“I have a tale to tell…”
Pop has always been seen as music made for the youth, by the relative youth. Whilst the popstar of the moment can get by on exuberance alone, as they grow older, the sheer difficulty of exuding an expected maturity in an art form largely concerned with instant gratification only gets worse. Whereas AC/DC can churn out the same album for 30 years, society saves its harshest ageism for the aging female popstar for doing the same.
Madonna at 51 has now been fighting that battle for literally decades - but once, in 1986, she decided to jump the gun before the weight of her teenage wannabe following became too heavy a burden. Live to Tell, though immediately different from any other Madonna single, is an entirely natural transition - she never feels like she’s out to prove herself. Even though she’s not in a position of power for once - the lyrics being about escape from some form of sexual or domestic abuse - the strength of her determination is, as always, what gives the song life.
Where the closest reference point, her Love Don’t Live Here Anymore cover (to be reviewed during Something to Remember) on Like a Virgin, builds to an anguished peak, Live to Tell is more emotionally restrained and cinematic - but just as dark. Its brooding, mid-tempo nature may make it the least instant of Madonna’s ’80s singles, but also one of the most rewarding.
The music video was likely the public’s first glimpse into the new Madonna on her own terms - away from the constant media obsession following her recent marriage to Sean Penn. Nonetheless, there’s still a connection - Live to Tell having been originally written by Patrick Leonard for a different film, then recorded by Madonna for At Close Range, starring none other than Sean Penn. The video alternates clips from the film - not having seen it, I can’t comment on the song’s relevance - with shots of a very plain-looking (but undeniably beautiful), emotive Madonna. She wouldn’t stand out from a crowd of average people - but she would stick out in a crowd of Madonna wannabes, and in that respect, her first of many image makeovers succeeded perfectly.
The performance of Live to Tell on the Confessions Tour was likely Madonna’s last real controversy - supposedly for drawing messianic comparisons by singing it atop a giant disco cross, wearing a crown of thorns. In typical kneejerk fashion, those doing the condemning had likely heard of, but not seen the performance itself. Musically, the slightly modernised arrangement with the classical organ works wonders, and Madonna sounds perfectly in her element - the melody is an ideal fit for her current tone and vocal range. Visually, it’s nothing if not fascinating; a counter ticks from zero to 12 million - a measure of the number of children orphaned as a result of AIDS, with images interspersed - and stops abruptly at the song’s bridge, when Madonna comes down from the cross.
My secular, thought-out interpretation is this: firstly, Madonna sings both for and from the perspective of the orphans. Inner strength and determination in harsh times - exactly what the song is about, and one thing they need. Secondly, and most importantly to the perception of the performance, she comes down from the cross. Though she may attempt to help the situation, it’s not her burden to bear - at least not alone. As she gestures to the crowd, takes off the crown of thorns and lays down, the Raising Malawi and Clinton Foundation websites flash onscreen. The message - to extend both solidarity and support, that they’ll make it through - should be clear (though honestly, she says it better herself).
Blasphemy? Hah - for being one of few popstars able to encourage compassion and charity without resorting to preaching or grandstanding, Madonna deserves nothing but praise.
Just who exactly is Brian Elliot? No biographical information seems to exist, and his work - a 70s AOR album, Papa Don’t Preach and a ’90s Chris Isaak cowrite, no more - doesn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page. But perhaps conserving all his talent for one single, glorious moment was the right way to go - few #1 singles simultaneously defy and define the possibilities of pop, culturally or musically, as wildly as Papa Don’t Preach. The staccato classical string intro puts the song immediately on edge, and indeed the listener too - it takes a full 16 seconds before anything even resembles pop music. Even then, the instrumentation isn’t exactly convention - the subtle layers of synth calm whilst the constantly shifting bassline, drums and bursts of strings tense. It’s an oddly unabrasive combination that never detracts from the sheer pop catchiness of the hooks, which in turn never undermines the unstoppable force of the song’s cathartic emotions.
And yes, from the minor key to the fixation on unwanted pregnancy, Papa Don’t Preach does share almost all of the above qualities with one Billie Jean - but far from being a ripoff, or even a response, you could never mistake one for the other. More importantly, the emotional core that drives each song is fundamentally different. In real life, Michael Jackson never fathered a fan’s child, just as Madonna never had a child in her teens, but listening to the image of himself he portrays in the song, you can never quite tell. He sounds paranoid and unsettled, in what is a brilliant, but never totally sympathetic vocal - the listener can’t quite sympathise with either Jackson or Billie Jean. Perhaps as a result (possibly of my overinterpretation), Billie Jean’s ambiguity towards its subject matter comes through in its funkier approach, as if Michael wants to divert your attention with pop music, whereas Papa Don’t Preach cuts a little deeper.
Emotionally, Madonna delivers what is simply one of the finest vocal performances ever put to record. Whether in the subdued verses or the soaring choruses, her voice carries a raw quality, as if the mental act of endlessly rehearsing such a dialogue with her father has physically worn her down. Where Billie Jean’s denial is either justified or exploitation, Papa Don’t Preach is an admission of mistakes, and an undeniable acceptance of responsibility. Brian Elliot’s lyrics and Madonna’s delivery - pleading, but typically determined instead of self-pitying - make her character an entirely sympathetic figure to parents and teenagers alike.
Sympathetic - that is, unless you have your own agendas to push. Hardly the first time a self-aware Madonna adopted the “all publicity is good publicity” approach to misinterpretation - but it was likely the first time she was treated as a serious sociocultural force. Various groups were willing to overlook key points to hijack the message for themselves; some saying it encouraged teenage pregnancy despite obvious sentiments of regret, others calling it pro-life despite the most important fact being that Madonna’s character makes a considered personal choice - not life instead of abortion, but a provided-for child instead of an unloved one, or longing for a child who never was. Tellingly, the once-critical Tipper Gore of the PMRC made by far the most sensible commentary:
”To me, the song speaks to a serious subject with a sense of urgency and sensitivity in both the lyrics and Madonna’s rendition. It also speaks to the fact that there’s got to be more support and more communication in families about this problem, and anything that fosters that I applaud.”- Tipper Gore (giving credit where credit is due)
The music video is arguably Madonna’s most literal interpretation of any of her songs - and it hits hard. Where Live to Tell’s makeover was soft, Papa Don’t Preach has Madonna portraying two strikingly different images. The contrast between her past and present; normality (the city scenes during the intro) and Madonna’s situation is immediately jarring as she walks into the scene, the world’s most unsettlingly convincing teenage girl. Though her acting ability is, well, selective (she never looked 15 at the start of Evita - granted, she was 38 by then), her best efforts are absolutely undeniable, and never more so than here. Where the song is the aftermath, the video provides backstory and an even more absurdly sympathetic character - are they irresponsible, drunk teenagers having unsafe sex? No - like the elderly Italian couple on the boat, they’re genuinely in love. And when she finally breaks the news during the last minute, just watch her eyes alone - you don’t doubt her sincerity for even a second.
Somehow, appearing as her real-life self, lipsyncing sections and alternating between sharp, angular dancing and softer movements, she manages to make a huge impression with her newly toned, skinny body and classicist hairstyle without detracting from the story at all. As she sings the choruses and wraps her arms around herself, she essentially exudes empathy towards her own character - meta enough for you?
Perhaps the single most impressive thing is that not once whilst listening to the song, watching the video or reading this review did the potential absurdity of a 28-year-old Madonna, who’d by then had at least one abortion (yes, it is a biographical fact) singing from the perspective of a pregnant 18-year-old ever cross your mind. So you were fooled? That’s a ridiculous suggestion - no, you’ve just experienced utterly infinite empathy in mere “popular music”, and that’s why even you’re undoubtedly keeping your baby.
Album: True Blue (1986)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Stephen Bray
One can’t help but feel sorry for True Blue. Title tracks rarely get this short-changed - only performed on a single tour, never even released on a compilation… Its relative obscurity really is a shame - despite lacking the sheer power of the album’s other four singles, its light, girl-group feel is a natural extension of the last few tracks on Like a Virgin. Though it may be built on synthesizers, the slight shuffle to the beat sounds distinctively retro, quite unlike most pop music of the time (though Michael Jackson did the same at least as well on The Way You Make Me Feel a year later). Madonna’s vocals are passionate as usual, but she steps it up in the lush “no more sadness” bridge, which really takes the song to another level.
It’s too bad those devotional lyrics never stayed true - as strong as it is on its own, the song is just indelibly associated with Madonna’s marriage to Sean Penn. Listening with the outcome of their relationship in mind, the unwavering optimism sounds eerily naive, though far from a dishonest or contrived love song. In a way, the song’s lack of ongoing relevance to Madonna is sadly understandable - I guess it’d be hard for her to hear it without thinking of a failed, though not necessarily bitter past.
The video. Ohhhhhhhh, man, the video. Sure, the ’60s retro may suit the song, but it far from does it justice. Quite simply, from the butt-shaking (which is admittedly very flattering with the girls’ insanely tight pants) to the dance moves, the car, the awkward haircut - it may well be the campest thing Madonna ever put out (to the masses, that is; Cry Baby and I’m Going Bananas sink painfully lower). It crosses the thin line between cute and cutesy - but beyond that, it’s not even terribly compelling in its minimalism. Maybe that’s why MTV organised a “Make My Video” contest - shame the winning entry doesn’t seem to be on YouTube. Somehow the contest promo somehow manages to surpass even the original video’s camp - but one thing’s for sure; they both equally feel like relics, an epoch away, with little to presently relate to compared to Madonna’s other videos of the time.
“Determined” is starting to become a seriously overused word here, but indulge me one last time - for Open Your Heart genuinely represents Madonna’s determination at its strongest. “You make me wanna hang my head down and cry” is her sole nod to the usual self-pity and resentment of unrequited love - but otherwise, the song is a good four minutes of sheer will fuelled by self-assurance, without even a second for indulgences like doubt.
Honestly, the idea that any man in the world would turn down Madonna in her prime, let alone require pursuit on this level, is, well, absurd. But it’s not all about her - for once she’s singing as the Everywoman as much as for herself. Empowerment comes from empathising with; singing along to (though Britney can shut it) Open Your Heart - in contrast, later songs like Express Yourself and Vogue feel more like a call to arms in the sense that Madonna all but commands the listener to empower themselves.
The writing process behind Open Your Heart is particularly interesting - originally written as Follow Your Heart by Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson for Cyndi Lauper before it found its way to Madonna’s then-manager Freddy DeMann. His request for a female demo was fulfilled by none other than Donna De Lory, Gardner Cole’s ex-girlfriend, which led to both her 20-year on-and-off gig as Madonna’s live backing vocalist and Madonna’s recording of Open Your Heart.
Strangely, in March 1986, Venezuelan singer Melissa released a Spanish version called Abre Tu Corazón three months before the release of Madonna’s True Blue album. It’s instantly recognisable as the same song - though the arrangement, likely the same as the demo, is very different. Comparing the two versions shows a rare insight into the brilliance of Madonna’s contributions - Melissa hams up the vocal delivery a little, but Madonna brings a more nuanced performance, contrasting the husky verses with the passionate choruses. But what really turns the song from decent (and heavily dated) to an instant classic is the far more complex instrumentation - where Abre Tu Corazón is straightforward, Open Your Heart has two separate basslines in different octaves, layers of synth brass and swells, funk guitars along with that distinctive glockenspiel main riff. The driving percussion is especially powerful - with bongos and dead-note strummed guitars below the technical, almost post-punk drumming. It’s one of the single best recorded examples of ’80s, synth-driven production - as complex as it is, it never detracts, only ever propels the song forward.
Though thematically the music may have a fairly simple message, Open Your Heart kicks off a good decade’s worth of deceptively complex Madonna videos, each carrying a myriad number of possible interpretations. The “correct” interpretation, if one even exists, is elusive - buried under the weight of all the images’ and settings’ various associations, none of which Madonna ever suggests unintentionally. For the sheer difficulty of analysing these music videos, I don’t apologise.
Like Papa Don’t Preach, there’s a sense of duality running through Open Your Heart’s video. Madonna first appears as an exotic dancer - but instead of being a vessel for male pleasure, she dances as their superior, with the onlookers reduced to a mere fraction of her vitality and life. And like Material Girl, it’s both homage - this time out-Lizaing Liza Minelli at the start - and personal reinvention. What’s completely new is when Madonna leaves the club in an oversized suit, kissing, dancing and running off with the young boy who unsuccessfully tries to sneak in to watch her. To this day I still don’t understand his role - calling it the stripper’s redemption through a child’s innocence is far too condemning a perspective for Madonna to take. Not to mention that it’s barely obvious how the song relates at all to her already-empowered point of view in the video - perhaps commenting on the men’s ironic inability to open her heart? Regardless of how well it’s understood, Open Your Heart is a fascinating video - and the one that set her standard for many years to come.
“[Madonna] is super great at bastardizing other people’s heritages in the sexiest, most gap-toothed way possible…”
- Cracked.com: partly true, partly completely inaccurate (mostly amusing)
Though at this stage of her career, Madonna had appropriated/reinterpreted - not copied, of course - the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn’s classicist images before, La Isla Bonita was the first of various times she’d take on an entire culture. La Isla Bonita is the sound of a time and a place as much as it is one of the first Latin-flavoured pop songs to truly enter the Western consciousness. Songwriters Patrick Leonard and Bruce Gaitsch originally offered the song to Michael Jackson, though it was rejected, and probably for a good reason. Madonna’s vocal performance (especially the dreamy backing vocals) necessarily removes the focus from herself to suit the song’s mood in a way that’s hard to imagine MJ pulling off quite as convincingly, incredible talent aside. What makes the song so successful is how effortlessly it creates a Latin feel; despite being as driven by synths and drum machines as much as any ’80s pop song, the acoustic guitar and Cuban drums still make the most lasting impression. It’s both moody and exotic; light but never disposable like Holiday, and incredibly vital for the fifth(!) single and top-five hit from True Blue.
(for anyone still unconvinced of Madonna’s vocal abilities, compare the original to this competent yet entirely robotic cover by singer Alizée, whose version inexplicably reached number two on her native French charts)
La Isla Bonita is an odd nomination for one of Madonna’s most enduring live songs - but aside from the rather flat, slowed-down Drowned World Tour version, the recent re-inventions are all excellent. Turning a mildly elegiac memory as a song into a sped-up international party sounds like a terrible idea, but the Confessions Tour version segues into a percussion/dance breakdown to great effect. Her Live Earth performance takes that direction to its logical(?) conclusion with an unlikely collaboration with Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, with the Sticky & Sweet Tour version even segueing into the genuine Romani-Gypsy folk song Doli Doli. It says a lot about the skill of the original songwriting, the current arrangements and Madonna’s live performances that it sits so well aside sets full of far more disco/hip-hop/electronic-influenced songs.
The music video is one of Madonna’s most lushly romantic - even if its setting is more streetside than island. It disregards the song’s love story for a greater focus on image that nonetheless fits the song perfectly. As with Papa Don’t Preach and Open Your Heart, Madonna again embodies two different images - a restrained religious girl and an incredibly passionate dancer, she of the jaw-droppingly stunning red flamenco dress. The former stays in her room and sheds a tear watching the outside celebrations, praying at what seems to be a shrine to (dead?) relatives, whilst the latter leaves an apartment with mostly candles as residents to dance with the locals on the street. On one level, it could be Madonna’s commentary on the way religious dedication - separate from spirituality - restricts people’s lives, but it doesn’t condemn, instead treating both characters with equal respect. But as with many of her videos, it gets by on sheer beauty regardless of how conclusively it’s understood.