Dw. Dunphy On… Madonna

too badI said something that sent a jolt of disbelief through the ranks of Popdose. I have been known to take my opinions to the far side, but this one threatened to betray an ignorance I didn’t know I harbored. Let me spell it out and see if I’m as far off base as some have claimed me to be:

Madonna will not be remembered for her music as much as her controversies. In fact, the latter is likely to shadow the former so much that her output as an artist will become an afterthought. And while Mariah Carey’s vocal acrobatics have become the standard pop style (thereby irreparably screwing everything up), Maddy’s antics have become the standard conduct by which all young up-and-comers must match or else not be noticed at all.

Your first salient question would be, “Dunphy, do you even like Madonna’s music?” Honestly, it’s not that I dislike her music at all. No, I’m not a fan and no, I don’t own any of her albums, but I can say unequivocally that she’s made three truly great songs in her career, a lot that I like in passing, and some that are total crap for the sake of spiking the media. The three great songs are, in no particular order, “Live To Tell,” “Oh Father,” and “Frozen.” All three indicated to me that she could radically depart from her patterns and deliver. There is nothing on her latest, Hard Candy, that comes close to the style and sentiment of the aforementioned tunes, even though that album is being hailed as a return to form.

Ideally, that’s what we should be talking about, right? That album? The music? Sure, Maddy’s a PR animal and seeks attention the way sharks seek chum, but she’s a singer and that ought to be the first thing that comes to mind, no? Not the latest alleged sexual faux pas with Yankee money pit Alex Rodriguez, the possible dissolution of her marriage to director Guy Ritchie, her sometimes bizarre Kabbalah jaunts, her onstage French kisses with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, or the upcoming Britney reunion on the Sticky and Sweet Tour (read “reunion” any way you care to; as much has already been inferred by both stars and their handlers.) It’s the Sex Book and Truth or Dare all over again, except that where once her exploits once commanded the spotlight, they now feel like Bette Davis in All About Eve, trying to wrestle former tawdry glories from the poptart du jour.

As the teacher to the next wave of music starlets, Madonna indirectly guides the Spears trainwreck saga, in the way sexuality is the predominant message regardless of sincerity or even passion, visibility is more important than responsibility to craft and ultimately no publicity is bad publicity, even in a four-alarm mental meltdown. One by one, the young hopefuls take the slippery slutty slope and, one by one, they lose a degree of credibility. The latest candidates, Katy Perry and her bi-baiting and the slightly sinister image deflowering of Miley Cyrus, all seem to spring from the need to be in the public consciousness all the time, even if it means the mysterious leaking of risque cellphone snaps. These are all the hot-button headlines, but none of it has anything to do with music.

hard and uglyKeen observers of pop culture know that the wild life has always been part and parcel with celebrity. Cher was a pioneer of such things — her romances, her clothes and sometimes lack thereof, her predilection over the years to define and redefine “Cougar Chic” — but she always appeared to be unwitting in her revelations: You caught me red-handed. Okay, here’s what went down. Maddy, on the other hand, is just throwing herself at you all the time, occasionally reminding you that she sings a little too: I’ll give you the details even if you don’t want me to — especially if you don’t want me to. All the while, what I know of Hard Candy is that Justin Timberlake is on it, presumably to make it palatable to a generation who see Madonna as a leather-bound Medusa creeping from the caverns to ensnare more horny Greeks. I know Timbaland has to be there somewhere because, hey, Siamese twins, Timbalake and all that…

The latest producers and Pro Tools paste-ologists are involved to give the product “a fresh, modern sound,” yet I’ll be swoggled if I know what that sound sounds like. I actually wish I knew. I heard “4 Minutes,” her JT duet, deemed it interesting, and moved on. Where was the big hook? What did I miss? There was a time when one listen to “Holiday,” “Like A Prayer,” or even “Music” meant it was to be stuck inside your head the rest of the day, for better or worse. And yet, having said that I wish I had a better understanding of Hard Candy, I have little to no desire to seek it out. By the time I’ve run her salacious gauntlet of gossip, mischief and madness, I simply don’t care anymore.

That’s where I’m at, then. I can’t imagine I’m alone, and the innocent girl-group pop of “True Blue” seems a million miles away now, blocked by the endless stunts and camouflage of her own ego fulfillment. I’m waiting for a time when the (ugh) Material Girl shocks me again, not with her rubber accoutrement and tales of what she did with them, but with a song that stays in mind and proves she had it in her all along. I’m waiting for her music, but perhaps she just ain’t in that business anymore.

We’ll see in twenty more years.




  • sihowells

    Generally speaking, you're spot on – though I feel that you underplay the extent of the musical legacy she put down in her first years: if you revere the pop music single, it's hard to argue with much of her output between 1984 and 1990.

    She was not necessarily musically cool or innovative but she put out a string of great singles and, as pure pop goes, The Immaculate Collection very nearly lives up to its title (even if some of its mixes stink).

    Since that first compilation, though, she has been the living musical embodiment of the law of diminishing returns – with occasional gems like Frozen and Beautiful Stranger merely flattering to deceive.

    If there is still a market for the music of the Sixties girl groups today, I've no doubt there will be a market for Madonna's 80s output in 2028 – but she won't necessarily be seen then as more of a musical influence than Ronnie Spector is now.

  • Darren

    When I think of Madonna, I don't think of controversy so much as someone who knew precisely which buttons to push to appeal to both men and woman, both straight and gay, both black and white. Then, of course, she realized she had to do something more or risk losing her status as reigning queen of pop. She could either write greater and greater songs, or she could take the nice little short cut known as “controversy”. Thus, the “Sex” book and “Erotica” album soon followed. I have yet to hear an actual song she has recorded since that even comes close to the level of “Where's The Party”, let alone “Live To Tell”.

  • mojo

    “Chum” is an excellent word. We all should use it more.

  • theroux

    “Hard Candy” is actually pretty good if you restrict yourself to listening to only the reworked club mixes, ala Peter Rauhofer. DJ-producers have always been able to take her weakest material and spin gold. There's a bazillion remixes of 4 Minutes that are far more listenable than what made it on the commercial release.

    “”make it palatable to a generation who see Madonna as a leather-bound Medusa creeping from the caverns to ensnare more horny Greeks.””

    This is priceless, thanks for the laugh.

  • JonCummings

    Here's a rehash of my response to Dw.'s previous warning that this column was coming–if you will, the Popdose equivalent of a back-bench Congressman asking that his spoken comments “be inserted into the record”:

    Madonna's music–or at least much of it–is eminently worth defending. She basically created post-disco dance music (or at least the female variety) with “Borderline,” “Lucky Star” and “Into the Groove.” She also basically invented “girl power” as a post-feminist concept, and, even if it was sometimes more provocative than artistic, changed the female face of pop with songs like “Papa Don't Preach” and “Express Yourself.” For better or worse, she brought Latin inflections into '80s pop with “La Isla Bonita,” “Who's That Girl” and several other songs.

    For most of a decade, from “Burning Up” to “Vogue” and even “Justify My Love,” she was on top of trends rather than following them. And has any other artist brought trance/electronica/whatever into the pop mainstream any more successfully than she did with the “Ray of Light” album?

    And don't get me started on the massive, massive influence of her videos. Doctoral dissertations have been dedicated to the female-empowerment tropes of “Papa Don't Preach” and “Open Your Heart,” as well as the socio-religious themes in “Like a Prayer,” and the film homages abundant in “Express Yourself” (Metropolis) and “Vogue” (Looking for Langston). My favorite class in graduate school was a comp-lit class in which the professor convincingly linked the lyric poetry of writers from Petrarch to Shakespeare with the visual narratives of late-'80s Madonna and George Michael videos.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the balance shifted dramatically from her music to her extracurricular shenanigans, beginning with the Sex book. However, there are still a multitude of bright spots over the intervening years that haven't been mentioned already: “Rain,” “Deeper and Deeper,” her work in “Evita” (even the acting!), the entire “Ray of Light” album and much of “Music” as well…even “Hollywood” and “Love Profusion” from “American Life.”

    Her music on the last two albums has seemed almost willfully disposable, as if in reaction to the savaging she received for “American Life.” Maybe the disaster of that album showed her that it's no longer possible for her to make iconic music as she once did, and she has ramped up the Liz Taylor, celebrity-for-celebrity's-sake behaviors to compensate. If the A-Rod story seems not only particularly tawdry but also unfamiliar, it's because Madonna's been unable to stage-manage the entire thing–and, for the first time in a very long time, her celebrity has been eclipsed by someone else's. Who'd a thunk it?

  • EricL

    I'm not sure she created anything as much as co-opted existing sounds that were bubbling under the public's radar and made them popular. She took the post disco dance sound that was being kept alive in the mostly gay NCY underground and brought it to the forefront. Then she snagged the blossoming girl power pop of the mid 80's and shockingly turned it towards social themes. “Voge” was another undergound dance and sound she took as her own. Then she was able to easily jump in to trip hop (Frozen) and create a popular sound out of electronic beats (Ray of Light).

    Her voice was never the best, but she can make it fit any style. Her ability to change her image was as good as David Bowie's, if not better at points. With him you could always see that it was all just a persona, but with Madonna it seemed like she was actually changing. The music and stylistic leaps were not large enough to be offputting but big enough to let you know that something has changed.

    This post has turned much more stream of consciousness than I had originally intended. I should stop before it becomes a Thesis.

  • http://retro-remixes.blogspot.com Retro_Remixes

    Well, because of my magnificent obsession with Madonna I don't normlly engage in much conversation about her because I don't think she needs defending. People either get her or they don't. And if they don't it's really too bad for them because she's consistently made some of the best pop music in recent history. That's a fact regardless of whether anyone gives her credit for it or not.

    With regard to her image, if people think that's all there is to her then they're idiots who are missing the point. The image has always been to get people's attention so they'll listen to her music and what she has to say. For people to take it so seriously only proves her right. If you dangle something shiny in front of people they take notice.

    People dismiss her incredibly solid 25 year music career without ever really having heard her music. That's just ignorant. Elvis was flashy too so let's dismiss him. The Beatles had funny haircuts so I guess they don't count either. Detractors rail about her image changes yet they're the ones paying so much attention to it.

    Anyone who can't get past an artist's image or “gimmick” doesn't deserve the terrific music behind it.

  • Old_Davy

    Excellent post, Mr. D.

    I also think Madge will be remembered more for her antics than her music, but I'm not one to judge an artist on image or gimmicks. For me it's the music and only the music.

    I don't like Madonna.

    Oh, she's had a few choice tracks here and there. I actually enjoy “Like A Prayer” quite a bit, and “Ray of Light” and “Music” are tolerable. But the rest…uh…blah. And I >have< heard most of her stuff because my wife is a BIG BIG BIG fan.

    Her early output is so shrill and horribly recorded that it is almost unlistenable. Madonna's voice is not that great on these early tracks, and the up-front mix only accentuates her weakness as a vocalist. As far as the songs themselves, (e.g. “Holiday”, “True Blue”) they are amateurish, very simplistic and boring.

    Yeah, she was a front runner in many pop culture movements, and I guess you could credit her with the empowerment of today's female singers (if you consider that something admirable) but in the end, it's just the music coming out of the speakers that matters most. And I'd rather listen to something else, thanks anyway.

  • Old_Davy

    Excellent post, Mr. D.

    I also think Madge will be remembered more for her antics than her music, but I'm not one to judge an artist on image or gimmicks. For me it's the music and only the music.

    I don't like Madonna.

    Oh, she's had a few choice tracks here and there. I actually enjoy “Like A Prayer” quite a bit, and “Ray of Light” and “Music” are tolerable. But the rest…uh…blah. And I >have< heard most of her stuff because my wife is a BIG BIG BIG fan.

    Her early output is so shrill and horribly recorded that it is almost unlistenable. Madonna's voice is not that great on these early tracks, and the up-front mix only accentuates her weakness as a vocalist. As far as the songs themselves, (e.g. “Holiday”, “True Blue”) they are amateurish, very simplistic and boring.

    Yeah, she was a front runner in many pop culture movements, and I guess you could credit her with the empowerment of today's female singers (if you consider that something admirable) but in the end, it's just the music coming out of the speakers that matters most. And I'd rather listen to something else, thanks anyway.

  • Old_Davy

    Excellent post, Mr. D.

    I also think Madge will be remembered more for her antics than her music, but I'm not one to judge an artist on image or gimmicks. For me it's the music and only the music.

    I don't like Madonna.

    Oh, she's had a few choice tracks here and there. I actually enjoy “Like A Prayer” quite a bit, and “Ray of Light” and “Music” are tolerable. But the rest…uh…blah. And I >have< heard most of her stuff because my wife is a BIG BIG BIG fan.

    Her early output is so shrill and horribly recorded that it is almost unlistenable. Madonna's voice is not that great on these early tracks, and the up-front mix only accentuates her weakness as a vocalist. As far as the songs themselves, (e.g. “Holiday”, “True Blue”) they are amateurish, very simplistic and boring.

    Yeah, she was a front runner in many pop culture movements, and I guess you could credit her with the empowerment of today's female singers (if you consider that something admirable) but in the end, it's just the music coming out of the speakers that matters most. And I'd rather listen to something else, thanks anyway.