Did Madonna really turn 53? Is that even allowed? Yes and, apparently, yes. And at 53, the Queen of Pop and Provocation is still a pop culture force to be reckoned with. She’s started work on a new album, and her feature film directorial debut – a period drama based on the romance of Edward VIII and the American socialite Wallis Simpson – lands in theaters this fall. And no, she’s not starring in it. And no – although you might be forgiven for assuming so – it’s not plagued with bad buzz – quite the contrary actually. But that aside, Madonna certainly didn’t become famous for her prowess at the box office. She has one of the most impressive strings of poptastic hits, endless image transformations and a relish in provoking reactions that span the gamut from all-out worship to violent vitriol.
Underneath that undeniable connection with the public and her stack of chart smashes lies the real thing – true, raw, unteachable talent. Because you really don’t get as big and influential to pop music as Madonna has been without a few things – namely, brains, intuition, true talent and a driving ambition. It’s easy to write Madonna off as someone who has gotten her past jollies out of shocking the masses – masses who, really, thanks in part to the lady of the hour herself, have become increasingly unshockable over the years. If that’s not your wheelhouse, you may simply think of her as a machine continually spitting out innocuous dance music for the shedding of clothes, fat and inhibitions.
But that’s selling her short. Beyond all of that lies a true pop visionary. Save for the major musical misstep here and there – for all her savvy, when this girl misses, she misses by a MILE – Madonna has spent a majority of her time ahead of the curve, laying the groundwork for future pop music trends and pretty much every female pop star that has come along since. (For good or bad, there is no Lady Gaga or Katy Perry without a Madonna).
She has always had a particular knack for cherry-picking musical collaborators that bring the best out of her, and she has shown a particularly underappreciated proclivity for attaching herself to musical movements of the moment and – even more impressively – sniffing out musical trends that explode on the scene several years after she has already dabbled in them and moved on. (Or is it that those trends came on point BECAUSE of her?)
She helped define the pop soundscape of the 80’s in her work with Nile Rodgers and Patrick Leonard and bravely swam in sultry R&B waters in the mid 90’s, alongside chartbusters like TLC and Janet Jackson. Electronic music was barely a dot on the mainstream radar before she unleashed 1998’s Ray of Light and 2000’s Music – unarguably two of her strongest and most sonically sophisticated albums. And 2005’s grossly underappreciated Confessions on the Dancefloor pretty much laid the foundation for the dance fever that’s taken over in the last couple years.
She’s always been a pop star who isn’t afraid to try anything. And succeed or fail, you have to admire her for that. Some of the best moments in her vast pop catalogue have come from venturing off the beaten path and doing things that can truly stun in their unexpected pop beauty. So, to celebrate her 53rd birthday, let’s take a look at a few of those particular instances – those musical moments that blast through chart statistics, cultural influence and the swath of public opinion and can be appreciated just for the pure musical bliss they bring.
It’s pretty clear, looking back, that Madonna was already on the train to Evitaville with this dramatic ballad from 1995’s Something to Remember. A new track included on this “greatest ballad hits” collection and produced by David Foster – who was the go-to guy in the 90’s for pop diva gradiosity, “You’ll See” is one of her most elegant and understated and, at the same time, one of her most dramatic moments – thanks in no small part to producer David Foster – the 90’s go-to guy for pop diva grandiosity. The music video is equally beautiful – a sequel to the “Take a Bow” video, it features a Versace-wearing Madonna being chased across Spain by the same bullfighter from the former video. It’s interesting that – while largely forgotten now – it peaked at a lofty #6 on the Hot 100 back in the day. Check out the video below…
American Life is considered a failure as an album, and it’s really a shame. It’s actually one of her most accomplished and thoughtful LPs – a work buried under mockery of the title track and controversy over its accompanying video. Looking beyond that single and Madonna’s admittedly unfortunate attempt at rap on the song’s bridge, the album as a whole contains some of her most interesting work, like this epic electronic folk gospel gumbo of a son, featuring acoustic guitar, producer Mirwais’ trademark blip-bloop production and a gospel choir that shows up about halfway through to take us to church. The video below was recorded in Lisbon for a still-unreleased DVD of her Reinvention tour.
Paradise (Not For Me)
This gorgeous ethereal ballad was the penultimate track on 2000’s Music. It’s eerie production always held this kabuki-goes-icy-electro vibe for me, which Madonna utilizes in this video projection used on her Confessions tour. The voice manipulation, French lyrics, electronic production and that gorgeous strings breakdown at the end make for one of Madonna’s most avant garde musical moments.
Unjustly peaking at only #14 on the Hot 100 and a little lost after all the controversy surrounding 1992’s Erotica album – from which it was spawned – “Rain” is one of Madonna’s best ballads and a pop masterpiece, featuring one of the only instances in a pop song where spoken word doesn’t sound ridiculously silly. And those harmonies? To die for. Pop heaven.
What are some of your favorite Madonna moments?
JT Landry has been in a torrid affair with pop culture ever since his parents first sat him down in front of Mary Poppins as a tyke. A movie buff, a music lover, a voracious reader and an evangelist forCommunity- Go Human Beings! – and other marvels of storytelling, JT can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Read more posts from JT.