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American golden girl MADONNA has always pushed the scented envelope in her quest to become Queen of Pop. From her overnight rise to fame in the mid-80s through `Like A Virgin’ and onwards to `Like A Prayer’, to her “Erotic” streak in the 90s, to her post-millennium scantily-clad promo-video freak-outs, Maddy was an inspiration to lap-dance popstars, LADY GAGA, RIHANNA et al. Where the iconic MADONNA has so often been the exception to the rule in musical, stylistic and cultural terms, she has pretty much reinforced the old adage that the world of popular music and the world of the Hollywood motion picture are mutually exclusive. Given her background in dance and love of choreography, it was perhaps inevitable that she’d seek to take her interest in the visual side of music to its ultimate conclusion and strive for acceptance as a major league actress.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone, August 16, 1958, Bay City, Michigan, she was raised by her Italian-American father and French-Canadian descent mother; sadly her mother died while Madonna was only five; she turned to her grandmother more so when her father remarried. After winning a scholarship to her local university (where she also learned ballet), the budding singer subsequently dropped out in the late 70s and headed for New York, where she supported herself with waitressing and part-time model work (nude photos were later published in ‘85 by top shelf mags, Penthouse and Playboy). To make ends meet (as they say), she also acted in a budget soft-porn flick, A Certain Sacrifice, later released (1988) on video without her consent.
On first name terms with controversy from the beginning, MADONNA would nevertheless prove herself to be one of the 80s most deft media manipulators and arguably one of the most driven women in the history of the music business. Not that she was averse to flirting with sexual controversy, although in future, crucially, she would be in control.
Her first real experience of professional performance was as a touring dancer/backing singer for hi-NRG legend, Patrick Hernandez (famous for “Born To Be Alive”), although she soon returned to the Big Apple and began writing with ex-boyfriend, Steve Bray. Local DJ Mark Kamins was sufficiently impressed with the resulting material to help secure MADONNA a deal with Sire Records, the label releasing her debut single, `Everybody’, in the fall of ‘82. The track became a dancefloor favourite, as did 12″ `Burning Up’, the singer subsequently hooking up with DJ “Jellybean” Benitez to work on a whole album’s worth of material.
MADONNA {*7} the album, hit the shelves that summer (1983), its pilot single `Holiday’, finally making the jump from clubland to the charts (Top 20) a few months later. The track’s unpretentious dance-pop and naive appeal served the lass well throughout this early period; the song also hit the UK Top 20 and prompted the re-issue of second single, `Lucky Star’, while the teen-love poignancy of `Borderline’ gave the singer her first homeland Top 10 hit early the following year.
The album itself was well on its way to becoming a multi-million seller and, in late summer ‘84, MADONNA firmly imprinted herself on public consciousness with No.1 single, `Like A Virgin’. With its attendant video, the parent album, LIKE A VIRGIN (1984) {*7} scaled the charts in most countries. Through a winning combination of coy sexuality, pouting girlishness, NILE RODGERS-enhanced rhythmic backing and pop savvy, MADONNA had invented herself as an icon, for not only the 80s `Material Girl’, but legions of gay men and hormonal adolescents. Accordingly, manager Freddie DeMann was quick to break the singer into a parallel acting career, helping her secure a minor part in Harold Becker’s coming-of-age drama, Vision Quest. A more high-profile role alongside Rosanna Arquette in Susan Seidelman’s boisterous chick-flick, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), successfully translated her New York nous to the big screen. While these movies didn’t exactly present a case for Oscar nominations, their soundtracks did provide MADONNA with two further chart-topping singles in `Crazy For You’ and `Into The Groove’, respectively. Further transatlantic hits followed through `Angel’, `Dress You Up’, and the UK-only, `Gambler’.
Less promising was the universally panned (“astonishingly abysmal”, as one critic ventured), Shanghai Surprise (1986), a GEORGE HARRISON-produced romantic comedy in which MADONNA starred alongside her then husband Sean Penn.
Meanwhile, back on vinyl terra firma, her third set TRUE BLUE (1986) {*7} preceded No.1 singles, `Live To Tell’ (also from hubby Sean’s At Close Ranch movie) and `Papa Don’t Preach’, with Maddy beginning to win the grudging respect of the pop press and fully blossom as a powerful vocalist. The latter track, in particular, showed a quantum leap in songwriting ability, its controversial, teenage pregnancy subject matter seeing MADONNA finally spark debate for something other than her risque videos/stage show. Successive singles, `Open Your Heart’ and the sultry `La Isla Bonita’ saw her top the charts yet again, while the album became her biggest selling to date.
Her critical stock continued to plummet with the poorly received WHO’S THAT GIRL (1987) {*3}, a makeweight action comedy in which the singer played a feisty ex-con next to co-star Griffin Dunne. If the soundtrack’s four new MADONNA tracks – including the title track chart-topper – weren’t her best, the remainder of the album was largely forgettable filler. Sounding for all the world like a “True Blue”-outtake – right down to the Spanish lyrics – the title cut was a ho-hum spin on `La Isla Bonita’. `Causing A Commotion’ was the other homegrown hit, hobbled by that same strange monotony, strange because it punctuated some of MADONNA’s best material of the decade. Her other two songs, `The Look Of Love’ (Top 10 in Old Blighty) and `Can’t Stop’, fizzled as soon as they faded out, and the less said about the other various artists contributions the better, recorded at the nadir of 80s production folly.
Though the ensuing couple of years were a bit quieter on the recording front (save for a dodgy remix collection, YOU CAN DANCE (also 1987) {*3}, MADONNA’s massive international superstar status and stormy marriage to actor Sean Penn, ensured she was never far from the tabloid gossip columns.
The more self-appointed moralistic elements of the press had a field day with the video for 1989’s `Like A Prayer’, the sight of MADONNA making lewd advances to a black priest not going down (oops!) too well with the Vatican either. In the resulting furore, the pointy-bra’d one saw her sponsorship deal with Pepsi-Cola go flat, although the intense interest guaranteed humungous sales of the accompanying album (also titled LIKE A PRAYER (1989) {*8}). The record was her most mature and fully realised piece of work to date, candidly exploring her favourite themes of religion and sex in a more frankly personal fashion than ever; mover’n’shakers coming courtesy of `Express Yourself’, `Cherish’, the US-only `Oh Father’ and the UK-only `Dear Jessie’.
Back on the hunt for cinematic acceptance was the brassy period nostalgia of I’M BREATHLESS (1990) {*4}, a set “inspired by the film Dick Tracy”, but also standing as her fifth studio album. In actual fact and repeating a stale recipe, only four of the record’s songs were featured in the Warren Beatty-directed movie, excluding the two singles, `Vogue’ and the wonderful `Hanky Panky’. While she couldn’t hope to match the movie idols she reels off so casually on the former (itself the cue for a much-hyped but short lived dance craze), her role as a nightclub singer was actually one of her better performances, enhanced by the film’s visual flair.
By far the most controversial offering of the year, however (banned just about everywhere, it nevertheless enjoyed an airing on Channel 4’s infamous ambassador of tack, The Word), was the `Justify My Love’ chart-topper, spawned from greatest hits “The Immaculate Collection”, its X-rated video, and pre-orgasmic panting taking up almost as much column inches as the ensuing row over the writing credits; LENNY KRAVITZ and Ingrid Chavez at loggerheads.
While Alek Keshishian’s intimate documentary, Truth Or Dare (aka “In Bed With Madonna”), revealed a more accurate picture of its media savvy subject than even she probably intended, her role as a female baseball player in Penny Marshall’s 1992 flick, A League Of Their Own, found her acting ambitions – alongside Tom Hanks – finally taking off both critically and commercially; pic-flick `This Used To Be My Playground’ became her umpteenth No.1.
Contrary (and as controversial) as ever, MADONNA undid these plaudits with her slated soft-porn book, Sex, taking the increasingly overt sexuality angle to its ultimate conclusion with the simultaneous release of the EROTICA (1992) {*6} album. The KOOL & THE GANG-sampled transatlantic Top 3 title track was trailed by `Deeper And Deeper’, `Bad Girl’, `Rain’ and the awful re-take of nostalgia cut, `Fever’. Of the separate “picture book”, MADONNA’s first venture into publishing, the explicit soft-porn poses and woefully weak thematic thread saw the expensive (25 squids a throw) panned by critics. Still, 1992 wasn’t all bad as the singer signed a multi-million dollar agreement with Warner Bros., giving added commercial oomph to her developing Maverick label enterprise.
Disappointingly one-dimensional in Udi Edel’s erotic thriller, Body Of Evidence (1993), but disarmingly convincing in her performance in Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993) – although the film was a commercial disaster – with only cameos in Wayne Wang/Paul Auster’s celeb spangled, engagingly off-beat Blue In The Face (1995) and multi-directed black comedy, Four Rooms (1995), her celluloid career spanned out over the next few years.
While MADONNA was more often featured in the music press in connection with her business acumen than her recorded output (amongst others, she’d secured the signatures of ALANIS MORISSETTE), 1994’s BEDTIME STORIES {*7} offered up a limp R&B sound. Not including her With Honors movie smash, `I’ll Remember’, but working with BABYFACE, Nellee Hooper and BJORK (the latter for UK Top 5 `Bedtime Story’), the groove-by-numbers set was more seductive through the likes of `Take A Bow’, `Secret’ and `Human Nature’.
MADONNA’s longtime blonde ambition was fulfilled in 1996 as she played the lead part of Eva Peron in the big screen musical version of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice’s Evita; the singer finally winning unreserved critical plaudits from all quarters and even acquiring a fair degree of respectability among her moralising detractors. Maddy’s well-documented pleas to director Alan Parker finally paid off and he successfully cast her as the Argentine icon.
After desperately seeking some decent reviews for most of her screen career, MADONNA finally found her métier in the Hollywood cast musical. EVITA (1996) {*6} was tinseltown’s first gamble on the genre since the early 80s, one which paid off fairly handsomely for its ambitious lead, and for whom its subject matter presumably ticked all the right boxes (female identity and power, the iconography of sainthood, etc.). Vocally, MADONNA didn’t have the range of stage predecessors Elaine Page or Patti LuPone, but she so obviously identified with the material that technical limitations were easily overlooked. Her pop sensibilities didn’t always serve her well – `Buenos Aires’ was brash and fresh if ultimately slightly stilted – but when they do, as on `Another Suitcase In Another Hall’ and `I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You’, they trade on the Venusian passion and mystique of her best 80s ballads and remakes these standards in her own image. She also gets a new ballad – the Oscar-winning `You Must Love Me’ – specifically written for her, one which became perhaps the most unlikely hit of her career.
A cameo in Spike Lee’s phone-sex spoof, Girl 6, seemed to put the lid on her acting career, and for the remainder of the decade she concentrated on her rejuvenated pop career.
If her 90s output had been all-encompassing overall, 1998’s RAY OF LIGHT {*8} opened up a whole new chapter of creative birth and rebirth for the ageing (but seemingly ageless) pop chameleon. The recruitment of electronica sculptor WILLIAM ORBIT was a shrewd move, yet few could have predicted how well the pairing’s flawless marriage of star glamour and contemporary club sounds would imprint itself on the transatlantic musical consciousness. MADONNA had sculpted her singing style to suit this brave new style while her newfound spirituality permeated the album’s surging grooves; best served on the exuberant title track smash. The ballad `Frozen’ topped the UK chart, as did the album itself, a feat almost repeated on her home territory, bolstered in no short terms by big hitters `Drowned World – Substitute For Love’, `The Power Of Good-Bye’ and `Nothing Really Matters’.
While not included on the album, the sassy `Beautiful Stranger’ (from the spy spoof sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) became one of the singer’s biggest UK hits in years, providing a stop-gap and a musical link for her next album. MADONNA was absent from the big screen until her uninspiring role in the John Schlesinger melodrama, The Next Best Thing (2000). She nevertheless contributed an impressively updated UK No.1 version of DON McLEAN’s `American Pie’ to the various artists soundtrack, released on her own Maverick imprint.
MADONNA had subtly reinvented herself yet again, an urban cowgirl image complementing the electro panorama of MUSIC (2000) {*7}. ORBIT again supplied the deftest of touches, while co-writer Mirwais Ahmadzai made a significant contribution to the record’s post-modern digi-pop. The insistent, sensual, stuttering throb of the title track secured MADONNA yet another massive transatlantic hit (tracked by `Don’t Tell Me’ and `What It Feels Like For A Girl’), while the album itself topped both the US and UK charts. Maddy was once again at the forefront of pop culture while her post-millennium celebrity knew no bounds; a massively publicised marriage to (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels) English-born director Guy Ritchie in a Scottish Castle giving the tabloids material to chew on for weeks – a cue for maximum media fawning. The pair’s inevitable celluloid collaboration, Swept Away, a 2002 remake of an obscure mid-70s Italian movie, turned out to be one of MADONNA’s most ill-advised projects to date, with critics damning her unconvincing portrayal of an aloof and emotionally barren heiress. A star turn on the David Arnold-masterminded Bond soundtrack, `Die Another Day’ (and attendant 45) that same year was more suited to her talents, talents which, as her screen career hit an en pass.
Few then, would’ve predicted the critical and commercial backwards step of AMERICAN LIFE (2003) {*5}, an uncharacteristically muted and sterile affair seemingly hung up on style over substance despite the weighty lyrical matter. Still, the No.1 set had its fair share of hits, namely the said Bond song, the title track, `Hollywood’ and `Love Profusion’. Subsequent musical attempts to repair the damage via a Gap commercial with MISSY ELLIOTT and an MTV Video Music Awards performance of `Like A Virgin – Hollywood’ (with BRITNEY SPEARS, AGUILERA and ELLIOTT) were compressed into the equally dispensable `Remixed And Revisited’ EP. Always willing to expand the boundaries of decency and desperately seeking something to boost her street cred once again, there was that “lipstick lesbian” kiss with Britney in the video for the Top 3 smash, `Me Against The Music’. To balance the books so to speak, the 21st century schizoid girl published a children’s book, The English Roses, which was the first of several in this field.
London life seemed to sit well with the ageing diva, and a surprisingly controversy free couple of years preceded her umpteenth studio set, CONFESSIONS ON A DANCE FLOOR (2005) {*7}. As both the title and its ABBA-sampling lead single, `Hung Up’, made clear, the album was an unashamed glance back to the disco scene that first inspired her. It was also a full-frontal return to commercial form, both single and album topping most charts around the world. Early the following year, after yet another UK chart-topper, `Sorry’, MADONNA announced her retiral from acting, citing a fear of her screen reputation preceding her. However, she was still taking to the stage with her music, issuing a rare CD/DVD concert package under the title of I’M GOING TO TELL YOU A SECRET (2006) {*5}. As if that wasn’t sufficient to whet the appetites of anybody who couldn’t find the readies for her camp-disco concerts, powers that be decided to push out a CD/DVD show from a Wembley appearance, THE CONFESSIONS TOUR (2007) {*5}. Needless to say, sales of this package were not so hot to trot.
Using a diluted legs-akimbo cover-shot that “dis-graced” one of the pages of her Erotica-era Sex book in ’92, studio re-appearance HARD CANDY (2008) {*4} was a hard-sell, despite it garnering the near 50-something her umpteenth chart-topper. Reaching to the bottom of the barrel for burlesque-styled soft-porn, was Madge too old to be flouting her fit body to her younger audience – a question that was posed by several leading tabloids. Dependent on club-ites PHARRELL WILLIAMS, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, TIMBALAND et al, to spray-tan and polish-up her mirror-ball dirges, such as hit singles `4 Minutes’, `Give It 2 Me’ and `Miles Away’, desperation reached fever-pitch when her KANYE WEST collaboration, `Beat Goes On’, bombed unceremoniously.
Rather sickly and sour instead of its STICKY & SWEET TOUR {*4} title, 2010’s CD/DVD update – recorded a few years back at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires – was just another unworthy cash-in for fans willing to cash-out. And had anyone really noticed that she’d divorced quiet-man film director, Guy Ritchie, late in 2008. Yes, it was newsworthy at the time, but it seemed as if it was down to glam-mags Hello and OK to give us all the gossip.
Finding a home at Interscope Records, the mistress of muscle and mirth was back in the safe hands of WILLIAM ORBIT (and French DJ, Martin Solveig) for album number twelve, MDNA (2012) {*7}. While MADONNA followers, led by lap-dance pop star LADY GAGA, were overtaking her in the porno-meets-promo stakes, the Queen of Dance was calling up her own maids of honour by way of NICKI MINAJ and Londoner M.I.A. Bolstered by the three’s workouts on Top 10 hit, `Give Me All Your Luvin’’, and pure-pop ditties `Superstar’ and `I Don’t Give A’, MADONNA was no doubt dreading a future world absent of her glamorous grooves; one thing fans could do without was another concert-bash courtesy of MDNA WORLD TOUR (2013) {*5}, a double-CD that this time around, only just squeezed into the lower regions of the charts.
Subsequently working with AVICII, DIPLO and KANYE WEST, the months leading up to the official release of her 13th set, REBEL HEART (2015) {*6}, were, as always, eventful. Forced by the techno hip-cups and blips that cause so many net leaks today, MADONNA and her crew issued `Living For Love’ into the Top 30. The album itself was kept one place off the top spot in both America and Britain, while a promotion slot at the BRIT Awards left her flat on her butt; a “horned” dancer had pulled on her lengthy cloak leaving a stunned audience to gasp in horror as she stumbled back off the stage, only to quickly rise and almost immediately continue like a true professional. If MADONNA was to win over any “Rebel Hearts” it was on that night – and in a self-mocking interview a week later with Jonathan Ross, she showed her fun side. Whether taking a vocal style similar to that of the late Karen Carpenter on `Ghosttown’ was an intentional one, who knows, but it was in Madge’s choice camp-disco stance on `Illuminati’, `Bitch I’m Madonna’ (featuring Nicki Minaj) and `Body Shop’, or even the hip-hop `Iconic’ track (with Chance The Rapper and Mike Tyson) that will make fans all over the globe worship and adore her.
The underplayed and underwhelming REBEL HEART TOUR (2017) {*5} – recorded live at Allphones Arena on March 19-20, 2016 – was a little mistimed in terms of chart success. Thereafter, uber-superstar and defiant dance diva MADONNA (mother of six) chose a new life in Portugal; Sintra in Lisbon, to be precise.
One could almost taste the exotic Latinx sounds adorning her collaborative-esque 14th studio set, MADAME X (2019) {*7}. Topping the charts back home in the States; though losing out to SPRINGSTEEN’s “Western Stars” in Britain, there was much for the media to speculate on her all-encompassing left-of-mainstream pop. Young Colombian reggaeton rapper, MALUMA, tried his damnedest not to upstage her on minor-hit opener, `Medelin’ (and `Bitch I’m Loca’), whilst the ominous anti-gun/anti-fame `Dark Ballet’ magpied a section (“Dance of the Reed Flutes”), from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. A promo “alter-ego”-like appearance on the Graham Norton talk show, sporting an eye-patch, still proved 60-year-young Maddy could be a nippy sweetie at times when it came to hijacking the spotlight (this time from stunned thespian, Ian McKellen), however, the shock value had always been her domain. All ‘n’ all, there could no doubting her chameleonic ability, under the prowess of main co-writers Mirwais Ahmadzai, Jason Evigan, Brittany Hazzard et al; they ultimately gleaned the best from songs: `Crave ‘(with hip hopper SWAE LEE), `Future’ (featuring QUAVO) and `Faz Gostoso’ (alongside Brazilian star Anitta).
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS/MCS // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Jun2019

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