I was always aware of Madonna. In the way that — even if you sit way outside the target demographic of a pop culture entity — it exists in the ether; an unquestionable and important part of the establishment. Madonna was huge, controversial, upsetting, defining, parody and trail-blazing, but she wasn’t ‘for me’.
No wonder, perhaps. When I was old enough to take my first tender steps in to the world of pop music, Madonna was in her S&M period. She was releasing softcore porn for coffee tables and being banned from MTV. And while I remember a much loved karaoke VHS that featured a sanitized homage to the “Like A Virgin” video, and a cartoon cat in a conical bra (I’m not sure either), it was the end-of-the-pier comedy wink approach to sexuality that was the Spice Girls which really caught my attention in the ’90s. By the time the Spice Girls were at their peak, Madonna was winning awards for Evita and releasing the critically acclaimed Ray Of Light. Madonna was to be respected and revered, I learned, but it wasn’t ‘for me’.
I entered the ’00s worshipping at the altar of Britney Spears, the flagship brand of the Cheiron pop takeover that included the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. It was pop culture neatly packaged for TRL teens – energetic enough to attract big name sponsorship deals, sexually provocative within the confines of MTV’s acceptability guidelines. By this point pop was a commercial machine; a constant treadmill of publicity that started with the VMAs in August, via the EMAs, Making The Video and the Billboard Music Awards, with a Q4 album release and a multi-platinum victory lap by January. Madonna released and promptly pulled the video to “American Life,” in which she used her platform to comment on the morality of western led war in the Middle East by depicting the horrors of conflict while looking unapproachable in figure-fitting camo. In a world of sugary pop, Madonna looked political and difficult, and it was not ‘for me’.
And actually, American Life was not really for the public at large. Retrospectively the introspective, confessional and torch-wielding rally-cry that was Madonna’s ninth studio album has been celebrated, but it was out-of-step with the feeling of the audience. Those that followed Madonna’s career questioned the way she wavered over the video, publicly questioning her own forthright nature seemingly for the first time. Those that came to Madonna as a casual listener found her work too bogged down by her own legend and need to push buttons. So Madonna went on the charm offensive.
As American Life floundered Madonna chose to flirt, quite literally, with the TRL takeover by kissing Britney Spears in a now legendary VMAs performance that recreated her 1985 performance of “Like A Virgin.” In a single moment, Madonna became headline news, while reminding everyone of her role in the birth of the MTV phenomenon. Then she leveraged her considerable star power to steal the show at London’s Live 8, opening her set with a performance of “Like A Prayer,” a song so undeniable in its pop credentials that it shook up a show that was otherwise flat and self-congratulatory in-spite of the calibre of the line-up.
Madonna was once again courting attention from various corners of the mass media in a far more high-profile way than she had on recent albums. What would follow at the end of 2005 was an all-out assault by a woman more versed in the art of publicity than most. And it was all in the name of a hi-NRG pop record that dripped with disco references and put Madonna back at the top. It was very much ‘for me’.
On the 15th of November 2005, Madonna took to the stage at London’s KOKO for a 5 track performance to introduce her new album, Confessions On A Dance Floor. “I last played the Camden Palace…22 years ago,” she declared. Her refusal to acknowledge that the venue was no longer called “Camden Palace” was a nod to her unwillingness to act on anyone’s terms but her own; the reference to her timeline a self-congratulatory recognition of her pop star tenure.
And this was important, because Confessions is the kind of album that could only be delivered by an act who is both infamous for their steadfast approach to their artistry and well-versed in over 20 years of pop history. Confessions is a frothy album that was both a departure for Madonna and also a return to her roots.
Madonna spent the first seven years of her career as a dance floor stalwart: From 1983’s “Everybody,” a song about finding joy in the music, to 1990’s “Vogue” which features the lines: “I know a place where you can get away, it’s called a dance floor“, she reveled in her status as the Queen of dance-pop. She had been a rebel and a trendsetter, working a room of DJs and producers and borrowing from New York’s underground sub-cultures to pump out hit after hit. Living in the English countryside with two children and some horses 15 years later, Madonna’s appetite for the New York underground scene seemed to be long over.
Stuart Price had worked as the musical director on Madonna’s 2004 Re-Invention World Tour, and had been tasked with creating tracks that sounded like “disco on acid” for a musical she was developing called Hello, Suckers! Madonna was ultimately dissatisfied with the musical, but was much enamored with Price’s work, and it was decided that “Hung Up” would be the launch point for a new album.
“Hung Up” famously samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” It was not an easy sample to come by; Benny and Björn of ABBA are infamously reserved in allowing their work to be re-appropriated. In the end, it was an impassioned plea by Madonna herself, and the pair’s admiration for her guts and longevity, that led them to grant permission.
ABBA is not the only influence on the album, with “Sorry” featuring a Jackson 5-esque bassline, and “Future Lovers” having such a resemblance to Donna Summer‘s “I Feel Love” that Madonna chose to mash it into her performance of the song in 2006’s Confessions Tour. For a lesser artist, this onslaught of ’70s touchpoints would come across as a pastiche of decades gone by, but in simply being Madonna, she managed to avoid these pitfalls. Instead she focused on her longtime love affair with dance, pointing out in interviews that, unlike the younger pretenders, Madonna really was a go-go girl at Danceteria in the era of Giorgio Moroder. If anyone had earned a right to be singing disco, it was Madonna.
The comeback was commercialized. “Hung Up” – easily her most radio and club-friendly record since her ’80s heyday – was premiered via the medium of a Motorola advert in September. In October, she would perform at London’s G-A-Y nightclub, for the first time in her career actively courting her homosexual audience for sales – “I made this record for you f–kers!” She would then ride a horse through the streets of New York to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman, just in case anyone had missed her subtle publicity tour.
There was a beauty in the vapid cynicism of both the record and Madonna’s efforts to sell it: Madonna built her career in a different era, during which she pushed herself ahead using every trick at her disposal. The pop of the ’00s was based, largely, on committee-produced marketing of hit-making production-house tracks fronted by the young and beautiful.
Madonna had become famous for her reinventions, changing her hair, accents, outfits and attitudes to maintain the world’s attention and forward her own agenda. When she put on a Jean Paul Gaultier bustier and sang “Express Yourself” while grabbing her crotch, she was telling a story about feminism. When she became an Earth-mother and released an experimental electronica album, she was commenting on our relationship with fame, drugs and other false highs. So here was Madonna, 22 years in to an unprecedented career, slipping on a leotard and singing about dancing in the era of commercialism in order to sell…herself.
Confessions was a turning point for Madonna. It was the last time she truly held the world of pop in the palm of her hand and exercised her total control. It was Madonna playing the game of younger pop brands and doing it better than they could, while at the same time letting go of the artistic journey she had been on for twenty years. In Confessions, Madonna is not better than the pop music game, but she is – with decades of experience – better than her contemporaries. Indeed, “Hung Up” became one of her biggest hits of all time.
In the wake of Confessions, Madonna has thrust herself firmly on to the treadmill by turning to hip producers, phoning in average EDM and making her antics bigger and more attention-grabbing. There is a feeling that Madonna has perhaps become just another pop star, falling in to the template of pop music churn that she herself is responsible for once pioneering. But to count Madonna out is to underestimate her; if Confessions proved anything, it is that when backed into a corner, she will come back fighting.
For me, Confessions was the moment I realized Madonna was not just to be revered as a pop legend, but enjoyed as a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. It was the first time I saw a pop star conquer the world and make it look like little more than a day’s work, and I looked on in awe. To truly appreciate Madonna, you have to go back to the beginning and work your way through the years. From dance, to sex, to motherhood, to politics and eventually back to dance, arriving at Confessions is to experience a glorious celebration of a career in which she tried everything and came full circle.
And that kind of unapologetically brilliant pop star journey is definitely ‘for me’.
by Dan Hughes