I realized just shortly after listening to Madonna’s Rebel Heart that I no longer truly enjoyed her new music. It was a slow and eventual process that started after Ray of Light. The more I listen to Madonna now, the more I reminisce over the Madonna of old, the one that defined trends for a generation of teens. The one that forged a new musical genre all of her own. She also was the one female to assume her part in the holy trinity of ’80s pop (with Prince and Michael Jackson).
The streak of innovation was part of a much longer run that was the envy of just about everyone outside of Michael Jackson or Prince could have hoped for. While her debut with “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” were nice dance club hits, she really came into her own with 1984’s Like a Virgin. It was the second CD I ever purchased and likely would have worn out my Akai player if I was not so busy discovering old “new music” at the time.
That album refined her image and sound thanks to Nile Rodgers, who was at the top of his game as a producer. Often acknowledged as the album that made him one of the decade’s most sought after producers, Like a Virgin continued the legacy of dance music from Madonna that went even further beyond the TVs and bedrooms of suburban America.
“Material Girl”, one of the first singles clearly established Madonna’s manifesto for the materialistic ’80s. But it would be the title track along with its provocative video and inaugural MTV Music Awards performance that defined the Mad Max meets West Side Story fashion statement Madonna created. Shortly after the video aired, girls everywhere (and quite a few boys too) were looking like thrift store-bought tramps or was that the Stevie Nicks look after a cat fight.
The album was released in the early months of my college freshman year. While there, I had noticed that the Madonna look had already begun to influence the fashion sense of some of the female fine art majors. They were easy to spot: the ones who were already wearing black goth lace garments with chains as early as Madonna. It was the first big look of the ’80 to cross over race and culture boundaries, replacing the Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks clones en mass. The Prince look seemed more universal as it attracted guys also.
Like A Virgin did it’s share to paying tribute to ’50 and 60s soul with doo wop inspired tracks like “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and the terse “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, but It would be the dance songs that really made her a star. The concept of a hard dancing female performer in modern pop was still new (thanks Tina Turner) and Madonna was a trailblazer that way too. Her performances were a tour de force showcasing her dancing and athletic ability as a performer. Suddenly other artists on tour had to step it up – literally.
All that finesse would also get bottled up into a unique brand, that was copied in various degrees by Cyndy Lauper, Regina and countless others. Like a Virgin was just the beginning of a period where Madonna would anticipate (or create) new trends and have the music that was perfectly matched to the occasion.
Very few artists will ever be able to match her streak of influence, especially now that the digital age has fragmented styles and the competition for attention. That brings me back to Rebel Heart. The book is still being written in rock on how long a career can go on.
Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones are practically elderly, yet still relevant in the music world. It might be more difficult for someone like Madonna who was always in the forefront of what was new to keep up as whole generations become immune to her new music (I know kids that don’t know who she is).
If those kids ever grow up to really appreciate music, they might eventually realize that Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Lady GaGa are all following in the tracks laid down by Madonna. She would never stand still long enough to reminisce over the impressive body of work she has amassed, but at this stage in her career I wish she would.