Confession from my own private dance floor: I’ve never been a fan of The Immaculate Collection, despite the canonization accorded it in the absence of any competing career compilation up until its companion volume GHV2 in 2001. In almost every case, I found Immaculate’s QSound makeovers by Shep Pettibone (at the time, Madonna’s go-to guy thanks to his revelatory work on “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”) to be earsores, if not total desecrations, of the original works. The winningly tremulous qualities of her earliest hits were all but obliterated by Pettibone’s glossy remixes, and don’t even get me started on the deadening house beats he used to kamikaze “Like a Prayer,” a song which, like no other song from her first decade, did not exactly want for urgency. The upside of the album was and remains this unique feat: how its obligatory new tracks, the simmering “Rescue Me” and the aromatic “Justify My Love,” are considered by most fans to be among the singer’s best work.
Unfortunately, only one of those two songs survived the transition to Celebration, the “best of” reboot I’ve been wanting, needing, waiting for since 1990. Representing Madonna’s first post-iPod compilation, the full two-disc version of Celebration promises more bang for your buck than her previous hits collections and, in the bargain, reverts many (but not all) tracks previously assembled on Immaculate to their original mixes, essentially making Celebration her most retro retrospective to date. The backward compatibility is born out in the album’s cover art by Mr. Brainwash, which features a True Blue/“Vogue”-eras composite shot tarted up a la Andy Warhol. As she herself sang on the soundtrack to A League of Their Own, “Don’t hold on to the past/Well, that’s too much to ask.” (Unless the past in question is “This Used to Be My Playground,” which is the sole #1 not included here.)
Speaking of things that are too hard to hold on to, Celebration’s other major deviation from the Immaculate template is primarily structural. Maybe the compilation represents Madonna acquiescing to the death of the album and the rise of the mp3, but the overall effect of the song sequence is that of a frenzied shopping spree, not a careful retrospective. I’m not necessarily in the camp that insists compilations follow chronological order, but segues should at least make some sense of a career path. Celebration isn’t totally random—the first disc seems to focus more often than not on the dance-floor burners while the second spreads its attention across a broader definition of pop—but it seems tailor-made to purchase song-by-song to fill the gaps in your collection. Maybe Madonna is, 40 #1 dance hits into her career, making the sloppiness the point itself. Maybe she’s trying to suggest that her career can no longer be summarized. But if that’s the case, why bother collecting representative tracks in the first place?
I’m aware that every Madonna fan has his or her own favorite moments, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find the placement of “Vogue” sandwiched between “Music” and her Justin Timberlake duet “4 Minutes” obfuscatory to the point of offensiveness. “Vogue” is the lynchpin of her greatest, gayest period, and as such has a rightful place in Madonna’s narrative, one that does not nestle comfortably aside the hijinks of a toy boy. “Vogue” falls in line with a startling arc of growth and self-consciousness of which “Express Yourself” was the warning shot, an unmistakably feminist missive that explicitly excluded straight males from its directive and then commanded they respond to its demands. From telling straight women and gay men their love has every potential to be real, Madonna then submitted her persona within the gay identity with “Vogue.” If some found her cultural appropriation presumptuous, the reward was in the music you could let your body move to, hey, hey, hey. At least so far as pop music is concerned, “Vogue” was instrumental in allowing disco revivalism to emerge, allowing the denigrated gay genre to soar once again within the context of house music, the genre disco became in its second life. The queer-celebratory “Vogue” became, with a dash of ACT UP rage, Erotica, her darkest and most politically rewarding album and one that revealed a full understanding of the bipolarity of the gay experience circa AIDS, the self-actualizing highs and the then-tragically pervasive lows. If Silence = Death, Erotica’s aggressively gay house beats intended to make a whole goddamned lot of noise.
I use “Vogue” as merely one example of the benefit of chronological representation. On a song-to-song basis, the inclusion of recent misfires such as “Miles Away” and “Hollywood” (the latter marking an embarrassing moment in Madonna’s career no matter how you slice it, being her first single in two decades to completely miss Billboard’s Hot 100) would read as forgivable tokenism if the album were merely presented in chronological order. But to have them pop up unannounced among some of the unassailable classics of pop is flatly disruptive. The arrival of the commercially successful but creatively stagnant “Die Another Day,” for instance, in such close proximity to her Austin Powers ditty “Beautiful Stranger” (stupid, cute) only calls to attention Celebration’s most glaring soundtrack omission: the long-legged 1994 hit “I’ll Remember,” which, much like “Vogue,” represents one of the most important gear-changes in Madonna’s entire career. An underwater indigo dirge featuring a remarkable below-the-root bassline and supple, husky vocals, “I’ll Remember” settles up the score following the widely (and wrongly) derided Sex era and finds Madonna switching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf roles mid-performance from “hump the hostess” Martha to “I wanna have a baaay-bee” Honey. It’s the key to understanding how both Lourdes and Ray of Light came into being. And it gets the shaft in favor of “Sigmund Freud, analyze this!”
Okay, so the legitimacy of the song selection can, in this Cuisinart iteration, only be appraised on a case-by-case basis. How do the songs sound? And are the mixes definitive? Great and mostly, respectively. The oldest and newest tracks have been given the most attention. Almost everything from her first two albums shimmer with virginal moisture (especially “Dress You Up” and “Holiday”), and all of her tracks from the neo-aughts boast robust EQ credentials (though the claustrophobia of the production on “Music” almost seems overripe compared to the open warmth of the comp’s kickoff, “Hung Up”). Between “Like a Prayer” (thankfully, the album version) and “Sorry,” “Ray of Light” sounds strangely weak and muffled. I was hoping for a deeper bass sound on “Everybody,” but “Lucky Star” (which, best I can tell, seems to be a smartly remastered hybrid of the original track and the Pettibone remix) emerges as an absolute monster, a Larry Levan-worthy concoction of clanging rhythm guitars, synth atmospherics, and chugging bass.
The album is missing songs, doesn’t always include the right ones, seems to have been sequenced by a not particularly intuitive Genius playlist, and the two new tracks aren’t fit to kiss the feet of “Justify My Love”: The title track is a zero-traction dance track that’s as shallow lyrically (“If it makes you feel good then I say do it/I don’t know what you’re waiting for”) as it is musically, and the less said about her clumsy collaboration with Lil Wayne, “Revolver,” the better. But functionally, what Madonna and fans are really celebrating with the release of Celebration is the hard proof that Madonna’s back catalogue is now so immense and so varied that she can release a behemoth, two-disc greatest hits package that shoehorns in 36 songs and still manages to significantly short-change the singer’s legacy.