness and urging the man to ‘live out your fantasy here with me’, all to an irresistible synth dance beat.
The True Blue album brings another image change, this time a more clean-cut and at times vulnerable-sounding Madonna, bringing out for the first time lyrical recollections of her difficult childhood. Live To Tell is another sterling ballad effort; rich alto vocals brimming with childhood pain, vulnerable and raw:
I know where beauty lives
I’ve seen it once, I know the warm she gives
The light that you could never see
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me
While the song could well be about relationships, verses like this could almost refer to Madonna’s mother dying of cancer when she was five, and it’s all the more poignant a song for that. Not entirely unrelated is the subject matter of Papa Don’t Preach, dealing as it does with teenage pregnancy and breaking the news to the girl’s father. Controversial at the time, with hindsight it’s an excellent and mature effort to tackle a big social issue. Sweeping classical strings begin the song and carry it along with sparkling synths and slappy bass; for a song that put the wind up pro-abortionists, it’s a catchy statement.
Charging in with great vigour, Open Your Heart thrums with bass and straightforward poppy love lyrics, before La Isla Bonita brings a stylistic contrast with its flamenco guitar, Latin-tinged exotica, proving that True Blue is one of the more varied albums Madonna has made. That is, until Like A Prayer came along in all its grand ambition.
The title track, with its accompanying Vatican-baiting video, is magnificent and majestic. To a gospel choir and organ backing, Madonna teases some more with ambiguously sexual religious concepts:
When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll take you there
It wasn’t good enough for Pepsi, famously, but it’s a wonderfully rousing highlight of the album for me. Express Yourself sheds the quasi-meek religious joy in favour of Madonna’s trademark fierce sexuality (and nowhere is this more evident than in the Metropolis-inspired video, with androgynous suits, symbolic pussycats and piles of sweaty, oppressed men). As a feminist statement, it’s much more palatable than the modern cookie-cutter ‘girl power’ churned out by so many bands, simply because it comes across as more genuine. We’re urged to shun expensive gifts and to ‘put your love to the test’, as ‘second best is never enough’. This version is the remix which does not appear on the original album, and removes some of the twee backing vocals and horns in favour of a stronger synthy dance beat that reinforces the energy of the lyrics.
Cherish is a sweet and twee track which nonetheless charms with its innocence; the stylish black and white video with its mermen is also worth a view. But Madonna never keeps the semblance of virtue for very long, launching as she did her conical bra-clad persona for Vogue. A paean to strong-willed women of the old movies (and it certainly namechecks enough in the spoken word section), it’s pure distilled 90s dance oozing with class, and it probably got a lot of bedroom voguers some dancing practice. In some ways it picks up the torch from Express Yourself and carries into a sassy new era of female empowerment, while still not losing credibility for so doing.
The Immaculate Collection ends with two songs exclusive to the compilation, only one of which truly adds any value to the whole. Justify My Love is that track, penned by funky Hendrix wannabe Lenny Kravitz; it seethes and bubbles with sexuality, helped by Madonna’s breathy spoken vocals that would make Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin blush. It has a very urban style that hasn’t turned up in her previous albums; minimalist synths, a strong hip-hop style of rhythm, and a bassline that makes my Sennheisers rattle on my ears. (She would go on to revisit this genre in the Erotica album, and Human Nature.) Rescue Me, conversely, is a so-so bit of 90s dance that sticks Vogue in a photocopier and adds some glitter on top, but the lyrics are still excellent, and Madonna in a nutshell is described in just two lines:
You see that I’m ferocious, you see that I am weak
You see that I am silly, and pretentious and a freak
In all her incarnations, Madonna merges effortlessly between genres, topics and controversies while still managing to sound fresh and relevant today. As far as capturing Her Madgesty at her best, the first-time listener could do far worse than to invest in The Immaculate Collection, and forego the more recent Celebration, which has a few too many modern duds for my liking.