The Beat Goes On: Every Madonna Single Ranked

38

“Jump”

Paced about a half-dozen BPMs slower than a disco gallop—giving the impression of a DJ pitch-shifting a familiar chestnut to give it a blue, after-hours glow—“Jump” doesn’t exactly act like it hasn’t “got much time to waste.” Which is one of the reasons why it, like all of Confessions on a Dance Floor’s singles, is such a great dance song. Nothing really matters except for the groove, and the all-too-brief amount of time any of us get to share with it. A love note from Madonna to everyone who is, as a matter of fact, always ready to jump. Henderson

37

“Hanky Panky”

An unlikely hit single, from an unlikely source: an album that’s only nominally a soundtrack. Inspired by Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy only insofar as Madonna’s character from the film, Breathless Mahoney, is a femme fatale cum showgirl with a dangerous sense of seduction, I’m Breathless is one of the pop star’s finest games of hide and seek. “Hanky Panky,” better than any of the three good but persnickety Steven Sondheim tunes on the album, is straight out of the gate a ballast of campy subversion. It’s a song about spanking in the swing style of the 1930s, and it still sounds like one of the most delicious and improbable novelties of Madonna’s career. Gonzalez

36

“This Used to Be My Playground”

Recorded during the Erotica sessions for the Penny Marshall film A League of Their Own, this quietly sublime ballad is an outlier among Madonna’s more confrontational early-’90s output. The song’s understated production—soft percussion, lilting keyboards, and cinematic orchestral arrangement—recalls Madonna’s earlier ballads. The strings complement her aching vocal, rising to a dramatic moment in the bridge, without ever becoming treacly. Madonna’s lyrics nail the push and pull between nostalgia and the inevitable disappointment that comes with retracing one’s steps. “Don’t hold on to the past,” she sings, defeated. “Well, that’s too much to ask.” Schrodt

35

“Bad Girl”

On an album that is, without question, Madonna’s finest gay moment, “Bad Girl” stands out as a moment of high drag, a brutal self-laceration served in the most flamboyantly melodramatic fashion imaginable. On those terms, its only real rival on Erotica is the George Gershwin-swiping funereal AIDS dirge “In This Life,” but “Bad Girl” is the far more dangerous track, slipping into the death drive as though expecting tips. Her perilous journey is driven home, in a post-drunken stupor, by Shep Pettibone’s pitilessly spare backdrop and slow-motion car wreck of a bassline. Henderson

34

“Keep It Together”

Like a Prayer firmly ensconced Madonna in the rock canon. The richly layered album stretched her sound in more than one way, however, and on the Sly and the Family Stone-inspired “Keep It Together,” she convincingly took on pop-funk. The slap bass and jangly guitars (courtesy of an uncredited Prince) make this one of the more upbeat, hummable listens on the album, but it’s no less packed with feeling. Madonna’s affirmation of family bonds is uncharacteristically sweet and vulnerable: While she’s alluded to a strained relationship with her father over the years, she pays tribute to their deep bond with a heartening reminder, especially in the wake of her divorce from Sean Penn: “Daddy said, ’Listen, you will always have a home.’” Schrodt

33

“The Power of Good-Bye”

Upon the release of Ray of Light, genre purists scoffed at the idea that what Madonna had made could be called an electronica album. The suggestion that it was merely pop music dressed up with digital flourishes wasn’t completely off the mark, nor was it a damning critique. After all, delivering underground culture unto the masses had become Madonna’s m.o. Structured like your average adult-contemporary ballad—the song was co-written by Rick Nowels, most famous for his work with Belinda Carlisle and Stevie Nicks—and featuring a richly layered arrangement of acoustic guitars, sweeping strings, and lush atmospherics, “The Power of Good-Bye” is quintessential electronica-lite. And it goes down as smoothly now as it did in 1998. Cinquemani

32

“Burning Up”

The most aggressive song on Madonna’s 1983 debut hints at her pre-fame days as a rock singer and drummer in the band the Breakfast Club. The electric guitar crashes in over the tight, syncopated beat like an alternate take from Kenny Rogers’s “Danger Zone.” Corny, sure, but Madge’s shameless panting for a man’s affection and threat to get on her knees and “do anything,” punctuated by a high synth line, don’t betray a single wink. This is the height of Top 40 kink. Schrodt

31

“Sorry”

More ABBA-esque than the ABBA-sampling “Hung Up,” the unapologetically Euro second single from 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor scored Madonna another worldwide smash (though the U.S., in the midst of another hip-hop fixation, largely ignored it). Madonna is notorious for not being the apologetic type, so, if nothing else, “Sorry” gave Camille Paglia a chance to hear her say it in 10 different languages. Cinquemani

30

“Rescue Me”

Released at the height of Madonna’s imperial phase, 1990’s “Rescue Me”—one of two new songs on her blockbuster greatest-hits album The Immaculate Collection—merged the spoken-word style of her most previous hit, “Justify My Love,” with producer Shep Pettibone’s contemporary house beats. Madonna’s throaty spoken verses indulged her penchant for poetry and self-analysis—“With you I’m not a fascist/Can’t play you like a toy/And when I need to dominate/You’re not my little boy”—while the track’s soulfully belted choruses flaunted both the singer’s developing vocal prowess and her enduring knack for instant pop hooks, landing the song in the Top 10 when it wasn’t even intended to be a single. Cinquemani

29

“Borderline”

Has there ever been an opening refrain more winsome and instantly nostalgic than that of Madonna’s first Top 10 single? Those tender chords flawlessly establish the tranquility of life before a torrid and, from the sound of it, toxic affair. And even after they’re interrupted by aerobic drum patterns and pitch-flexible synthesizer hooks, they linger in the memory, a haunting reminder of a youthful summer forever lost to an ill-advised love. Henderson

Previous

Next