MADONNA CAREER RETROSPECTIVE BY GREG LEWIS
Madonna is going full steam ahead on her current REBEL HEART tour, in support of her 13th studio album of the same name. Ever the overachiever, over the last thirty years Madonna has released thirteen studio albums, six compilation albums, three soundtrack albums, four live albums, 11 extended plays, three remix albums, and 21 box sets. Never one to rest on her laurels, Rebel Heart is her tenth worldwide concert tour which started on September 9, 2015, in Montreal, Canada and will continue throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania before concluding on March 27, 2016, in Brisbane, Australia. Reviews of her concerts have been mixed, with many critics noting that Madonna seems to be struggling with her legacy. In her Madison Square Garden performance, she performed a crowd pleasing acoustic version of her 80’s hit “Who’s That Girl?”. At the conclusion of which she sighed, “I still don’t know the answer to that question.” Indeed, as her new tour contains mostly new material, much of which (“Veni Vidi Vici” and “Holy Water”) seems to reference her older work. While she tries to figure out who she is, she seems determined to keep releasing new material and staging ever more elaborate spectacles in which to find herself/keep you interested in her. Perhaps for that reason, I find it more entertaining to look back at some of the finest achievements of her career.
After a number of years in New York music scene, Madonna burst into public consciousness in 1983 with the release of the R&B and rock influenced through dance-friendly singles “Everybody” and “Burnin’ Up”. The notice this Detroit-raised lady received only gained momentum following the release of her first album, simply titled Madonna. The album crammed in so many winning songs, with so much undeniable energy, you could basically spend an entire night on the dance floor and please even the pickiest club goer in attendance. “Holiday,” one of the standouts on that debut, remains one of the 1980s most memorable dance hits, while the album’s other singles “Lucky Star” and “Borderline” proved Madonna was a titan when it came to pop.
The following year, Like a Virgin, proved Madonna was not a flash-in-the pan as many predicted, destined to be left in the dust of another breakout star of that year, Cindy Lauper. The album delivered a number of danceable hits. With “Material Girl,” Madonna delivered a crowd pleasing anthem, and one she admittedly regrets has secured her an image she has never been able to shake. Arguably the most dancefloor friendly track, “Into the Groove,” keeps things moving along, while “Dress You Up” contains such undeniable joy bursting with each chorus. And the title track became a fun, flirty sendup of the image of purity lost.
By now Madonna had firmly established herself as an international star, and changed things up a bit with 1986’s True Blue, wherein Madonna concocted one of her most shining songs in “Papa Don’t Preach.” Sadly the ensuing controversy over its implied anti-abortion stance as well as a commercial for Pepsi in which the song was used obscured exactly how good of a production it was. The album also contained the Latin-flavored “La Isla Bonita” plus a ballad, “Live to Tell,” that proved she had enough range to deliver something not just groove-able, but heartfelt as well.
In 1987, Madonna made a screwball comedy film (WHO’S THAT GIRL) and put out an accompanying soundtrack anchored by the exhilarating title track and later the same year debuted a whirling club mix album (You Can Dance). It was in 1989 that Madonna came back with her most ambitious album of her then-career: Like a Prayer. The genre-crossing title track had an intense melody that escalated into a full gospel blowout. The track “Express Yourself” was yet another dance floor mega-hit.
At this point in time, Madonna’s fame became bolstered (or marred depending on your point of view) by an ever-increasing number of controversial stunts. The entire “Blond Ambition” tour and documentary film TRUTH OR DARE that chronicled it marked a point in Madonna’s career in which her music seemed to be playing second fiddle to the hoopla surrounding her increasingly audacious antics.
The 1992 release of her album, Erotica seemed an ambitious and radical attempt to fuse musical genres and incorporate the dark mood of then-taboo gay sex clubs. However, the S&M flavoring did not sit well with the public, and the accompanying coffee table book “Sex” was widely denounced and caused such a moral outcry that the ambitious reach of the album was all but completely overshadowed. The tides seemed to be firmly turning against her, the consensus being that her continuous efforts to shock and provoke had finally pushed the public too far.
To date, Madonna has had mostly unsuccessful forays into making films. However, it did not stop her from taking on perhaps her most challenging and ambitious project yet. To prepare for her lead role in “EVITA,” she took voice lessons and truly pushed herself vocally. In the soundtrack, you can see Madonna realize a fuller, deeper vocal range than ever before. Always considered a bit of a pop lightweight, her voice finally showed depth and proved to be the emotional core of the film, even earning her a Golden Globe for her performance.
It was at this point in her life, at age 38 that Madonna took on her most audacious role yet: motherhood. Not one to rest on the hard won success of “Evita” or let maternity slow her roll, her next album moved her firmly back to the cutting edge. Ray of Light was an enjoyable romp via electronica. The 1998 album effectively integrated that sound and, as she had done with various genres prior, brought it from the arty edge to the level of infectious, primal pop with a number of songs clearly influenced by her newfound maternal role. The title song became one of the biggest hits of the electronica genre.
Sadly, Madonna’s 2003 effort, American Life marks a creative and commercial low point for the artist, it was the first of her albums to fail to reach platinum sales. An overly ambitious attempt to incorporate both political and philosophical commentary, it was a dud among critics and fans alike and was quickly forgotten.
That career lull must have bolstered her resolve ever more, because she did a complete 360 in 2005 by making a wise return to her original club music forte. Confessions on a Dance Floor may not have represented a return to the creative zest of her first album, but it featured several strong singles, one of which “Hung Up” made perfect use of an ABBA sample.
2008 marked a couple milestones for Madonna: the end of her marriage to filmmaker Guy Ritchie, turning age 50 and the release of her 11th studio album. Collaborations with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake highlighted Hard Candy but many critics and fans noted that the album felt a bit mechanical and overly produced, a comparison many were making about the singer herself.
Hardly! This is Madonna we are talking about. True to form, she has continued onward. While Rebel Heart has shown some signs of Madonna returning to form, including a controversial marketing campaign involving a number of iconic figures from Nelson Mandela to Gandhi with their faces bound in electrical wire in similar fashion to Madonna’s in the cover art for the album. However bold, some have speculated that simply, the thrill is gone, and that any continued attempts are driven by narcissism and the singer’s fear to live out of the public’s watchful gaze.
Madonna may not be the kind of artist like say, Barbra Streisand, who could hold an audience’s rapt attention for two hours standing alone onstage. But her impact is undeniable, and the number of younger artists who cite her as an influence is testament to her legacy. The fact that she still remains nearly 35 years after her first release speaks to how driving a force she is. Perhaps as equal to any of the automobiles that came out of her hometown of Detroit, Madonna is American-made and built to last. How many more miles she tries to get out of her career is anybody’s guess, but without a doubt Madonna’s hands will be firmly on the steering wheel.
ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTOR:
Greg Lewis is a pop culture and entertainment vulture. As a freelance writer living in LA, he’ll never run out of material, even if he runs out of Xanax.