The Popdose Guide to Madonna: Part 3

Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel conclude their look at Madonna’s career by discussing the odds and ends of her discography and their favorite Madonna videos.

For the final installment of the Popdose Guide to Madonna, Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel discuss a potpourri of “other” works in Madonna’s catalogue, including soundtrack work, remix albums and greatest hits collections. Robin Monica and Kelly also recap their seven favorite Madonna videos for your enjoyment.

Who’s That Girl? (1987)

After making her mark on the pop music world, Madonna set her sights on becoming a movie star. Her performance in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) had garnered her some positive critical response and helped to spark a further interest in acting. However, her next film, Shanghai Surprise (1986), in which she co-starred with then-husband Sean Penn, was a critical and commercial failure. But that didn’t stop Madge from trying again and in 1987, she starred in the romantic comedy Who’s That Girl? with Griffin Dunne.

Originally titled Slammer, Who’s That Girl? is about a woman named Nikki Finn (Madonna) who, after being released from prison for murdering her boyfriend, a crime she insists she did not commit, decides she must clear her name before returning to her hometown of Philadelphia. Lawyer Loudon Trott (Dunne) is assigned the task of ensuring that Nikki gets to the bus station on time as part of a community outreach project his wealthy, soon-to-be father-in-law runs. However, Nikki’s determination to prove that she did not commit murder takes over and the two soon find themselves traipsing all over New York City encountering a host of undesirable characters and getting into a variety of sticky situations.

After the failure of Shanghai Surprise, it took some convincing for Warner Bros. to take another chance on Madonna as an actress. They eventually green lighted the project, but Who’s That Girl? wound up being another flop, though many reviews applauded Dunne’s performance and Madonna’s comic timing. The film’s soundtrack, however — as well as the tour sharing its name that Madonna embarked upon to promote it — were huge successes.

Of the nine songs on the Who’s That Girl? soundtrack, only four are by Madonna; despite this, the album is considered to be one of her releases. Of those four songs, three were released as singles: “Who’s That Girl,” “Causing a Commotion” and “The Look of Love,” the latter of which was Europe-only release. “Who’s That Girl,” a mid-tempo track that draws upon Spanish influences, much like “La Isla Bonita,” went on to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her sixth single to do so during that decade. “Causing a Commotion,” a classic Madonna dance track inspired by her rocky relationship with Penn, peaked at number two, though it is arguably the better song. “The Look of Love,” a haunting ballad very reminiscent of “Live to Tell,” did well on the European charts, reaching the top ten in the UK. The fourth Madonna song, “Can’t Stop,” is an upbeat, ‘60s girl group-inspired number.

The non-Madonna tracks are contributed by artists who, at the time, were on the same label as Madonna, including Club Nouveau, Scritti Politti, Coati Mundi (who also co-stars in the film as a gangster) and Duncan Faure. Michael Davidson’s “Turn It Up” was released as a promotional single and made it to number 15 on the dance charts. Most of the songs are fun dance-pop tracks, but nothing to write home about.

You Can Dance (1987)

Madonna’s first compilation album, You Can Dance is curious in that it eschews her biggest hits (up to that point) and puts the focus on songs that missed the Top 10 and, in some cases, weren’t even released as singles. It strings together one original track, “Spotlight,” and six remixes for what is essentially a non-stop party album. At the time, remixes were not yet de rigueur in the music industry, but Madonna’s material was a natural fit for this novel trend, and provided golden opportunities for that new cultural hybrid, the DJ-cum-producer, represented on You Can Dance by John “Jellybean” Benitez, retooling his own work on “Holiday,” and Shep Pettibone, who transforms “Into the Groove” from a fun dance tune into a minor pop masterpiece. Once again, Madonna was not looking for the next big thing in the music world; she was creating it.

I’m Breathless (1990)

This bizarre album is comprised of songs “from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy,” in which Madonna co-starred as gangster’s moll Breathless Mahoney. Half a soundtrack and half a concept record, its sound is “1930’s big band” meets “way too many keyboards.” However, we’ll always be thankful for its existence, as it includes (almost as an afterthought) the game-changing single “Vogue.” For more on our analysis of the record, check out what we wrote about it in last year’s “Popdose Flashback” series.

The Immaculate Collection (1990)

And in the ninth year of her recording career, the holy mother of dance-pop released her first greatest-hits album. For casual fans, it’s a sweet package, including fifteen of her most popular and mainstream tracks. We know what you’re thinking: there’s such a thing as a non-mainstream Madonna track? Perhaps not, but when someone has so many hit records, even songs that were highly successful (examples: “Dress You Up,” “True Blue,” “Who’s That Girl”) sometimes don’t make the cut (at least on the US version; an additional, accompanying EP was released in the UK, where Madonna had three times scored Top 10 hits with singles that did nothing in America). In the days before iTunes, when the only way most people could put their favorite songs by their favorite singer together was with a double tape deck, even folks who already owned most or all of Madonna’s albums had a reason to buy the Collection. The set was mixed afresh by Shep Pettibone, and concluded with two new singles. “Justify My Love,” co-written by Lenny Kravitz and accompanied by a racy video even MTV wouldn’t play, went to number one; along with “Rescue Me” (which also went Top 10), it provided fans with a preview of Madonna’s new musical and thematic direction: cold, atmospheric, preoccupied with S&M and other forms of sexual power play. The Immaculate Collection marked yet another major transition in Madonna’s career, making it impossible even for the most anti-pop constituencies to ignore her. It remains her best-selling release ever, with worldwide sales of over 30 million copies.

Something to Remember (1995)

Madonna’s next compilation album was a collection of her greatest ballads and was strategically released to continue the softening of her image that began with Bedtime Stories; it was also a primer of sorts to get her fans ready for her performance in Evita. It includes a mix of album and soundtrack songs, as well as three new tracks: a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” which features trip-hop outfit Massive Attack; and two tracks co-written with David Foster — “You’ll See,” considered by many as the sequel to “Take a Bow” (especially since its video continues the storyline of the bullfighter romance begun in the “Take a Bow” video) and “One More Chance,” which is, frankly, one of the most boring songs she’s ever released. The rest of the tracklisting includes hit ballads from her previous albums, such as “Live to Tell,” “Rain,” “Take a Bow,” “Oh Father,” and a remixed version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” It also includes several songs that had only previously been released on film soundtracks: “Crazy for You” (from Vision Quest; though a remixed version had been released on The Immaculate Collection, this is the original mix that appeared on the film soundtrack), “This Used to Be My Playground” (from A League of Their Own) and  “I’ll Remember” (from With Honors). This was the last album Madonna would release on Sire Records.

Evita (1996)

Madonna’s voice had been developing and maturing all through her career, but the effect of her vocal training for the challenging music of Evita is evident in her performances of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “You Must Love Me” (penned specifically for the film version). Just listen to that vibrato! It’s all very respectable; however, if you’ve ever heard a legitimate musical theater star (like, say, Patti LuPone) tackling the role of Eva Perón, it’s hard to really love Madonna’s version, at least from a musical standpoint. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs have been transposed to lower keys to accommodate the pop star’s more modest range, and, in at least one case, a number belonging to another character has been reassigned to Eva. (For the record, co-star Antonio Banderas isn’t exactly a songbird either, even though he would go on to appear on Broadway some years later.) None of this is particularly shocking or offensive; indeed, it’s par for the course in movie adaptations of musicals. However, the best way to experience Madonna’s Evita is probably by watching the film, not listening to the album. (Luckily for Madonna, most people have no idea who Patti LuPone is, so unburdened by that knowledge, they sent the soundtrack to number two on the US albums chart.)

GHV2 (2001)

Released on the 11th anniversary of her last greatest hits album, GHV2 picks up where The Immaculate Collection left off and represents her output from Erotica through Music. Unlike her previous compilation albums, GHV2 does not feature any new material and several of the songs on the album are slightly shorter or edited versions of the original album tracks. In addition to the commercial release, which coincided with that of the Drowned World Tour live DVD, a promo-only remix version of GHV2 was also released, titled GHV2 Remixed: The Best of 1991-2001. Maverick also put out a promotional megamix, the most common version heard on the radio being “GHV2 Megamix (Thunderpuss Original Version).” Interestingly, the megamix was a hit on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, reaching #5. There is also a megamix video that features images of Madonna and clips from videos of songs represented on GHV2.

Remixed & Revisited (2003) To celebrate 20 years in the music industry, and commemorate the release of her first album, Madonna had originally planned to release a boxed set (surely it would have been massive). However, those plans were scrapped and instead, Remixed & Revisited was released. I think all Madonna fans can agree that we got the very, very short end of the stick in that deal. Remixed & Revisited consisted of remixes of four songs from American Life — “Nothing Fails,” “Nobody Knows Me,” “Love Profusion” and “American Life” — which were somewhat better than the album versions, but not terribly good remixes on the whole. It also contained a mash-up of “Into the Groove” and “Hollywood,” created by The Passengerz and featuring Missy Elliott, called (duh) “Into the Hollywood Groove,” a song probably best known to anyone alive that year as one used in ads for the Gap. It also contained the craptastic live version of “Like a Virgin” performed at the VMAs that year with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The one shining light on this otherwise unnecessary EP is the unreleased Bedtime Stories-era track, “Your Honesty.” Released separately, and as a bonus with American Life in France, Remixed & Revisited had the potential to be awesome, had it contained the right material. However, as is, it is probably the dumbest thing Madonna has ever released.

Celebration (2009)

For her last hurrah with Warner Brothers, which had been her home since her career began, Madonna put out yet another greatest hits album. Featuring hits that spanned her entire career, rather than just portions of it, Celebration is the most comprehensive compilation she’s released to date. Unlike her last greatest hits album, GHV2, Celebration also contains new material: “Celebration,” “Revolver,” which features Lil Wayne and, on the iTunes Deluxe version, “It’s So Cool.” “Celebration,” which was co-written by Paul Oakenfold, was released as the first single, but only made it to 71 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two versions of a music video were filmed to support the song, one of which featured several fans, as well as Madonna’s teenage daughter, Lourdes, dressed in a version of the bridal getup Madonna wore for her infamous MTV VMA performance way back in ’84. “Revolver” was released as the second single and it reached number four on the Billboard Dance chart. In addition to the album, a DVD called Celebration: The Video Collection was also released.

And now it’s time for the videos! A comprehensive look at Madonna’s video work would have been, to put it mildly, long. Perhaps another day. However, it seemed insane to discuss her career without getting into the visuals, so we tried to come up with a Top Five. That turned into a Top Seven. Don’t judge: even cutting it down this far was really hard. (And we cheated yet again by adding an “Honorable Mentions” at the end.) We realize that this will probably cause more offense than anything we wrote about the actual music…so have at it! That’s what the comments section is for.

“Borderline” was the first Madonna video seen by a significant number of people, introducing the record-buying public to her crazy, arty white girl persona. It begins with the singer dancing in the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, where Madonna actually lived, and which was not yet the hip, gentrified neighborhood it would ultimately become. She is instantly adorable, cavorting with abandon as neighborhood kids join in. Director Mary Lambert, who would go on to collaborate with Madonna on several videos, manages to create a coherent story in five brief minutes, in which the carefree street girl is torn between a career as a fashion model and her relationship with her hunky Puerto Rican boyfriend. Some folks have interpreted the end of the video as Madonna’s “rejection” of the high life (and the photographer who discovered her) and “return” to her man, but in actuality, the conclusion is much less, well, conclusive. It looks to us as if the budding star manages to have her cake and eat it too, on her own terms — making “Borderline” not merely charming, but prescient.

The video for “Material Girl” continued the theme of having it both ways, portraying Madonna as both a glamorous Hollywood starlet and a down-to-earth chick bored to tears with shallow guys trying to buy her affection. Stage and screen actor Keith Carradine co-stars in the clip (directed, again, by Mary Lambert) as an industry type determined to woo our heroine, who is remaking (?) Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After finally figuring out that Madonna would much rather date a regular guy than a power player (continuing the theme introduced in “Borderline”), Carradine scores by offering her a bouquet of daisies and taking her out in a busted-down truck. The final irony, of course, is that his “ordinariness” is as much a performance as her Monroe homage.

Mary Lambert scored again with “Like a Prayer,” a.k.a. “Madonna and Black Jesus.” Okay, technically the black guy is a saint, not Jesus, but that distinction was no doubt lost on millions of non-Catholics. The video also includes a very Italian-looking Madonna (with dark, curly hair), dancing in a tight, low-cut dress in a field filled with burning crosses. One or two of her previous clips had drawn objections from certain constituencies, but this one really got people pissed. The “controversial” story follows Madonna as she fights to keep a black man from being wrongly charged with a murder; visual and thematic parallels are made between people of color and Christian martyrs, and the taboo of interracial sex is evoked as La Ciccone smooches her African-American co-star. Like most of Madonna’s best videos, “Like a Prayer” adds a layer of commentary to the song, rather than just following the lyrics. Not sure what’s up with that ending, though: after bringing in a giant gospel choir, Lambert closes the show by having all the performers take a curtain call, then dropping an actual curtain. What the…? Perhaps it was a winking attempt to keep people from taking the whole thing too seriously: “Hey folks, it’s just a video!” No dice — “Like a Prayer” lost Madonna a lucrative commercial contract with Pepsi.

The years of 1989 and 1990 were pretty good ones for David Fincher. At the Video Music Awards in 1990, three of the four nominations for best direction went to him. Two of the nominated videos starred Madonna. The first, “Express Yourself,” broke the bank at a staggering cost of $5 million, the most expensive video ever produced at the time. It was worth every penny. Taking its visual cues from the silent film classic Metropolis, it contains several of the most iconic images of Madonna ever created, including the “Sex Slave” chained by the neck to a bed, the “Cat Lady” crawling under a table to lap up a bowl of milk, and, of course, the “Dark Blue Suit with Monocle.” The last, a thirty second performance wherein Madonna repeatedly flashes her bra while striking uber-manly poses and, finally, grabs her own crotch and points directly at the camera, introduced an entire generation of young people to the concept of “genderfuck.” The video expands the message of the song — “Women, claim your power in relationships!” — to something more pointedly erotic, suggesting that the desire of a powerful woman can literally set the world free. Damn, Madonna.

Despite the grandiosity of Fincher’s vision, “Express Yourself” didn’t win the VMA for best direction. “Vogue” did. Another homage to great cinema, this black-and-white video focuses on golden-age Hollywood rather than German expressionism. It eschews story (if “Express Yourself” can be said to have had a story) for atmosphere, mashing up as many references to stars of old as possible, connecting those images to those throughout the history of art, then shaking things up with sudden intrusions of (post-) modernity, such as the ever-so-cheeky Gaultier cone bra (an extreme redesign of the pointy brassieres of the 1950s). “Vogue” was also the first Madonna video to put homosexuality front and center: the dance style from which the record took its inspiration had been a part of urban gay culture for decades before Madonna sang about it, and, appropriately, her backup dancers (virtually all gay men) were prominently featured in the clip. Not that the video includes any overt sexual activity (though that was on its way, in “Justify My Love,” released later the same year); however, it celebrates the fluid, camp aspect of queer identity joyously. If Madonna’s gay fan base had any doubts about whether she was truly worthy of their loyalty, “Vogue” silenced them.

Madonna has always been known for provocative imagery in her videos. Though she had softened her image after the birth of her daughter, she didn’t shy away from stirring up a little controversy here and there. Though the rest of the videos from Ray of Light had relied more on artistic imagery, the Matthew Rolston-directed video for “The Power of Goodbye” is probably the most interesting — and powerful (no pun intended) — in terms of storyline. Strikingly shot in blue tones, it features a stunning, dark-haired Madonna playing chess with her lover, ER hottie Goran Višnjić, reminiscent of the chess scene in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). The chess game is filled with tension, which is eventually broken when Madonna’s character angrily clears the board. Her lover grabs her and after a moment of intense staring, the two kiss passionately, followed by her shoving him away. Distraught, she goes outside to the beach, kicks off her shoes and then…does she drown herself, a la Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946), only to be seen a moment later on the beach, happy and content (as a ghost, perhaps)? It’s unclear what exactly happens, though the consensus seems to be that she does, in fact, kill herself. Regardless, it is one of the sexiest, most gorgeous videos Madonna has ever released.

Just when you thought Madonna’s days of video greatness were behind her, here comes a doozy. Like “Justify My Love,” the video for “What It Feels Like for a Girl” was too…something or other for MTV and VH1, which each broadcast it exactly once. Luckily, most people had stopped turning to those stations for videos anyway, and watched it online. Some viewers were turned off by the violence of Madonna’s badass character, who wreaks all manner of mayhem on people and property throughout; others were just clueless as to what the story was supposed to be about. Why’s Madonna putting on body armor? Who’s the old lady she picks up from the nursing home and takes out for milkshakes? Why does she shoot those cops in the face with a water gun? And why, in the final moments, does she steal a car and promptly wrap it around a pole? The negative reactions, ranging from obtuse to flat-out condescending, ironically underscored the very message Madonna was trying to convey in the song (a techno remix was used for the video, directed by Guy Ritchie). At once disturbing and hilarious, “What It Feels Like for a Girl” might make one wish Madonna had been born sixty years earlier than she was and had been a silent film actress: when she winks at the Latino gangbangers in the next car over, or gives some suspicious policemen a “Yes, officer?” look from under her platinum blonde bangs, she almost redeems her bad movie acting…almost. Once more, she challenges our conception of gender roles, except this time, she’s not offering (or declining) to fuck you…she’s threatening to kick your ass.

Honorable Mention Moments: Dancing on a gondola in “Like a Virgin,” confronting dad Danny Aiello in “Papa Don’t Preach,” shaking it at the peep show in “Open Your Heart,” pretending not to be freezing cold in “Cherish,” mourning her mother in “Oh Father,” fellating a soda bottle and annoying Warren Beatty in Truth or Dare, ascending to heaven with Christopher Walken in “Bad Girl,” giving in to serious jungle fever in “Secret,” making love to a matador and a TV set in “Take a Bow,” giving birth to a flock of doves in “Bedtime Story,” shapeshifting in “Frozen,” dancing with the whole world in “Ray of Light,” hanging out with Ali G in “Music,” and rocking feathered hair and a leotard in “Hung Up.”

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