FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Three: Madonna




Female Icons

IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna  

Part Three: Madonna


THIS is going to be a bit briefer than...

 PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna  

a lot of my Madonna-related posts but, when thinking about female icons through the ages, can we ignore her?! She is due to perform at Eurovision tonight and there is a lot of talk regarding what she will deliver – as this reports suggests. There was controversy and condemnation as Madonna is performing in Israel: a nation divided and blighted by political tensions and divide. She has come out and stated she is heartbroken regarding the situation in Israel but, as some articles claim, her appearance and presence there tonight will do nothing to further progress and improvement. I actual back Madonna and do not think she is sending a bad message out at all: in fact, the worst you can say is she will offend some people. Her being in Israel will make matters no worse and she is there to deliver music to people. Let us leave this aside - but I think Madonna’s latest move shows she is still bold and splitting opinion after all of these years! My first encounter with Madonna’s music must have been, oooh, about 1989/1990 or so. That was when she released the career-defining album, Like a Prayer. The album garnered a lot of talk regarding the title track and its rather edgy video. Not only Madonna kiss a black preacher but she appeared behind burning crosses.

Naturally, religious sorts and those who raised their eyebrows missed the point and misconstrued the video entirely! The album itself is a bold and astonishing work from an artist who transitioned to become the Queen of Pop. This is a crown she holds still and, despite being sixty and younger rivals circling her throne, there is nobody who can replace Madonna! I love Like a Prayer and feel it is one of the best albums of her career. There is a definite an upping of accomplishment and scope on Like a Prayer when you consider what she was producing three years earlier for True Blue. In fact, despite tremendous songs like Like a Prayer, Express Yourself and Cherish, this is not the album that first struck me….

It was the video for Material Girl, actually, that was the first taste. Maybe the song is a bit camp and frothy compared to the work she would go on to release but, when she released Like a Virgin in 1984 – where the song was taken from –, it definitely separated her from the pack. If her eponymous debut album of 1983 was a little overlooked and seen as a minor footnote – it is actually one of the most ground-breaking and important albums in Pop – Like a Virgin was a step up. I love the video for Material Girl because of the scenes and the glamour. As a straight boy, maybe the song did not affect me the same way as other people but I was hooked by this very confident and sexy artist. Maybe it would take a few more years before Madonna was able assume more business and creative guidance over her career but one could tell, back in 1984, she knew where she wanted to head and what she wanted to accomplish!

Some people think Madonna’s pre-Like a Prayer work is a little light and lacks that punch. Think about it this way: she was talking about sex in a very open way before then and doing things other artists were not: the way she tackled sex and (was encouraging women to show their confidence. Every Madonna album brought evolution and a new skin. I love the work she did post-Like a Prayer and, after the troubled Erotica, there was a definite shift. That album was marred with some critical backlash because of its overt sexuality and the fact Madonna, in the guise of ‘Mistress Dtta’, was daubed in sweat, leather and the look of someone who was not afraid to hold back. The same year, 1992, she released her Sex book and made it clear that she wanted to bring sexual confidence into the open. Erotica is wrongly written off as a cold and overly-provocative album whereas it actually inspired Pop artists to be bolder regarding their bodies and sex; the songs stand up and it was a huge revelation back in 1992. The album sounds great but one heard a more mature tone on 1994’s Bedtime Stories – even if a song such as Human Nature poked fun at prudes who judged Madonna for talking about sex. The elegance and simple beauty of songs like Take a Bow and Secret showed Madonna could write gorgeous, swooning songs that captured the heart as well as the genitals!

IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna captured in 1982/ PHOTO CREDIT: Deborah Feingold

One can see a definite development from 1983-1989 (where albums such as True Blue, in 1986, marked her as a name to watch) and what happened from the 1990s onwards. I have ended this feature with a playlist and I hope people seek out Madonna’s albums and realise what a chameleon she is! I just mentioned True Blue and that is an album that I rank among my favourites – check it out if you can! Bedtime Stories was a turning point and statement that showed Madonna was not all about sex and was a very accomplished songwriter. One of the things that defines Madonna is the fact she can overcome criticism and trusts her gut. She could have quit or slowed down after Erotica but, only two years on, she delivered Bedtime Stories. Of course, a sense of controversy was part of Madonna’s camp since the start of her career. She talked about young pregnancy on True Blue’s Papa Don’t Preach and, whilst not controversial to right-minded people, she celebrated the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community and brought the AIDS epidemic to the forefront. Not only was Madonna breaking ground regarding innovation in music but she was more than an artist: she was, and is still, a spokesperson who rallies against injustice and gives a voice to those who are ignored. I will return to her sense of social justice and activation, but think about the way Madonna transformed and grew from 1983 to 1998’s Ray of Light.

Early on, she was reinventing Pop and shining but she soon came on leaps and bounds. 1986’s True Blue was a big step in terms of lyrical themes and that continued into 1989 – where her voice grew and she became a more confident singer. Bedtime Stories introduced a more sensitive side to Madonna and, tracking back to 1992’s Erotica, she was putting House and Dance elements into her mix. Think about perhaps her most-famous song, Vogue, and the combination of sonic innovation and putting gay culture into the spotlight. Every album, whether openly talking about sex or venturing into different territory, has inspired artists and has its own legacy. The current crop of Pop artists owe a lot to Madonna and, since her introduction into music, you can hear others emulating her and taking something from her music.

If one wants to talk about sonic explosions than look at 1998’s Ray of Light. She was a new mother and spirituality was playing a big role in her music – her mysticism and beliefs divided some and caused a lot of press sources to mock her. Again, Madonna was being herself and giving her music another new side. One can hear some of the energised and youthful Madonna in Ray of Light and the more serious muse in Frozen; with William Orbit producing, there was new layer added to her sound. Stunning songs like The Power of Good-Bye and Nothing Really Matters rank alongside the best work she has ever produced – fifteen years on from her debut album, the Queen of Pop was not willing to crank down the quality! It is amazing to think of the sheer leap Madonna took on Ray of Light and how she embraced music of the time and helped bring Electronic sounds to the mainstream - always the pioneer and innovator!

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna is snapped by Peggy Sirota for Rolling Stone in 1997

From then, there was the underrated Music (2000): Madonna as the cowgirl and giving a bit of Country kick to her Electronic/Pop template. When she got political on 2003’s American Life, there was a sense that the anger she felt – inspired by the terrorists attacks in America in 2001 and how the nation was falling apart – was insincere and unusual; some critics were not buying it and it was the first album of hers that really received mixed reviews. There are some great songs on the album (such as Love Profusion) but, in typical style, she reinvented herself again with Confessions on a Dance Floor in 2005. Bringing herself back to the Disco, Hung Up (with a famous ABBA sample to boot) got her back in the critical good books. It showed that, at nearing fifty, there was nobody like her in music. Many artists her age feel the need to slow or make music that is more ‘appropriate’ – this usually involves calming things and providing something a bit easier on the ears. Madonna, even now, is providing sensational raw and contemporary music. Her albums since 2005 have not received the biggest reaction, though. There has been some praise and great moments but the upcoming Madame X (out on 14th June) looks like it will be a return-to-form release. Although she has hooked up with other singers, the songs we have heard so far show Madonna is still the star! Like she did on Erotica, there is a personna on the new album.

Her Madame X alter ego is an all-rounder who is a teacher, a spy and a writer: a bit of a superhero for everyone. It is another assured transformation and sign that, at sixty, Madonna still has the power to surprise and subvert predictions. In fact, Madonna has been vocal about ageism in music and asked for change. She and other artists are often relegated and ignored when they reach a certain age and she wants this to stop. Even though a couple of her recent singles have been played by the likes of BBC Radio 1, many stations do not play her music because they only go for younger artists – although the quality is up there, age is still this sticking factor! I have skimmed through her back catalogue but I would urge people to look at her music videos and get books like Madonna: An Intimate Biography of an Icon at Sixty, Madonna: Album by Album and Madonna: Like an Icon to get a clearer impression of where Madonna came from and how her career has evolved. What else makes Madonna an icon, then? I have covered her music and, whilst her videos are always inventive and arresting, it is her live shows that have captivated fans.

She always puts her all into every live performance and tour and you know she has a say in every aspect. From the dancers and sets through to routines and lightning, you know Madonna does not leave anything to chance. There are documentaries such as this that give you access to her behind-the-scenes and actual footage of her performing – including this from her Blond Ambition Tour of 1990. I urge people to do as much YouTube research as they can regarding her tours, videos and interviews because you get different sides to Madonna and it paints a complete picture. Her Madame X Tour will be a more intimate affair but you know there will be some great sets and some classic songs delivered to the fans. Madonna is one of those people who is a complete artist. She is this awesome live performer and artist but, whether battling sexism or being honoured by GLADD and talking about equal rights, she is a leader and someone who is inspired the next generation. Who knows what the future holds for Madonna but I hope there are many more years from her. Madonna and The Breakfast Club has been released and is a docu-drama about Madonna. I am not sure whether there will be a biopic or other documentaries but one feels something is due considering all the work Madonna has done since the documentaries of the 1990s and last decade.

Everyone has their own opinions regarding the best Madonna albums, songs and videos. In my view, her best three albums are Ray of Light, Like a Prayer and Madonna and I think her greatest song is Take a Bow. I have a fond spot for the Material Girl video but cannot overlook the iconic status of Vogue. That is the great thing about an artist like Madonna: with such an eclectic and impressive catalogue, there are so many fantastic moments and revolutionary moments. She is a deserved icon and someone who not only has transformed music and inspired countless artists but Madonna has, and always will, spoken about big themes other artists ignore. Whether that is equal rights and gender equality or musical subjects like sex and pregnancy, you cannot ignore the brilliance and boldness of Madonna. She will always divide people and have her critics but Madonna has given the world so much - and we all have our favourite songs of hers. I have not even mentioned all her film roles and how she has managed to make her impression on the screen - from 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan to 1992’s A League of Their Own to her standout (eponymous) role in 1996’s Evita. Madonna was capable of seducing and illuminating on the big screen as well as through the speakers.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 1986/PHOTO CREDIT: Herb Ritts

Long may she continue to speak out, speak up and bring the world great music! A few songs from Madame X have been released but it will be interesting receiving the album and seeing what sort of direction she is taking. I shall leave people to check out her music and great interviews – such as this one and this. One can argue Madonna is busier now than she has ever been and, with her, things are never boring! Pop has changed a lot since the 1980s but many can thank Madonna for a lot of the positive changes and great artists who have arrived since her. I have been a fan of hers since I was young and seen the way her music has changed and diversified. She is this ever-changing and always-relevant artist who cannot be predicted or equalled. When it comes to Madonna and what direction she will take next it is clear that…

NOTHING is off the table.