Monday, September 1, 2014

The Unrepeatable Brilliance Of Madonna's First Album AKA Was Madonna ... Aerobic Rock?

I didn't want to talk about Madonna. I swear, your honor. For starters, plenty of people have already written about Madonna. She's an easy subject. Cultural Studies majors have their pick of angles: feminism, sexuality, Kabbalah, cone bras, candle wax experimentation - you name it. I, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the less heralded careers, the critically ignored discographies, the secret treasures of the '80s. Second, I kind of already did write about Madonna. Back in 2010, as something of a precursor to my '80s obsession, I shed some light on the hidden compositional origins of Madonna's biggest hits in my series "Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?"

Also, personally, I relate to Madonna about as much as I relate to a potted plant. One day at the library, not too long ago, I found myself reading the first part of a Madonna biography. For many of my favorite artists, I feel like the story of the artist is so crucial to the art. You want to know the "story" of Madonna? Here's the story of Madonna. Imagine someone who starts out with a very shallow goal, and manages to achieve that very shallow goal. That's the story of Madonna. Madonna wanted "attention." She didn't seem to care whether it was positive attention or negative attention; she just wanted attention. You know the saying, "There's no such thing as bad publicity"? That could have been Madonna's life manifesto. Granted, it's a bit more complicated than that (her mother died when she was five, which may or may not explain everything), but it's sort of like if Veruca Salt ended up inheriting the chocolate factory.

Basically, I need to say something about Madonna's first album. I need to say something about it because it has got to be, in its own '80s dance-pop way, the most magnificent album ever made. And I need to explain why. I need to explain it not so much for my readers, but for myself.

There once was a brief, shining moment when Madonna didn't actually know she was "Madonna." That moment was on her first album. Ever since then, I feel like I can detect at least the faintest hint of self-consciousness or calculation. "Pure" is not a word one would typically associate with Madonna, but her debut album is pure. It is so entirely of the moment. It is so completely fluffy, so utterly disposable, so blatantly shallow, that, ironically, it achieves a kind of singular depth. No one could consciously set out to make this album. An album this great can only be made by people who aren't actually trying to make a great album.

And the moment Madonna started trying to "think" about her music, her music lost a little bit of its purity. Sure, Madonna released other excellent singles throughout the rest of her career, but they didn't quite have that same ... magic. It's like a rainbow. The moment you try to chase a rainbow, it disappears. You can't find the damn rainbow. Where the hell did the rainbow go? What I'm saying is that Madonna spent the next thirty years trying to chase a fucking rainbow. AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine knows what I'm talking about:
Although she never left it behind, it's been easy to overlook that Madonna began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas. It was an era where disco was anathema to mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again, crashing through the door Michael Jackson opened with Thriller. Certainly, her undeniable charisma, chutzpah, and sex appeal had a lot to do with that -- it always did, throughout her career -- but she wouldn't have broken through if the music wasn't so good. And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen.
It's funny to think of an album that sounds so unapologetically '80s as being "timeless," but what is time, really? What is space? Why are we here? Erlewine calls Madonna a "disco diva," but I think the more chronologically appropriate term would have to be "Aerobic Rock diva." Yes, Madonna, you were Aerobic Rock. Let's just face it. You danced in your videos, you wore bracelets, your shirt occasionally slipped over your shoulder ... guilty as charged.

The most impressive thing about Madonna's debut is that it manages to be so emotionally affecting despite the fact that its lyrics consist of the most cookie-cutter, cliche-ridden claptrap you've ever come across in your whole entire life. It makes "Moon/June/Spoon" sound like The Aeneid. A fifth-grader's desk carvings carry more intellectual heft. Here's a sampler:
Don't put me off, 'cause I'm on fire
And I can't quench my desire
Don't you know that I'm burning up for your love
You're not convinced that that's enough

I know you're gonna take your love and run
I know you think I'm the foolish one
I know you're gonna turn around and say goodbye

You say that you need my love
And you're wantin' my body, I don't mind
Baby all I've got is time
And I'm waiting to make you mine

You say you wanna stay the night
But you'll leave me tomorrow, I don't care
All of your moves are right
We can take it anywhere, this

Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing
Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing

Let the music take control
Find a groove and let yourself go
When the room begins to sway
You know what I'm trying to say

You must be my lucky star
'Cause you shine on me wherever you are
I just think of you and I start to glow
And I need your light and baby you know

Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright make everything all right
Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright yeah
"Starlight, starbright, first start I see tonight"? It's literally a nursery rhyme. But lest you think I'm bothered by the album's lack of linguistic creativity, think again. Here's the central irony of Madonna's career: the more effort Madonna seemed to put into her lyrics, the more I think her songs started to sound contrived. On that first album, she simply just ... was.

The first couple of times I listened to Madonna, I thought there were some hit singles and some filler. Eventually I realized that the whole thing is of a piece. With an album like this, either all of the tracks are filler, or none of them are. In other words, put this album on the turntable at a party and you don't ever have to worry about lifting the needle.

Take "Everybody." "Everybody" is barely even a song. It was, of course, Madonna's very first single, recorded a whole year prior to everything else on the album, and the funny part is, I can tell that it was her first single, but it doesn't matter one bit. What I love about "Everybody" is that it sounds so ... low-budget. It sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a gym with a Casio keyboard and a microphone. But damn, she wants to be a star. Just listen to her hilariously "improvised," wannabe Cinemax come-on at the start: "I know you've been waiting ... yeah ... I've been watching you ... yeah ... I know you wanna get up ... yeah ... come on." Save it for your agent, Madge.

Amusingly, Sire Records promoted the single on R&B stations and did not feature a picture of Madonna on the record sleeve, in an initial attempt to pass off Madonna as black (!). But this short-lived marketing scheme came to swift and sudden end the moment the (equally low-budget) video came out. It looks like it was filmed for a local access channel. Up next: a Gilligan's Island re-run.

Her second single, "Burning Up," is some serious, serious Aerobic Rock, complete with raunchy pseudo-heavy metal guitar and tacky vocal effects ("I'm on fih-ah" in particular gets mangled by a robot). As for the video, I guess they had a little more budget money for this one. They were able to afford: a Grecian bust with glowing eyes; a goldfish bowl; a blue convertible; a laser that catches hats like a pole - it goes on. They got their hands on some state-of-the-art equipment too. First, she gets trapped in a little diagonal rectangle a la Superman II. Then there's a dissolve more mind-blowing than that shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone turns into a spaceship: Madonna leans against a door and finds herself ... in a boat! The jet-setting quasi-European dude even drives the convertible through water! Then they realized they could "freeze" the frame, turn it black and white, and make it "flip" like a photo album. Maybe it's cool the first time, but by the fifth time I'm like, "OK, show me what else you got." At 3:20, she almost rips off her white dress, but the director was probably screaming, "Madonna, wait, that's half our budget!" The quasi-European guy then appears to hit Madonna head-on, but in the next shot ... she's now driving the convertible! According to Wikipedia, this is a moment of incisive socio-political commentary:
Author Robert Clyde Allen in his book Channels of Discourse compared the video with that of "Material Girl". According to him both the videos have an undermining ending, while employing a consistent series of puns and exhibiting a parodic amount of excess associated with Madonna's style. The discourses included in the video are those of sexuality and religion. Madonna's image of kneeling and singing about 'burning in love' performed the traditional ideological work of using the subordination and powerlessness of women in Christianity to naturalize their equally submissive position in patriarchy. Author Georges-Claude Guilbert in his book Madonna As Postmodern Myth commented that the representation of the male character becomes irrelevant as Madonna destabilizes the fixing and categorization of male sexuality in the video.
Or maybe it was just a throwaway gag?

"I Know It" works the same retro-girl group territory as Blondie and the Go-Go's, albeit using a tacky drum machine instead of a genuine band, with Madonna effectively replicating the "girl we just found on the Brooklyn street corner and brought into the studio on a whim" quality that all the great girl group records boasted. Is it just me, or the chorus sound like it's a bridge? And does the fluttery synthesizer sound like it was lifted from the theme for Reading Rainbow?

Before I forget, gotta give a shout-out to "Think Of Me" and "Physical Attraction," which both manage to sustain the album's precious atmosphere of seeming vapidity. Still, as delectable as all these cuts are, they are not the songs that truly send this album into that rarefied dance-pop air. You know which three songs I'm talking about. Aw, fuck, they need a post of their own. Guess I'm not done talking about Madonna.

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