Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Into Which Groove?

All this Michael Jackson talk has led me to revisit the work of some of his 80s dance-pop contemporaries, including arguably his chief chart rival: Madonna. True, Michael Jackson did get a 13-year head start on Madonna, but they actually are (or were, rather) the same age, and Madonna has also been more prolific. After 1982, Michael Jackson managed to release about four albums, whereas Madonna has released about twelve (does the Who's That Girl soundtrack really count?). It also must be said that, despite Kaballah and Swept Away and her attempt at rapping on "American Life" and whatnot, she is probably a little more in touch with reality than MJ ever was.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. I am trying to decide which version of "Into The Groove" I like more: the original version or the mix on the Immaculate Collection. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. The original simply starts with the beat in full throttle, whereas the Immaculate version starts mostly a capella, backed by brief snippets of organ, before the beat finally enters. Although I respect the Immaculate mix's attempt to shake up the immortal "And you can dance! (you can dance! can dance!)/For inspiration (inspiration... inspiration)" intro, ultimately I think I prefer the intro as it appears in the original mix. With the original intro I get the sense the track may have already been "grooving" for hours and hours on end and the engineer serendipitously stumbled into the control booth, fresh from a nice snort of coke, thought to himself, "Wow, I've got to get this on tape!" and finally managed to press the red button. It gives the opening a sense of in medias res. On the other hand, because the Immaculate mix intially holds the beat back, when it finally enters, it has a heavier impact. It's like Chinese water torture, trying to decide!

Some further evidence to consider. The original mix is more spare and lean, while the Immaculate version is bathed in that "Q Sound" effect which sort of blurs everything together. The original mix also has a few extra "Now I know you're mine"s which were edited out of the Immaculate version - but then again, were they really needed? I'd say the original mix has the edge, aside from the not-so-insignificant absence of the Immaculate version's hot latin salsa piano solo. Regardless, in either version, the song is like the catchiest creation of Satan's most evil spawn (and I'm not even going to get into the matter of the extended mixes on You Can Dance).

Indeed, as lengthy and rewarding a career as Madonna has had, with some latter-day singles that are almost perfect for what they are, I have to go out on a limb here and say that her earliest period is her best. Although "innocent" is not really a word that many people associate with early Madonna, I feel there is a certain innocent quality to "Holiday," "Borderline," "Material Girl," etc. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think part of Madonna's initial appeal was that she did not have a conventionally strong singing voice. She was like a throwback to the early 60s girl group singers such as Little Eva or Ronnie Specter or Rosie and the Originals, who sounded like they were plucked from a Brooklyn street corner and thrust into a studio for the very first time in their lives (in fact, Little Eva, of "Loco-Motion" fame, was Carole King's babysitter).

But right around "Papa Don't Preach" Madonna suddenly decided that she needed to be a "serious" singer and that she needed vocal training. Nonsense. To call her voice "Minnie Mouse on helium," as one critic did, is to dismiss its very character. Listen to the way she sings "tonight I want to dance with some-one e-else!" The purity of the entire universe is in those notes. I also love the way she sings "Touch! body," as if she were stroking herself right there behind the microphone. But compare that to Prince, who probably would have just sang, "Touch my penis" and made it all too explicit. That's what I mean by "innocent." If Madonna was horny, she was horny in more of a guileless teenage girl sort of way than an experienced prostitute sort of way.

Also I am convinced with early Madonna that there was very little pretense toward creating "art" whatsoever. "Into The Groove" was probably intended to be completely, totally disposable. According to AMG, it was never properly released as a single in the US. They were making a forgettable B-side! But the public can spot a winner. At any rate, I know that she can't go around at 50 pretending she's still 25. But depth hasn't exactly become Madonna. The irony is that she probably came off deeper when she was trying to be irredeemably shallow.


Herr Zrbo said...

How serendipitous! I was just pondering in my head yesterday my top 5 favorite dance songs, and I was thinking of this song. This is indeed one of her best, I'd put it near dead even with Like a Prayer. I never realized there were different mixes before. I just thought the 'original' mix, if you mean the one in the video, was just that, a 'music video' mix. Is it actually available anywhere else?

Ok, you "have to go out on a limb" to say that her early career was her best? Buddy, just hang around the base of the tree with the rest of us, cause I don't think anyone is going to dispute you. While I enjoy all of Madonna's work up through Ray of Light (I stopped listening after that), especially the underrated 'Bedtime Stories', early Madonna is by far the best. Me and a good friend love watching the video for 'Lucky Star', it's just her in a white room with two backup dancers. Probably had a budget of a $100 bucks, but it's just damn good. Her untrained voice is just marvelous. I've been listening to the band Ayria lately (who coincidentally opened for VNV a few weeks ago) and she sounds very much like Madonna, if you can imagine Madonna singing catchy Industrial/EBM/futurepop tunes. Very '(cyber)girl next door'. And that's what Madonna's early appeal was. There's definitely something about that voice, almost like she's a bit unsure of herself, that really gives her early work a distinct character.

Oh, and I love your use of 'in media res', such a film critic term, but perfectly fitting.

Herr Zrbo said...

This is from the AMG review of the song:

"it would be her commercial breakthrough, reaching number four in the summer of 1984 and becoming one of her defining early hits, thanks hugely to a simple but powerfully effective video that simply showed Madonna, with a pair of backup dancers, showing off both her moves and her body against a simple white backdrop. As a video, it's about 500 times sexier than the entire Sex coffee table book."

Amen, brother.

Herr Zrbo said...

Sorry, that was in reference to Lucky Star.

Little Earl said...

"I never realized there were different mixes before. I just thought the 'original' mix, if you mean the one in the video, was just that, a 'music video' mix. Is it actually available anywhere else?"

Yeah. Try the Like A Virgin CD re-issue. In the US it was originally released as a B-side to "Angel." Talk about mixing up your A-sides and B-sides (in the UK it was released as an A-Side and became a number one hit however). It's the version I actually remember being on the radio.

Herr Zrbo said...

You certainly know your reissues. Thanks.

yoggoth said...

My mom was a big Madonna fan, but she was listening to her around the time of the Immaculate Collection. That's the version I grew up listening to at home, but I think I prefer the earlier version.

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