Friday, December 24, 2010

Madonna: Songwriter

OK, so Madonna is a "songwriter," but what does that really mean? Or rather, my first question is this: did Madonna actually write any songs by herself? Are there any tracks credited solely to Madonna and Madonna alone?

The answer is yes. And they are all on her first album: "Everybody," "Burning Up," "I Know It," "Think Of Me," and most impressively, "Lucky Star." Exactly how she "wrote" these songs is hard to say, but no one seems to dispute it. Her then-boyfriend has some entertaining things to say about the recording process, however:
"She was unhappy with the whole damn thing, so I went in and sweetened up a lot of music for her, adding some guitars to 'Lucky Star', some voices, some magic. [...] I just wanted to do the best job I could do for her. When we would play back 'Holiday' or 'Lucky Star', you could see that she was overwhelmed by how great it all sounded. You wanted to help her, you know? As much as she could be a bitch, when you were in groove with her, it was very cool, very creative."
I'm sure it was. But clearly it wasn't that creative, or otherwise Madonna wouldn't have sought out so many collaborators. Either she realized she worked better with a songwriting partner, or she realized she needed the help. Hard to say. But let's take a look at the songwriting credits of some her biggest hits and find out who these mystery men were (and yes, they mostly appear to have been men):

"Into The Groove" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"Papa Don't Preach" (Madonna/Brian Elliot)
"Open Your Heart" (Madonna/Gardner Cole/Peter Rafelson)
"True Blue" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"La Isla Bonita" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard/Bruce Gaitsch)
"Live To Tell" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Like A Prayer" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Express Yourself" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"Cherish" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Vogue" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone)
"Rain" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone)
"Deeper and Deeper" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone/Anthony Shimkin)
"Secret" (Madonna/Dallas Austin/Shep Pettibone)
"Human Nature" (Madonna/Dave Hall/Shawn McKenzie/Kevin McKenzie/Michael Deering)
"Take A Bow" (Madonna/Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds)
"Frozen" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Ray Of Light" (Madonna/William Orbit/Clive Maldoon/Dave Curtiss/Christine Ann Leach)
"Beautiful Stranger" (Madonna/William Orbit)

All right, so the first question you probably have is, "Who is Stephen Bray?" And "Who is Patrick Leonard?" And "Who is Shep Pettibone?" And "Who is William Orbit?" Great questions all.

Let's start with Stephen Bray. According to Wikipedia, he is "an American songwriter, drummer, and record producer from Detroit" who "began studying music through private instruction in Detroit, and continued his education at Berklee College of Music in Boston." He also "owns and operates Saturn Sound recording studios and the Soultone Records record label" and "is married to movie producer Stephanie Allain, who produced Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan." Interesting. He also appears to have been one of Madonna's many former boyfriends.

So, OK, when Madonna and Bray wrote songs, who did what? In the '80s Bray said, "I've always kind of made the rib cage and the skeleton of the song already—she's there for the last things like the eyebrows and the haircut. She writes in a stream of mood really." Madonna's recollections seem to differ. In the Wikipedia entry for "Into The Groove," Bray's contributions are not clarified. Here's what Madonna had to say:
"When I was writing it, I was sitting in a fourth-floor walk-up on Avenue-B, and there was this gorgeous Puerto Rican boy sitting across me that I wanted to go out on a date with, and I just wanted to get the song over with. I ultimately did go out with him and the song was finished just before my last date with him, which I'm kinda happy that it did not continue ... The dance floor was quite a magical place for me. I started off wanting to be a dancer, so that had a lot to do with the song. The freedom that I always feel when I'm dancing, that feeling of inhabiting your body, letting yourself go, expressing yourself through music. I always thought of it as a magical place – even if you're not taking ecstasy. Hence that came to me as the primary inspiration for 'Into the Groove'."[3]
Yes, dancing can be fun, even if you're not taking ecstacy. Wikipedia goes on:
"She had written the song for her friend Mark Kamins' protégée, Chyne. Kamins made Madonna record a demo of the song, which he wished to modify later for Chyne.[4] However, Madonna believed that the song would be more suitable for her film Desperately Seeking Susan, and re-recorded it with Bray, making it suitable for the soundtrack.[4] When Kamins came to know about it, he was furious that Madonna did not have the courtesy to tell him that she wanted the song for a different purpose. He felt walked over by Madonna, who retorted: "I'm tough, I'm ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, that's okay."
We'll leave the "bitch" question unresolved for the time being here. Wikipedia says that "True Blue" was "originally written by Steve Bray" although Madonna must have had a strong hand in the lyrics as " 'True Blue' takes its title from a favorite expression of her then husband Sean Penn and to his very pure vision of love[2] and was a direct tribute to him." So I think we're safe in assuming that Bray wrote the music to this one. And Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about "Express Yourself" other than that it was "written and produced by Madonna and Steve Bray."

Moving on. Who was Patrick Leonard? I mean, here's a guy who continued to collaborate with Madonna as late as "Frozen." Somebody give him a medal. It sounds like he isn't much of anybody, although in addition to his work with Madonna he has produced Roger Waters, Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Bryan Ferry, among others. So what did he do, and what did Madonna do?

According to the Wikipedia gods, " 'Live to Tell' was originally written by Patrick Leonard for the soundtrack of Paramount's romantic drama film Fire with Fire, but after the company declined it, Leonard presented the song to Madonna.[1] She decided to use it for At Close Range, the new film of her then-husband, actor Sean Penn." And yet Madonna carries a co-writing credit. Hmm. Call me crazy, but it sounds like she didn't do shit. Same here:
"La Isla Bonita" was written by Patrick Leonard and Bruce Gaitsch. The song was previously written as a lament for the mythical Spanish island called San Pedro and was offered to Michael Jackson for his Bad album, who, according to Gaitsch, turned it down.[1] While working with Leonard on the True Blue album, Madonna accepted it in Jackson's place and re-wrote the song's lyrics, thus earning herself a co-writing credit.
So, again, Madonna tinkered with the lyrics but didn't really "write" the song. And Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about the writing of "Like A Prayer," "Cherish," or "Frozen." Why do I have the strange feeling that Patrick Leonard did a lot?

How about Shep Pettibone? Pettibone is a much less obscure collaborator than either Bray or Leonard. According to Wikipedia, he is
...a record producer, remixer, songwriter and club DJ, one of the most prolific of the 1980s ... His prowess at production and mixing led him to work with such artists as Madonna and George Michael in the late '80s during the height of these artists' popularity ... He was instrumental in bringing the early underground sound of house music into the pop mainstream by way of a hybrid sound (much to the dismay of some purists who preferred standard disco/dance and R&B). Though he was contemporaneous to others (such as François Kevorkian and Arthur Baker), he is certainly the most prominent DJ/Remixer to bridge the high Disco and House eras in popular dance music.
Well, OK, but what kind of a songwriter was he? Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about "Vogue" other than that Madonna and Pettibone wrote it as a quick B-side, but "after presenting the song to Warner Bros. executives, all parties involved decided that the song was too good to be wasted on a B-side and that it should be released as a single." Smart decision. No details about "Deeper and Deeper," "Erotica," "Rain," or any of the other material from Erotica, which, it turns out, appears to have essentially been co-written by Pettibone.

Like Pettibone, William Orbit was already a significant dance/electronica producer before he teamed up with Madonna:
Madonna began working on Ray of Light in May 1997, meeting with Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, whom she had previously worked with on her 1994 album Bedtime Stories. The two wrote a couple of songs together before Madonna decided the collaborations were not going in the musical direction she wanted for the album. According to Edmonds, the songs "had a 'Take a Bow-ish' kind of vibe, and Madonna didn't want, or need, to repeat herself."[3] After abandoning the songs she had written with Edmonds, Madonna turned to musician Rick Nowels, who had previously co-written songs with Stevie Nicks and Celine Dion. The collaboration produced seven songs in three days, but did not display the album's future electronic musical direction.[4] Instead, Madonna took her collaborations with Nowels and Leonard to British electronic music musician William Orbit. Madonna had been a fan of Orbit's work, and loved the "sort of trancy, ambient quality" he gave to the songs he worked on.[5] She began working with Orbit after he had sent her tapes of musical snippets he was working on, which were usually eight or sixteen-bar phrases and stripped down versions of tracks that would later be heard on the album. Madonna would listen to the samples over and over again until she would be inspired to write lyrics. Once she had an idea about the lyrical direction of the song, she would take her ideas back to Orbit, and they would expand on the original music ideas. The album's title track "Ray of Light" was the only song on the album that Madonna did not have anything to do with creatively, and the last track, "Mer Girl", was the only other song where Madonna did not compose the music along with her collaborators, writing only the lyrics.[3]
So, she sort of wrote some of the music, some of the time, in sort of collaboration, with somebody. I give up.

Or do I? Maybe these one-off collaborations will shed some extra light on the topic:

"Papa Don't Preach":
[True Blue's] first track "Papa Don't Preach", was written by Brian Elliot, who described it as "a love song, maybe framed a little bit differently".[2] The song is based on teen gossip he heard outside his studio, which has a large front window that doubles as a mirror where schoolgirls from the North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles regularly stopped to fix their hair and chat.[3] The song was sent to Madonna by Michael Ostin, the same Warner Bros. executive that discovered "Like a Virgin".[4] Madonna only contributed with some minor lyrical revisions, making "Papa Don't Preach" the only song in the album that she did not have a strong hand in writing.[4]
"Open Your Heart":
"Open Your Heart" was originally a rock 'n roll song with the title "Follow Your Heart" and had been written for singer Cyndi Lauper by songwriters Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson, although it was never played to her. The Temptations were also considered for the song. Their manager Benny Medina decided that they wanted to record the song after all, but upon hearing that Madonna had already recorded it, changed their mind.[1] The original title according to Cole, was from a local health food restaurant called Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park, California. In Fred Bronson's book The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, Cole explained,

"Peter and I usually write very quickly. It's usually a day or two a song, but for some reason this didn't really hit us as a hit song. We didn't give up on it. We just kept working on it over the course of a year. Thank God we did ... It was the first song that was cut on the True Blue album. It made me nervous as a writer, because a lot of times the very first song that gets cut doesn't make it in the long run. But the song ended up making the album, which really opened up a lot of doors for me."[1]

Cole's manager Bennett Freed was working with Madonna's management and they were looking for new material for her album. Three of Cole's songs were chosen for reviewing including "Open Your Heart". Despite the fact that it did not fit exactly with the choice and genre of songs Madonna was singing at that time, she nevertheless accepted it. Madonna recorded "Open Your Heart", altered the lyrics thus earning a co-writing credit, and along with Patrick Leonard added a bassline underneath the song which turned it into a rock-dance track rather than the original rock 'n roll genre.
So in conclusion: Madonna may have composed many of her own lyrics, but it appears that she almost exclusively relied on collaborators for her (very catchy) melodies. So she is not quite a songwriter in the sense that Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder are songwriters. Which is not to say that Madonna is somehow not talented, or that she rode on the coattails of other, more talented, musicians and took all the glory for herself. It takes a certain kind of talent to pull all those different elements together (music, lyrics, arrangement, vocals, production) and make a memorable hit song out of it all. If she didn't have that talent ... I don't care who she was working with. She wouldn't have lasted two albums.


Herr Zrbo said...

I was checking out Madonna's videography and I found a few videos of hers that I've never seen, let alone heard. For example, have you ever heard the song Gambler off of the Vision Quest soundtrack? Me neither.

Little Earl said...

Yeah, who knew the Vision Quest soundtrack was such a hot item? From Wikipedia:

1. "Only the Young" - Journey
2. "Change" - John Waite
3. "Shout to the Top!" - The Style Council
4. "Gambler" - Madonna
5. "She's on the Zoom" - Don Henley (Backing vocals by Belinda Carlisle & Jane Wiedlin)
6. "Hungry for Heaven" - Dio
7. "Lunatic Fringe" - Red Rider
8. "I'll Fall in Love Again" - Sammy Hagar
9. "Hot Blooded" - Foreigner
10. "Crazy for You" - Madonna

Also, "John Irving was quoted as saying Vision Quest is 'The truest novel about growing up since The Catcher In The Rye.'" Maybe I should just skip the movie and read the book.

Herr Zrbo said...

I just added it to my Netflix queue. What the hell, I'll give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

Madonna said it herself that she isn't a traditional songwriter. She would hum a melody, and the musician would try to come up with a chord. She is known to be a perfectionist and often requests rewriting of her songs until she is satisfied. To me she is a great PRODUCER. How can she not be a great producer to have so many hit albums collaborating with different people.

Anonymous said...

"Exactly how she "wrote" these songs is hard to say,"

She played guitar at the time, so it's not really to "hard to say" how she could have written a song.

"Either she realized she worked better with a songwriting partner,"

She's acknowledged that herself. That's why she does it the way she does.

"but it appears that she almost exclusively relied on collaborators for her (very catchy) melodies."

That's not what her collaborators have said. They tend to say she's very gifted at writing catchy melodies, and that she does, in fact, write them herself.

Anonymous said...

PL sain in interview about Like a Prayer 25 years on that he would start the session with some chord changes and some beats and then they would talk - about where they wanted the song to go. He said, "She would write the lyrics and melody in an hour, the same amount of time it took me to write the music (laughs). And then she'd sing it. We'd do some harmonies, she'd sing some harmony parts, and usually by three or four in the afternoon, we were done for the day

That's how "Like a Prayer" was written, and then the next day we wrote "Cherish," and then the next day we wrote "Dear Jessie." And that's how it was. We wrote the album in less than two weeks."

Stuart Price who did confessions with her noted that .." a real eye-opener was about how focused she was on avoiding the kind of over-the-top, excessive, entourage-in-the-studio environment that I had expected. It was the total opposite, really...

We spent five or six weeks in my apartment; the studio used to be upstairs in the loft. I would work on a track overnight, then she would come in and we’d start messing around. She would do vocal melodies and I would come up with a few ideas, and then she’d go, “Okay, I’m gonna go home and think about it.” Then she’d come back the next day and have the hook for “Hung Up” or the chorus for “Sorry.” Then I would carry on working on more tracks to keep us going. It was more of a really fluid and almost childlike environment than anything that seemed too serious..."

Dolly Parton has expressed her respect for Madonna because she is a songwriter, and even Whitney Houston noted to her manager at the start of her career that she was concerned that she was not writing her own stuff the way Madonna was...

Madonna was even nominated for the songwriters hall of fame this year.

Additionally I believe most if not all of her grammy awards are for songwriting and producing ... not singing.

Anonymous said...

She doesn't read or write music my friend as she said over years ago. She writes her own lyrics. That's why in the credits of her songs on her albums are like "written by Madonna and Patrick Leonard, written by Madonna and Stephen Bray". You have to find out and read more about her. "She's a consumate songwriter and she realy writes solid and melodic stuff" (this is what Mirwais Ahmadzaï the producer with whom she wrote and produced (along with other musicians) her album "Music". This will make the final answer of your questions about her songwriting talent: "In an interview in May 1989; she was asked about writing her then-album "Like a Prayer" and she answered "I wrote all the lyrics myself." And that was only Like a Prayer album there was before that, and also there is and will be after that! Got it. Who else can write about her childhood scars, her relationships with her family, lovers, husbands, children, the way she look at life or about her fears and dreams? Yeah I know it's hard for you to believe because she's Madonna "The Ultimate Queen of Pop" not a loser heavy metal singer or a rocker, head-banger. She's the survivor and you just can't accept it. But I'm sorry that's the truth and everybody who knows little about it absulately knows and accept it. It's all (all of the songs and albums she WROTE and PRODUCE (of course along with other musicians because she doesn't read or write music, she writes her own lyrics) are all officially accepted and certificated by music authorities.

Anonymous said...

Patrick Leonard actually spoke in-depth on video in 2001 about writing Live to Tell with Madonna, noting she wrote all the lyrics, wrote the main melody and wrote the bridge entirely by herself. He originally wrote a version of music only before Madonna wrote the lyrics, some melodies and the bridge.

Here he is talking about writing Live To Tell with Madonna:

As you can see, she wrote the melody and the bridge on her own, plus all the lyrics.

Rick Nowels, songwriter, has said many times great a songwriter Madonna is, how she doesn't just change a word to get a credit, she is there for everything. He especially noted how gifted she was with lyrics, hooks and melodies.

Lucy O'Brien wrote the book "Like an Icon" that delves very deep into Madonna the songwriter. She interviewed almost all of the collaborators and pretty universally, they say she is gifted with lyrics, hooks and melody, can spot an instrument when it is off, is constantly changing musical arrangements, and if very hands on with the entire song crafting process. Remember, she played drums, guitar and percussion when she was starting out. I think she PREFERS to use collaborators because it seems, from interviews, that she likes the back and forth from them and she feels on the musical composition part, she feels it is wise to get those with different sounds and perspectives. Most of her writing credits are listed as music AND lyrics by Madonna and whoever else. If her name is listed first, she was the primary composer. If it is listed second or last, as with Papa Don't Preach, it is because she is added, changed some things but was not the primary composer. Some songs come to her already written. Sometimes she doesn't do anything to change it (Like A virgin, Material Girl) other times she changes a few things (Ray of Light, Papa Don't Preach) or changes a lot ( Open you heart, La Isla Bonita) and other times writes it from scratch ( Like a Prayer, Lucky Star, Express Yourself, Live to Tell......). She has shown she is capable of writing on her own but she doesn't like to write that way. She is a collaborator and that is what gets her artistic juices flowing the most.

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