Like a Virgin
I received a reader request from Rebecca Nahid to review Madonna, and it was followed up by this inexplicable (to my American ears) comment: “Cool any Madge album is a winner. For comedy value why not slag off Geri Halliwell she is a right ginger minger!” I didn’t know her nickname was Madge! Anyway, to tackle last things first, allow me to address Geri Halliwell. As a singer, she’s not much, but in the field for which she became famous looking busty in a tight dress she’s been all that one could hope.
Anyway, on to Madonna, who has also succeeded in Halliwell’s chosen field. When I was a teenager I had a huge obsession with this album I would go into the record store every week and contemplate purchasing it. I wasn’t particularly interested in the music, but the album cover was fascinating (to truly understand this, remember that the picture was 12 inches wide back then). I never did buy it, though, because I didn’t think my parents would let it in the house.
So, imagine my surprise when I got married and discovered the disc in my wife’s collection. It’s not that she’s particularly liberal about the graphic arts, it’s just that she digs Madonna’s tunes (for example, I don’t think she’d want to keep a bunch of Dwarves albums around the house.) For my 30 year old self, and in the puny CD format, the album cover no longer has the strange magnetism it once did, so I guess I’ll just have the judge the album on its musical merits.
Older folks used to say Madonna was a thimbleful of talent in a cupful of hype, and I’d say, “No, you’re wrong, she’s a really good singer.” We were both right she is a good singer now, after 20 years in the business, but she wasn’t such a good singer when she started out, and Like a Virgin was the first time she really got noticed by people who weren’t particularly interested in Top 40 music. So, Aunt Marge, all is forgiven.
A lot of the blame for her weak vocals on the album belongs to producer Nile Rodgers, though. On her first album, Madonna’s delivery, while not outstanding, had a lot of integrity, keeping in her lower register to avoid the Betty Boop effect. Second time around, Rodgers gives her lots of high notes so she comes across rather squeaky and juvenile.
The songs, though, are typically high-quality material. I don’t think I’m putting it too strongly when I say that “Material Girl” not only captured, but helped shape, the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, and “Dress You Up” is simply joyous in its “all over, all over” harmonies. Madonna’s own compositions don’t have the depth of her later work, but she shows a strong sense of a hook and never lets up on the groove.
Madonna has always made a point of staying one step ahead of the charts in bringing innovative dance grooves to the masses, which can make some of her music sound dated. However, Like a Virgin has the least contemporary-sounding production it uses real instruments for the most part and so it still sounds great.
I can’t say this is a terrific album Madonna’s voice hasn’t matured (her take on “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” sounds like karaoke night) and many of the tunes are slight but danceable. But I can say that buying the vinyl edition for your teenage nephew may be the best gift you’ll ever give him.
Something to Remember
Madonna has certainly grown in her talents, as a songwriter and a singer, since she’s been in show business, and this collection of her ballads is an impressive testament to her evolution. The few early numbers are shockingly weak compared to her more recent performances, which are sometimes breathtakingly good.
The standout is the orchestral version of “I Want You” that closes the album. With minimal backing, and no beat at all, she invests the lyrics with a melancholy that undercuts the literal meaning of the words, and her restraint during the climatic end of the bridge shows just how much breath control she has. Other highlights include, “Oh, Father”, with a strong delivery of the pianissimo line “what a child will believe” (it never gets breathy but instead rivets the listener), and “Take a Bow” which rides a stately accompaniment and features a lovely downward arc on “part where you’re breaking my heart.”
Her earlier works don’t come across as well. “Live to Tell” is a fantastic composition, with its spooky keyboards and rattling guitar creating an atmosphere of suspicion, but the Madonna of 1996 would put a lot more emotion into the delivery than the Madonna of 1986 could. “Crazy for You” manages to overcome its terrible 80’s production (although the oboe is a nice tribute to songwriter John Bettis, who also wrote many of the Carpenters’ hits) with Madonna’s deep, sexy delivery of the title, but she still sounds a little lost on the verses.
What’s most impressive about this collection, though, is that Madonna, whose reputation was made as a dance-pop diva, can write and sing such convincing ballads. Aside from her collaborations with famous hack David Foster (the man behind Chicago’s and Natalie Cole’s most egregious moments), almost every tune here works on several levels, with excellent production and exquisite singing, lyrics that are never trite, and most powerfully, a deep psychological connection. Madonna often taps into something that’s not exactly evident from reading the lyrics, but when coupled with her singing, brings a chill of recognition as long-buried emotions are evoked, either from childhood slights or love gone bad.
One can’t simply play a Madonna record for kicks anymore it’s an intense listening experience. And that says a lot of about how far she’s come since “Lucky Star.”
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