American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

To celebrate American Life’s release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

One of the most original and innovative artists of the modern era, Madonna has sold 150 million albums worldwide, topped the charts across two decades, created an enormously influential body of work in the music video medium (11 of her original clips are included in Slant Magazine’s 100 Greatest Music Videos, more than any other artist) and has stood at the forefront of popular culture for 20 years. This fall, Warner Bros. Records will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Madonna’s debut album with a comprehensive box set. But that’s not before the superstar releases her 10th studio album, American Life, due April 22nd. To celebrate its release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Madonna (1983)

Sometime in between disco, punk and new wave, a new genre was born: “dance music.” Heralding the synth-heavy movement was a debut album that sounds just as fresh today as it did two decades ago. Simply titled Madonna, the disc introduced a new pop icon to the world with the soulful “Borderline” and the airy “Holiday.” When Madonna sang “Celebration! Come together in every nation,” global harmony never sounded so simple. The album also spawned Madonna’s first Top 5 hit, “Lucky Star,” which unknowingly prefaced her recent foray into the glittery halls of electronic-pop. “Everybody” is as durable a dance track as it was when it was released as Madonna’s very first single in 1982. Tracks like the edgy, punk-infused “Burning Up” incorporated electric guitars along with the most state-of-the-art synthesizers. And as an added bonus, Madonna even handily rings a cowbell, previewing a seemingly bottomless arsenal of talents that would emerge over the next 20 years.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Virgin (1984)

Like a Virgin, the record that launched Madonna into unearthly super-stardom and went on to sell over 10 million copies domestically, defined a generation with hits like “Material Girl” and the now-classic title track. Though not as innovative as her debut, the album stands as one of the most definitive pop artifacts from the indulgent Reagan Era. The mid-tempo ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and a soulful cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” proved Madonna could churn out more than just novelty hits, while the sugary “Angel” and the irresistible “Dress You Up” contributed to the singer’s record-breaking list of consecutive Top 5 hits (16 in all). The retro-infused “Stay” and the percussive “Over and Over” are the album’s hidden gems; a frenetic remix of the latter resurfaced on the 1987 compilation You Can Dance.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

True Blue (1986)

With four extremely varied #1 singles, Madonna’s third album, True Blue, was the supreme archetype for late 80s and early 90s pop music. With songs like “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist, joining the ranks of 80s icons like Michael Jackson and Prince. The songs were undeniably more mature than “Material Girl,” dashing some critics’ assertions that she was just another flash in the pop pan. The striking “Live to Tell” was not only a brave first single, but a statement in and of itself. The ballad rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like and spoke volumes about Madonna’s unwavering drive for fame and mass-acceptance: “If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far.” True Blue includes some of Madonna’s greatest, most influential hits (the robust “Open Your Heart” and the timeless “La Isla Bonita”), but it’s also home to some of her biggest clunkers. Like much of Like a Virgin, the title track is an authentic throw-back to the girl-group-era pop that was an admitted influence on the singer, but the effect seems significantly more contrived on “Jimmy Jimmy” and the obligatory save-the-world anthem “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Time stamped with ’80s-era keyboard and drum synths, True Blue, though chock-full of hits, is the most dated of Madonna’s albums.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Prayer (1989)

In 1989, Madonna released what has been called her greatest and most personal record to date. Like a Prayer found the pop singer coming-of-age with a collection of pop confections layered with live instrumentation, sophisticated arrangements, deeply felt lyrics, and a stronger, more assured vocal. The album begins with a clamoring guitar riff that erupts and ebbs to the first chords of the title track, a church organ quietly setting the stage for the song’s dramatic crescendo. “Like a Prayer” climbs to heights like no other pop song before it—or after. Like most of the songs on the album, the track’s glossy production gives way to a power beyond studio sonics. Madonna pays homage to the Beatles (on the magical, Sgt. Pepper-esque “Dear Jessie”), Simon & Garfunkel (the haunting “Oh Father”) and Sly and the Family Stone (“Keep It Together,” which evokes “Family Affair” without the use of samples or artless imitation). Another Sly & The Family Stone-inspired tune, “Express Yourself,” turned Madonna’s “Material Girl” image on its head, denouncing material things for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. The track is easily the most soulful performance of Madonna’s career. Like a Prayer also found the pop star at her most emotionally bare: the autobiographical “Till Death Do Us Part” addressed Madonna’s tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, delivering punch (“You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself”) after punch (“He starts the fight, she starts the lie/But what is truth when something dies?”); the heart-wrenching piano-ballad “Promise To Try” touched on the death of her mother; and the powerful “Spanish Eyes” bravely (and elegantly) confronted the issue of AIDS. While her vocal isn’t perfect on these songs, her interpretations are flawless because of her brutal honesty. Never before had Madonna been so emotionally candid. By this time, Madonna had become a savvy songwriter, constructing lyrics in layers so that each song could be accessible on multiple levels. In the grand pop scheme, songs like “Cherish,” which invokes the sunshine pop of the ’60s, and “Love Song,” a daring and unconventional duet with Prince, pale only in comparison to their glorious counterparts, making Like a Prayer one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

I’m Breathless (1990)

With I’m Breathless, Madonna went whole-hog, creating a concept album of Big-Band numbers inspired by Breathless Mahoney, her character from the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Three songs were pulled directly from the film, including the torchy “Sooner Or Later,” which won composer Stephen Sondheim an Oscar, and the ironic “More,” which seemed tailor-made for the former Material Girl: “Once you have it all…There’s one thing you miss/And that’s more!” Madonna steps up to bat—Sondheim’s clever wordplay and melodies are often sophisticated by pop music standards—and knocks them right out of the park. From playful and sultry (“He’s a Man”) to kittenish (the Latin-flavored “I’m Going Bananas”), she displays a remarkable vocal range throughout the album. Songs like the cheeky “Hanky Panky” and the ardent “Something to Remember,” a seemingly personal meditation on self-love, touched on themes she would go on to explore more explicitly later in the 90s. Madonna could never be satisfied with just a 40s Big-Band concept album, of course; “Now I’m Following You,” a duet with co-star Warren Beatty, segues into a dance remix that includes a Socrates quote (“An unexamined life is not worth living”) that, in typical Madonna fashion, she twists to fit her own post-modern interpretation. The album’s final track, the hugely influential “Vogue,” at first seems grossly out of place, but with its homage to old Hollywood, the track is ultimately a more than fitting finale to a daring album. Preceding Evita and, hell, even Chicago, I’m Breathless proves that Madonna is a true renaissance woman who has literally done it all.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Erotica (1992)

Self-absorbed, deeply flawed and hugely under-appreciated, Madonna’s Erotica, the album MTV’s Kurt Loder likened to an “iceberg,” is considered by many to be the singer’s rock-bottom. Madonna, under the guise of 1930s actress Dita Parlo, presides over the mess with whip in hand, tongue planted firmly in cheek and a knowing wink in her eye. Erotica’s title track is pure sadomasochism in the form of song (“Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better”), while “Where Life Begins” waxes erotic on the perks and pleasures of oral sex (“You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat”). But that’s not to say there aren’t any pop-friendly moments. With its of-the-moment house beats, swirling keyboard synths and flamenco guitar, “Deeper and Deeper” is both a product of its time and a timeless Madonna classic. Her sonorous vocal harmonies glide atop the frosty beats and skyward drone of the gorgeous “Rain,” while the dance track “Words” is both inventive and sleek. Though she enlisted “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone for most of the album, Madonna could have more successfully achieved her gritty, raw sound had she handed the reigns over to Andre Betts, who produced just three tracks here. While Pettibone’s often-suffocating productions now sound dated, Betts’ jazzy piano parts and hip-hop beats were way ahead of their time. Long before her rap on “American Life,” Erotica’s “Waiting,” a veritable sequel to the steely, in-your-face spoken-word of “Justify My Love,” found the singer sharpening her questionable rhyming skills. The album’s most personal, revealing moment comes in the unexpected acid jazz/drum n’ bass closer “Secret Garden,” in which Madonna pines for an unborn child: “I just wish I knew the color of my hair/I know the answer’s hiding somewhere.” While two socially conscious tracks, the reggae-infused “Why’s It So Hard” and the icy AIDS ballad “In This Life,” seem to break the flow, Erotica’s irrefutable unsexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ’90s than any other musical statement of its time. And whatever words one chooses to label the album with—cold, artificial, self-absorbed—Madonna embraces those qualities and makes it part of the message. It was also around this time that Madonna’s famous beauty mark fell off her face.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Bedtime Stories (1994)

When Madonna declared, “Only the one who inflicts the pain can take it away,” on 1992’s “Erotica,” she wasn’t kidding. Following the funk of the Erotica album and her notorious Sex book, Madonna provided the creamy balm of Bedtime Stories, a fluffy-pillowed concept album that unfolds like a musical fairy tale. The album’s first single, “Secret,” is perhaps the most naked performance of her career. Acoustic guitars, expertly sweetened vocals and producer Dallas Austin’s signature R&B beats soulfully transport the listener into Madonna’s troubled yet soothing world. For years, Madonna spoke in metaphors, fantasies and blatant shock tactics, but the performer indignantly struck back at her critics on “Human Nature.” She didn’t just hold up a mirror, she became the mirror: “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex/I musta been crazy…I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you.” But whether it’s the poetic ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me,” which was inspired by a stripper Madonna met in a club, or the enchanting “Sanctuary,” in which she quotes Walt Whitman’s “Vocalism,” Madonna seemed more interested in literature and human psychology than sexual biology. The album’s mix of sorrow and romance (she compares rejection to an aphrodisiac on “Forbidden Love” and equates death and desire on “Sanctuary”) exposes a woman who might have been in need of some serious therapy. Despite the album’s multiple producers and genre jerkiness, it’s this theme of yearning that holds it all together. Working with superstar producers is a rarity for the singer, so Babyface, who penned and produced “Take A Bow,” was in scarce company. The ballad is at once syrupy and bittersweet, calling on the words of one William Shakespeare to help recount the tale’s dramatic conclusion: “All the world is a stage/And everyone has their part…But how was I to know you’d break my heart?” “Take a Bow” became Madonna’s longest-running chart-topper, but it’s the Björk-penned “Bedtime Story,” perhaps the single with the most unfulfilled hit potential in Madonna’s 20-year career, that could have been the next “Vogue.” “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” she sings hypnotically over pulsating beats and electronic gurgles courtesy of Nellee Hooper and Marius DeVries. The song was the germ that would later inspire Madonna to seek out and conquer electronica with the likes of William Orbit and Mirwais.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Ray of Light (1998)

Ray of Light, Madonna’s first studio album in four years, marked the singer’s return to pop music after a detour that took her from Argentina to motherhood to spiritual reawakening. After reuniting with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard (who played a key role in many of Madonna’s greatest songs and whose contributions to this, her eighth album, are often overlooked), Madonna called on U.K. electronica whiz William Orbit to assemble a batch of songs that nimbly married electronic music with pop. With “Frozen,” the album’s first single, Madonna, Leonard and Orbit crafted what can only be described as one of the great pop masterpieces of the 90s. Its lyrics are uncomplicated but its statement is grand: “You only see what your eyes want to see/How can life be what you want it to be?” The song’s bewitching melody and cinematic string arrangement is pumped up with Orbit’s expressive drum fills and pulsating electronic effects. Tracks like the frenetic “Skin” and “Shanti/Ashtangi,” a Yoga techno prayer only Madonna could pull off, are similarly lacquered with a bubbly electronic sheen. But for all the studio gimmicks, there’s a healthy spoonful of live guitars and percussion thrown into the mix. Orbit’s cycles of analog synths and electric guitar licks perfectly supplement the elasticity of Madonna’s then-newly-trained vocal chords. Like no other Madonna hit in recent memory, the title track found the singer in a celebratory tech-frenzy. Whether it was an epiphany of the spiritual or sonic kind (Ray of Light marked a dance-rooted homecoming for the pop star), her elation was unmistakable: “Quicker than a ray of light, I’m flying…And I feel like I just got home!” Though she’s made an entire career out of revealing herself, Madonna hadn’t been this emotionally candid since Like a Prayer. Layered with vocal samples and buoyant drum n’ bass beats, “Drowned World,” the title of which was inspired by J. G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel of the same name, sums up much of Madonna’s personal tribulations with fame: “I got exactly what I asked for/Running, rushing back for more…And now I find, I’ve changed my mind.” “Mer Girl,” the album’s final, spooky offering, is a surreal meditation on mortality and the death of the newly-dubbed Ethereal Girl’s mother: “The earth took me in her arms/Leaves covered my face/Ants marched across my back.” But while time has yet to leave its mark on Ray of Light the way it has True Blue and Erotica, it’s difficult to tell how the album will hold up in years to come.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Music (2000)

Madonna once told producer Shep Pettibone that an artist should never do the same thing twice, and two new collaborations with Ray of Light’s William Orbit, “Runaway Lover” and “Amazing,” prove that when you do, it will probably be completely uninteresting. Orbit may not have had enough tricks up his sleeve for an entire new album and perhaps Madonna knew that. As such, she enlisted French electronica guru Mirwais for most of 2000’s Music, which seems more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album, and was an unexpected answer to the Grammy-winning Ray of Light. But strangely, in an attempt to make a “fun,” less-introspective album, Madonna revealed more of herself than ever. No longer shrouded with pedantic spirituality, she became even more human, exposing her fears on tracks like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Paradise (Not for Me)” and revealing her joys on “Impressive Instant” and the massive hit “Music.” With its stop-and-go guitar riffs, atypical structure and peculiar lyrics (“Tell the bed not to lay/Like the open mouth of a grave/Not to stare up at me/Like a calf down on its knees”), the soulful “Don’t Tell Me” was an unlikely hit, but its fusion of stuttering electronic beats and acoustic guitars seemed to be striving to define the sound of the new millenium. Two tracks took a striking folk direction. “I Deserve It” found Madonna singing in a warm yet detached tone, but her vocals were completely untouched by effects. “Gone,” another collaboration with Orbit, ends the album and is possibly one of Madonna’s best performances. In the vein of “Live to Tell,” the song seems to sum up everything Madonna has tried to tell us about being the most famous woman in the world. It is also, perhaps, the most human she has ever been. Self-deprecation and vulnerability have never been Madonna’s strong-suits, but the way she sings “I’m not very smart” could make you wonder.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

American Life (2003)

Having made a career out of taking us by surprise, Madonna curiously chose to shack up with French producer Mirwais a second time for her tenth studio album, American Life. Back are the oscillating filters, clunky beats, stuttering guitars and irksome Auto-Tuned vocals, but while 2000’s Music was all over the place musically, American Life is more consistent, and this time M+M have perfected the experimental guitar/synth sound they christened with “Don’t Tell Me.” Much like Music’s aptly-titled “Impressive Instant,” “Nobody Knows Me” is the album’s most immediately gratifying tune. The track has a patently retro quality (think Stacey Q on acid) that bridges the synth-happy gap between “Material Girl” and “Music.” While Madonna’s attempt at rapping on the title track is cheeky at best (the song also finds Mirwais regurgitating his signature beats and grinding synth sounds), her digitally spliced rhymes on “Mother and Father” are starling and inventive. The album’s best tunes, though, mostly abandon the techno-rap ether and dive headlong into folk-rock territory. With several songs stacking layers of sophisticated vocal harmonies on top of sparse acoustic guitars, the influence of Joni Mitchell, an early Madonna favorite, seems to be finally floating to the surface. If it’s true that rock stars make their worst music when they’re happy, then Madonna must be faking it. She may appear to be head-over-heels in love with someone (her husband and/or son on “Love Profusion” and “Intervention,” respectively) or something (God on the Gospel-flavored “Nothing Fails”), but it seems like Madonna’s in the throes of a full-fledged midlife crisis. Where she used to rage against the machine in deeds (or misdeeds), Madonna now bites back more directly with her lyrics. Her vocals hark back to songs like “Burning Up” on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me.” After years of flip-flopping between sub-genres and finally finding a comfortable niche in electronica, then teasing us with her electric guitar-wielding rock goddess persona during 2001’s Drowned World Tour, and now showing promise as a folk-rock songstress, the only thing left for Madonna to do is plug in and make a full-blown rock album.

Sal Cinquemani

Sal Cinquemani is the co-founder and co-editor of Slant Magazine. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, The Village Voice, and others. He is also an award-winning screenwriter/director and festival programmer.

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