Spotlight

Album: You Can Dance (1987)
Songwriters: Madonna/Stephen Bray
Producer: Stephen Bray

Spotlight resembles Everybody via Stephen Bray’s more recent drum machine/synth bass sound - Madonna’s roots, but not as flawless as you remember them. It was originally recorded during the sessions for True Blue, though left off the album for obvious reasons. Madonna’s innate ability for quality control is a big part of her success - hence why the majority of her many unreleased tracks are so vastly inferior. Spotlight is no exception, with clunky lines like “When you feel the rhythm, I’ll be by your side/Now you have the power baby, love is on your side” - and it doesn’t help that the melodies are perhaps the most uninspired she’d put to record that entire decade.


The thing is, the Who’s That Girl singles may have been a letdown after the sheer strength of True Blue, but at least they approached Madonna’s music from a slightly different direction. The entire You Can Dance release, however, is and was redundant beyond belief. It was marketed as an album of remixes - and they’re adequate, though heavily dated, not that anyone needed an eight-minute version of Into the Groove in 1987 either. The songs also segue together continuously, but it’s a botched job - despite being in totally different keys, Spotlight and Holiday crossfade into each other without any editing, and clash spectacularly. The promise of an unreleased track may have been quite the selling point, too, but Spotlight is on par with the rest of the release - mediocre.


Despite being more of a stopgap than a serious release, Madonna’s first compilation still sold over a million copies; similarly, Spotlight was only released as a physical single in Japan, but gained enough circulation to appear on Billboard’s Top 40 airplay chart in 1988. They were the last gasp of Madonna the teen idol - by then, an outdated style that she would thankfully never revisit. And good riddance - with Like a Prayer arriving a little over a year later, the music and the self-empowerment message would become vital like never before.


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Into the Groove

Albums: Like a Virgin (1985 reissue), You Can Dance (1987), The Immaculate Collection (1990), I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2007), Celebration (2009)
Songwriters/producers: Madonna/Stephen Bray

It’s widely recognised that a song better expressing the pure joy of song and dance simply does not exist. The eponymous groove is just massive - the complex, busy drum machine grounds the song whilst the synth floats in the background; the bassline runs circles around everything else, but never to the detriment of the beat. Madonna herself sounds unrestrainably enthusiastic, her vocals flitting from pure hook to occasional soaring high note via the magic of ’80s reverb. Despite coming some five years later, I’d call the Immaculate Collection version definitive - the vocals sound fuller and shorn of some unnecessary repetition, not to mention the totally unexpected keyboard solo that somehow fits perfectly.


The lyrics conjure images of a million Madonna wannabes wearing out vinyl grooves in their bedrooms, singing into hairbrushes, making eyes at boys across dancefloors - this was Madonna the teenage idol in full force, commanding an almost Springsteen-esque empathy in the soundtrack to their lives. But ultimately, teenagers and their popstars grow up - Into the Groove was a fleeting yet glorious moment that Madonna the icon thankfully never tried to prolong. And that, folks, is how you drive a mere ’80s pop song with oh-so-unimportant, generic lyrics about dancing and singing and love to near-mythological status. Into the Groove feels like an anecdote of teen life - not unlike where I am in the present day - but from a more innocent time in 1985, before all those kids grew up and renounced pop music and became our teachers and bosses and had their own kids. Is there a word for “nostalgia for a time before your birth”? Oh, I know. Envy.


The songwriting’s strong enough that Into the Groove’s survived multiple Madonna recontextualisations too - it works with bagpipes on the Re-Invention Tour and hip-hop jump rope on the Sticky & Sweet Tour - even Into the Hollywood Groove, the GAP ad with Missy Elliott, isn’t too bad.


(that’s Into the Groove’s appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan; here’s the music video as a montage from the film)

Into the Groove obviously transcends Desperately Seeking Susan, the film it was written for, but since I obviously like to reduce entire decades to transient cultural references, the association’s quite strong in my mind. No modern-day parody of ’80s excess could possibly contain more amusingly, excessively stereotypically ’80s imagery as what’s shown here. But yes, Desperately Seeking Susan and The Terminator really do inform my perceptions of the decade - especially regarding really sluggish discos, where Into the Groove makes its appearance. The film is essentially a comedy of errors, with an absurdly convoluted plot (this hilarious Videogum piece is as close as a summary gets to brevity) to match the worst Dan Brown has to offer. And in her first major acting role, yes, Madonna is not only absurdly seductive, but steals the show - though mostly because she’s effectively playing herself. Rosanna Arquette admittedly doesn’t have much to work with - when not playing a bored suburban housewife/stalker, she plays a foggy-minded recovering amnesiac masquerading as an imitation of Madonna. Oh, and you thought that was confusing. Overall, though, it’s not a bad film - the weird approach to its plot makes it infinitely more interesting than any modern Matthew McConaughey movie. The sheer datedness is really part of its appeal - maybe in 2034, people will laugh at how I watched the whole thing on YouTube whilst the Hangover is injected directly into their consciousness.


(the way I feel about Madonna in 1985… times three)


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Holiday

From the album Madonna (1983)
Featured on You Can Dance (1987), Ciao Italia: Live from Italy (1988), The Immaculate Collection (1990), The Girlie Show ~ Live Down Under (1994), Drowned World Tour 2001, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret (2006), Celebration (2009)
Written by Curtis Hudson/Lisa Stevens
Produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez

Madonna’s first big hit and breakthrough single - could it be any more obvious why? Holiday’s perfect combination of groove (the bassline is truly a work of art) and catchy melody makes it a defining work in the dance-pop genre. It was great enough that the “assembly-line” hit single factory Stock Aitken Waterman would even use near-identical chord progressions in many of their songs four years later, from Kylie Minogue’s I Should Be So Lucky (just the first time she’d follow in Madonna’s footsteps, hah) to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Holiday’s lightweight, breezy feel allows it to spread its universal “let love shine” message of celebration with as much sincerity as the likes of We Are the World, with many times the subtlety. At the same time, this makes it more inherently disposable than ANY other Madonna song, partly due to having been written by outside songwriters. Yet this only seems to have increased its appeal - for the song’s significance to her career now extends far beyond the original single. As a near-staple of her live tours, the way she performs it generally reflects her feelings at the time - see the oddly commanding, militaristic Re-Invention Tour version documented on I’m Going to Tell You a Secret. Still, in its disposability, the studio recording says next to nothing about Madonna as an artist, except that she adapted herself rather well to a song intended for/rejected by Mary Wilson of the Supremes. But who cares? - Holiday is an undisputed classic, regardless.


The music video, however, is tragically bad, and never officially released for that reason - Madonna and her backup dancers (including brother Christopher) simply perform rather daggy dance moves through an absurdly exaggerated psychedelic filter. Much more interesting is Madonna’s 1983 appearance on American Bandstand - her first ever televised live performance. Though it’s lipsynced as usual for such shows at the time, Madonna is genuinely captivating as, alone without choreography, she struts her stuff surrounded by a studio audience. A natural center of attention, her energy is infectious; the resulting cheers actually disproportionately enthusiastic for the kind of performers one would usually get on such shows. The interview afterwards is the source of one of THE classic Madonna quotes, as shown in a slightly edited form at her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:


"We are a couple of weeks into the new year; what do you hope will happen, not only in 1984, but for the rest of your professional life - what are your dreams, what’s left?"
“To rule the world.”

For a twenty-five-year-old then-one-hit-wonder, that’s either an admirably courageous or absurdly egotistic statement, but to actually achieve, maintain and surpass it for another twenty-five years is what makes that moment the stuff of legend. Perhaps, considering all that was to follow, it wasn’t so pretentious at all. Many other popstars who followed in Madonna’s wake talked the talk, but could they walk the walk?


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Everybody

From the album Madonna (1983)
Featured on You Can Dance (1987), Celebration (2009)
Written by Madonna
Produced by Mark Kamins

As the very first single from one of the most successful artists of all time, Everybody carries surprisingly little clout. And yet, the Madonna creation story tells of her apparent mythological ability to walk into a club, hand the DJ the original demo and instantly drive the unfamiliar crowd wild. And that wasn’t all she gave him - that DJ, Mark Kamins, became her boyfriend and produced the single, pre-debut album. However true the story, the drive was there from the beginning.


Musically, though, Everybody is merely serviceable dance-pop, hardly inspired - written solely by Madonna after fronting less successful New York rock bands, it’s hooky, if a little amateurish. Thankfully omitted from the Immaculate Collection - it would easily have been the worst song there - Madonna’s team had no such qualms with Celebration’s tracklist. Still, its legacy should be obvious to any listener: the first of many Madonna singles to command people to the dancefloor, but far from the best.


Truly appreciating Madonna’s artistry requires an understanding of her cultural context, but one thing that seems to have been completely lost in translation over the past 26 years is the misconception, early in her career, that Madonna was a black artist. With post-“disco sucks” dance-pop/R&B only just experiencing a post-Thriller resurgence at the time, it was still largely the field of black artists, to the extent that Sire Records tried to downplay Madonna’s race to secure radio play (just look at the single cover, or the hideous stock photo originally used for Holiday). But speaking for my generation, born well after her debut, I can’t even remotely comprehend how anyone could hear her voice and conclude that she was black - that girlishness was a far cry from the late, great Teena Marie.


YouTube / Dailymotion

Director: Ed Steinberg

There’s little to say about the music video, which existed partially to prove that Madonna in fact wasn’t black. Naturally, such a small budget led to equally little promo/airplay - but it proved popular in certain nightclubs that played videos.


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