When I set out to chronicle the musical offerings of America’s supermarkets, pharmacies and other not-quite-cutout bins in this column, I expected to find a lot of silly junk or wildly overstocked albums. I did not expect to find a trio of albums from one of the most successful pop performers of the 20th century, which collectively sold more than 22 million units over the course of 28 years. And yet here I am, with a grocery store receipt for Madonna’s first three LPs. Did I miss something?
Sure, Madonna’s career has been relatively quiet in the past few years – I couldn’t warm up to anything she put out after the theme to the worst James Bond film ever, and her supposedly-groundbreaking, all-encompassing deal with Live Nation has yet to bear much fruit on the recorded front – but I guess I missed the part where Madonna (1983), Like a Virgin (1984) and True Blue (1986) were destined for discount status. It happens, I guess. People move on to new idols, who have new influences to draw from and new trends to set. And that new generation…
Wait, what? Well, shit.
Of course Madonna Louise Ciccone’s spirit lives on through one Stefani Germanotta, best known as Lady Gaga, who recently did the near-impossible (in this broken industry, at least) by selling more than 1 million copies of her sophomore album Born This Way in its first week. It’s become the mantra of lazy journalists to succinctly lump Gaga and Madonna in the same category: blonde, ambitious, Italian, highly sexualized, stars of Dick Tracy. (Alright, I made one of those up.) But Gaga clearly draws from a wide palette of musical mavericks; a few spins through Born This Way yield shades of not only Madonna but Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Def Leppard, Bruce Springsteen, CHIC, Cher and others.
But like Madonna, Gaga is a city-dwelling club kid with an outsize career for someone so young (she’s about a year and change older than me; what am I doing with my life?). So while Madonna is clearly not Gaga’s only influence, it’s worth looking at those early albums of Madonna’s and think about their impact on her career.
The early years of both Madonna and Lady Gaga are strikingly similar in their formation: before earning record deals, both singers were dabbling in genres wildly different to what they would become famous for. Madonna drummed in a hard-edged New Wave band, The Breakfast Club, while Gaga was a student at NYU with an armload of Alicia Keys-esque piano ballads. Within a few years, both of them would lock onto a future-forward electronic dance sound – and in both cases, each debut album – Madonna (1983) and The Fame (2009) – would be a work in progress where their distinctive sound was concerned.
Madonna’s debut, released weeks before her 25th birthday, is somehow both breezy and brittle. The album’s eight tracks, five of which Madge co-wrote, are full of the kind of upbeat, sugary, innocent-with-a-dash-of-risque vibes you want out of your ‘80s dance-pop. But caked in their CHIC-lite production techniques – heavy on the chunky Linn beats and Oberheim synths – they’re only a hint of what’s to come. That said, there are some treasures on Madonna. Singles like “Holiday,” “Lucky Star” and particularly “Borderline” and the underrated “Burning Up” are interesting listens in the context of the original album; radio programming and subsequent Madonna compilations (particularly 1990’s The Immaculate Collection) toyed around with the mixing and editing of some of these tracks, so hearing them here is bound to be a surprise.
Much like Gaga’s sophomore effort, the sort-of-EP The Fame Monster (2009), smartly expanded on what she was capable of, 1984’s Like a Virgin was a watershed in Madonna-dom. Take away the promo clips on MTV and the stage-humping performance at the network’s inaugural Video Music Awards and you still have another solid record, thanks in no small part to Madonna’s trading up, production-wise. Whereas she had a semi-CHIC sound with producer Reggie Lucas on Madonna, Virgin benefitted from knob-twiddling by Nile Rodgers himself, and enviable rhythm section Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson join Rodgers on guitar as the house band for two-thirds of the record.
While one can make an argument for Like a Virgin as an expansion of her talents – she certainly delivers more, vocally speaking, than Time’s initial dismissal of her as “Minnie Mouse on helium” – the real victory lies in the singer’s ability to collaborate with the right people. In addition to the CHIC brain trust, Virgin benefitted from saxophone work by Lenny Pickett and both songwriting and production assistance by Stephen Bray (Madonna’s replacement in The Breakfast Club and longtime collaborator throughout the decade), not to mention two of the most ubiquitous tunesmiths of the ‘80s – Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly – behind the throbbing title track. That’s a hidden talent for both Madonna and Gaga alike; while the likes of Steve Bray and Patrick Leonard or RedOne and Fernando Garibay will never have the massive name recognition Madonna or Lady Gaga enjoy, both artists’ trust in their producers’ ability to provide quality rather than star power is a massive credit to each of them.
But the Madonna-Gaga comparison starts to veer around this point. While Born This Way is a spectacle from front to back, spinning the performer into the center of a high-concept universe of the individualistic, Madonna’s True Blue (1986) is – dare I say it? – far subtler. Sure, controversy is courted with the young-love, bass-popping drama of “Papa Don’t Preach,” but that’s as edgy as it gets. Madonna isn’t in love with Judas, but more curious as to where the party is; her heaven isn’t on the edge of glory but shimmying on the coast of “La Isla Bonita.”
It of course remains to be seen if Gaga will parlay her influence into a Like a Prayer moment, where she can rein in all of her excesses and create one great, singular, personal work of art. But as it was with Madonna more than 25 years ago, it’ll probably be fun enough seeing her try – even if we’ll end up saying, “Madonna did it first.”