Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday": Where The Soul Of Aerobic Rock Dances Eternally In The Cosmos

Ten million light years from now, when the Bleeblox species of the planet Yurkurk in the Beta Luxus System can barely receive any signal from 1980s Planet Earth, when all the last remnants of '80s culture have been swallowed up by the inevitable pull of dark matter, only a few musical blips will remain. "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" will be those blips.

These three singles are indestructible. Sledgehammer, chainsaw, liquid nitrogen - no weapon that currently exists could destroy them. Whatever it is that makes up this beast we call "80s music," these three singles contain its secret essence. Someone who did not know anything about '80s music, and listened to these three singles, and didn't like them, would probably never like '80s music.

To be honest, I used to not like "Lucky Star" very much either. Yeah, it was on the Immaculate Collection, but whenever I made Madonna "best of" mixes for my friends, I usually left it off. Of course, I was an idiot, and must now beg forgiveness from the dance pop gods for offending them so. What once sounded gratingly simplistic and annoying now sounds delightfully uncomplicated and infectious. Question: is the gurgling synthesizer at the start supposed to make us think of a "star"? Or maybe it's Madonna's subtle homage to the Who's "Baba O'Riley"? Honestly, I don't have much to say about "Lucky Star" that hasn't already been said better by AMG's Stewart Mason in his song review (previously referenced by Zrbo in the comments section of my old post on "Into The Groove" from about five years ago), other than that "Borderline" was apparently released after "Lucky Star." Well, no AMG writer's perfect:
Madonna had released four singles before "Lucky Star," with "Holiday" and "Borderline" reaching the Billboard Top 20 and "Everybody" and "Burning Up" doing less well. "Lucky Star" had been the song that got Madonna signed to Sire Records in the first place, however, and 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. As a song, "Lucky Star" just feels slight on casual exposure, but a closer listen makes it sound downright minimalist, and consciously so. A simple chorus based on an everyday children's rhyme, sketchy verses that seem to have no function other than to propel the song into that chorus, and a funky guitar-and-electronic-percussion bridge, the song is dead simple and given an absolutely bare-bones arrangement and antiseptically clean production, but for some reason, it works. It's near impossible to hear this song without dancing, even if you don't look one-hundredth as good as Madonna while you're doing it.

Although I do find the video compelling, I can't help but feel that Madonna ... creeps me out a little. She's like the Denny's of Sexy: sure, it gets the job done, but where's the warmth? While ostensibly trying to praise her artistry, some of the intellectuals quoted on the song's Wikipedia page might unintentionally confirm my opinions:
Author Peter Goodwin, in his book Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979–1997, commented that although "Lucky Star" is not a narrative video, in the clip Madonna plays at least four characters:—the person in sunglasses looking; a break-dancing girl; an androgynous social dancer; and a seductress. The juxtaposition of all these characterizations portray Madonna as a narcissistic self-lover. Images of Madonna's body writhing against the white background generates the question whether she is addressing her lover or herself in the song. According to Goodman, Madonna creates an eroticized woman for her own pleasure only. Time noted that "[s]he's sexy, but she doesn't need men [...] she's kind of there all by herself."
Then what does she need us for? Oh who cares, it's still a great single. On the album, the silence following the fade of "Lucky Star" is broken by a gentle, lightly ringing keyboard intro, reminiscent of the one at the start of Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before" [Edit: probably because both songs were co-written by the same guy - Hello McFly!]. Mason writes:
"Borderline" ... is a pure treasure, one of those unabashedly commercial pop songs that also manages to at least hint at deeper emotions ... Slower in tempo than the rest of the album, but with enough of a backbeat and a wiggly synthesizer bass line to keep it from being a ballad, "Borderline" hits a slinky groove from its vibraphone-like intro all the way to the throaty scatting Madonna does just as the song starts its fade out.
Well, I do tend to cringe slightly every time she sings "Keep pushing me-uh, keep pushing me-uh, keep pushin' my luuh-huuv..." Keep pushing what, Madonna? Oh, you mean keep pushing your genitals? Don't know where I got that idea. After having spent years listening to the Immaculate Collection mix of "Borderline" (which, as far as I can tell, is not too different from the single mix), these days I really enjoy listening to the slightly longer, less over-exposed album mix.

Some of the key differences:
  1. There's a drum machine in the right channel that is more prominent in the album mix. Usually (watch in disbelief as I attempt to demonstrate my knowledge of musical terminology) a drum machine will place the accent on the second and fourth beats in the measure. But what I love about this drum machine in "Borderline" is that the accent is on the first beat of the measure. You'd think that would be really annoying, but I am totally into it. The thing is, the more prominent drum machine in the center channel is still placing the accent on the second and fourth beats, so the sense of "conventional" rhythm is still there, but there's an unusual sense of contrast. Oh yeah!
  2. In the single mix, right after the line "Cause you've got the best of me," there's a prominent synthesizer riff, but on the album version, that riff is missing. This should bother me, but I'm kind of digging the empty space right there.
  3. There are several extra lines of lyrics that were edited out of the single mix, mostly beginning around the 4:00 mark, featuring such probing insights as "Keep on pushing me baby/Don't you know you drive me crazy," "Look what your love has done to me/Come on baby, set me free," and "You cause me so much pain, I think I'm going insane/What does it take to make you see?" It's like hidden easter eggs on the DVD!
The reason you can tell "Borderline" was released after "Lucky Star" is because it has a genuine video with an actual budget, although I don't know if bigger equals better. According to Wikipedia, there was an actual plot this time:
The accompanying music video portrayed Madonna with a Latin-American man as her boyfriend. She was enticed by a British photographer to pose and model for him, but later returned to her original boyfriend ... Posing for the photographer, Madonna looks towards the camera with challenge in her eyes thus depicting sexual aggression. At one moment in the video, she starts spraying graffiti over some lifeless classical statues thus portraying herself as a transgressor who breaks rules and attempts at innovation. With the video Madonna broke the taboo of interracial relationships. Although at first it seems that Madonna denies the Hispanic guy in favour of the photographer, later she rejects him thus implying her desire to control her own sexual pleasures or going over the established pop borderlines with lyrics like "You just keep on pushing my love, over the borderline". The contrasting image of Madonna, first as a messy blonde in the Hispanic sequence and later as a fashioned glamorous blonde, suggested that one can construct one's own image and identity ... The British photographer and his studio is decorated with the classical sculptures and nude statues holding spears in a phallic symbol. In contrast, phallic symbols portrayed in the Hispanic neighbourhood included a street lamp which Madonna embraces and a pool cue held erect by Madonna's boyfriend.
Eh. I prefer the videos where she's just doing her aerobic dance moves with her club buddies. Just look at the way she stares at the camera during the "da da da" fade-out. Yes, Madonna, I can see you there.

Finally, there is "Holiday." I've probably said this about an '80s song before, and I'll probably say this about an '80s song again, but this time, I mean it: "Holiday" is the perfect '80s song. And can you ask for a more perfect "first hit"? Although it only originally peaked at #16, the radio kept on playing it and playing it and they've never really stopped. It's kind of sad to think that Madonna never topped her first hit, but hey, the Pet Shop Boys never topped theirs either. Again, after listening to the Immaculate Collection mix for so long, hearing the original version is like tasting chocolate chip ice cream for the first time - all over again. The intro alone is its own scoop of perfection:
  1. It all begins innocently enough, with the basic keyboard melody (perhaps owing something, as I mentioned a couple of years ago, to ABC's "The Look Of Love") plus the drum machine and imitation tambourine (?) for the length of one bar. Promising, very promising.
  2. Ah, but then another keyboard comes in, playing a much higher riff, in the second bar, sounding like hot fudge being poured over your already delicious sundae.
  3. There's an emphatic, synthesized "bwonk," and the rhythm ... explodes.
  4. We've now got a cowbell in the left channel (according to Wikipedia, played by Ms. Ciccone herself!).
  5. Also, the entrance of the bass line, which, as everyone knows, is the bass line to end all bass lines.
  6. These additions stand alone for two bars, but then a chicken scratch guitar straight from Parliament's "Flash Light" jumps in on the right channel, and another synthesizer trying to sound like a guitar spreads itself across both channels.
  7. Two more bars pass, and the apathetic ladies come in. Mason writes, "In the tradition of Chic's very similar 'Good Times,' Madonna sings the 'Holiday/Celebrate' chorus so completely deadpan that it sounds like she's being sarcastic ..."
And so, an entire minute and five seconds has passed before Madonna has even started singing. Houdini himself never devised such an entrance. By this point, the song can do no wrong. A little staggered vocal overdubbing here ("If we took a holiday/Ooh yeah, ooh yeah"), a little Latin salsa piano there ... it goes on for six freaking minutes and I wouldn't change a thing. A thing. Not even some Yoko Ono caterwauling could kill this vibe.

I'm not sure the same level of praise can be directed toward the video, however. There may be no larger discrepancy between the level of familiarity with a hit single and its accompanying music video than in the case of "Holiday." I'm getting conflicting information as to whether this was even released, and Madonna probably issued a court order requesting that it be wiped from the earth, but here it is. Boy, this video is cheap - cheaper than even "Lucky Star." It makes "Everybody" look like Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There are a total of about three different camera angles. And here's the real question: why are they dancing in front of Ichabod Crane's bedroom? The whole thing feels like they just wanted to film it and get it over with so they could hurry up and go take a holiday.


Herr Zrbo said...

I like your breakdown of the intro to Holiday, especially your use of 'bwonk' to describe that sound. Also, I have surely never seen this "video" (if we can even call it that) of Holiday. It looks like someone left the camera on in the dance studio during warm up.

Little Earl said...

What more appropriate word could there be to describe it than "bwonk"?

All right, here's a better video of "Holiday": Madonna on Solid Gold. If she ever tries to deny her origins in Aerobic Rock, one merely needs to show her this clip. All roads to fame travel through Solid Gold. "You mean I don't have to bring my own back-up dancers? I'm IN."