This past week marked the 30th anniversary of Madonna's self-titled debut. While perhaps not the artsiest record she has recorded, Madonna is still a solid piece of dance pop that sounds good on the radio, in club, and everywhere in between. With three decades of distance, the tinny synthesizers are retro but cool, and Madonna's young voice sounds wonderfully emotional. At the time, the singer was considered a dancer just masquerading as a singer, but even these young performances show her talent for expressing fun, longing, heartache, and joy. (Compare these tracks to some of the overworked material that is on the Top 40 right now, and the productions and vocals on Madonna feel especially clean and crisp.) It also helps that the singer's debut is packed with sturdy pop hits, including "Lucky Star," "Borderline," "Burning Up," and (my personal favorite from the album) "Holiday;" that is an impressive line-up for any record, much less a debut. Like Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Madonna is a superstar LP that showed an artist of staggering talent and charisma.
Since her debut, Madonna has evolved in to the most important presence in pop music, consistently recording good records and often impeccable records that have driven pop music and ruled the charts. She's reinvented herself and her sound multiple times, as she did on, for example, Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer (arguably the two most important pop records of the 80s). She also experienced an important artistic rebirth and move towards deeper, wiser material on her masterpiece, Ray of Light. The new-age-meets-electronica album is by far my favorite in her catalog.
Even the recent re-contextualization of her image and career on last year's MDNA showed Madonna's importance to pop music. While some critics met the album with mixed feelings, it is a playful mix of Top 40 hookiness ("Give Me All Your Luvin,'" "Turn Up the Radio"), experimentation (like the grim but interesting "Gang Bang"), and dance thumpers ("Girl Gone Wild"). Some saw the album as uneven and unfairly compared it to recent projects by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. However, MDNA--which spawned a top ten hit and three number one dance club hits--confirmed Madonna's staying power, and that pop music is still her show. Younger artists may sell more units, but no pop record--especially by female pop artists (because such sexism is still holding firm in pop music)--can come out without at least subconsciously garnering comparisons to a Madonna record. She created a space for performers to pursue personal artistic aesthetics within a mainstream pop context. Without her, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, KeSha, Britney Spears, Adam Lambert, and many others would be making very different music (if they would be successfully pop stars at all). Her influence is unparalleled.
To conclude my celelbration of her career, I wanted to leave you with three great but under-appreciated Madonna tracks. My favorite of the three is the gorgeous, "Rain." I would argue that it is the best song of her career, and it likely to did not reach its chart potential because of the singer's divisive public image during her Erotica period. "Nothing Fails (Nevin Mix)" breathes new life into the languid ballad from American Life by adding more texture to the track and upping the pace, but still maintaining some of the acoustic guitar elements. Again, Madonna's frought public image during this period prevented strong offerings such as this from making much of a dent on the public consciousness, though "Nothing Fails" plays with beats and layering in a more interesting way than most pop music, and it sounds edgy and interesting ten years later. The last, "Celebration," was a single on her greatest hit package of the same name, released in 2009. The song has a lot in common with her earliest work--essentially modernizing "Physical Attraction" from Madonna--and so it seems like the best place to leave this tribute. Congratulations to Madonna. I'm excited to see what she does in the years to come.