At the end of Part 3 of this story, we left Madonna with all of her albums in the UK Top 50 and another Top 5 single under her belt. Her last single of 1987 was The Look Of Love which was the only one of her British singles released between the end of 1984 and the end of 1992 to miss the Top 5. Still, it made #9 and kept her in the singles chart until the end of January 1988; elsewhere, a mini-LP of remixes called You Can Dance gave her a presence on the album chart until the end of the following month. Thereafter, she was absent from the British charts for well over a year. This was because her only release of the year was Ciao Italia, a long-form video featuring footage from her summer 1987 Who’s That Girl? world tour, mostly filmed at dates in Turin and Florence at the end of the tour. Given how prolific she had been since she joined Sire records in 1982, why the sudden lull? Where was she? Well, she was focussing on her acting, taking the opportunity to get some Broadway experience by appearing in a new David Mamet play, ‘Speed-The-Plow’, for which she began rehearsals in February 1988. The play opened in May at the Lincoln Theatre Broadway and Madonna was a cast member until the end of August. Then at the end of September, she returned to the recording studio to begin work on album number four.
That album was Like A Prayer. The title track became one of her best known songs, a pop/rock epic with an appropriate gospel influence and spiritual lyrics. The writing was more confident and her vocals were stronger. Controversy came with the promotional clip filmed for it, the storyline for which involved Madonna as a witness to a murder for which an innocent black man is framed (nothing in the song’s text anticipated this scenario). Imagery such as stigmata and burning crucifixes, and a dream sequence in which she kisses a black saint, offended the Vatican and caused enough of a fuss for Madonna to be dropped from a lucrative contract with Pepsi, who had recent hired her to feature in high-profile advertising campaign. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, the single was one of the biggest hits of the year, #1 in several countries, #2 in a number more, and Top 10 in others. The artistic maturity evident on the song was present throughout the album itself, which was a perfect balance of catchy pop tunes and thoughtful lyrics. Five further songs from it were hits internationally, although each country chose different tracks to promote. For example, at the end of the year, Britain had the twee Dear Jessie as a single while America had the far more robust Oh Father, which wouldn’t be issued as a 45 here for several years.
Then , at the end of the 80s, Madonna was named ‘Artist Of The Decade’ in Billboard magazine and by MTV.
☛ What happened next
The word ‘icon’ and its derivatives have been purposefully avoided on If You Were There, but Madonna is truly an iconic figure in popular music. From the outset, it was clear she intended (and expected) to be around for a long time, as she Neil Tennant when he interviewed her for Smash Hits in November 1983. “What do you hope you’ll be doing in 20 years’ time?” he asked her. “Counting my money,” she laughed. “No, I hope that I’m happy and growing as an artist.” In 2003 she was doing both, and continues to do so today. Her list of achievements in a recording career that now spans nearly 35 years are extraordinary, including in the UK alone 13 #1 singles and a further 50 Top 10 hits, and 12 #1 albums. With the exception of her debut, all her studio albums have reached either #1 or #2 and she has had 25 hit LPs in total, including compilations, live albums and film soundtracks for movies she has appeared in. Her acting in some of those films hasn’t received the same critical appreciation as the music she contributed, but she has nevertheless secured praise for some performances, such as her movie version of the musical ‘Evita’ in which she took the role of Eva Peron. She has topped the bestsellers lists for books too, with Sex, a foil-wrapped coffee table book of erotica, and though in the late 90s her desire to shock seemed to have mellowed, the lyrical content of her recent output is similar to the provocative work of like of Nicki Minaj, who guested on Madonna’s single Give Me All Your Luvin’ (2012). That single was one of only a handful of American Top 10 hits in the past ten years; in Britain she has had 3 #1 singles in that period but no Top 10 hits since 2009. But hit singles are not the measure by which to judge established A-list musicians. A better indication is ticket sales and when she tours, her concerts sell out. Her Sticky And Sweet tour of 2008-2009, for example, is believed to be the fifth highest-grossing tour of all time.
Her best asset is arguably her business acumen, which remain undisputed. Negotiating contracts, knowing what commercial decisions to take, where to invest and when to pull out, appear to be innate abilities. An early indication of this skill was seen in her control over her music: she changed producers, co-writers, backing musicians, etc as soon as she knew the next direction she wanted to take her career in. She was accused of ruthlessly discarding colleagues who were no longer useful to her, but it was just good practice to work with the best available talent and to continually update her sound and her image. In that meeting with Tennant, she acknowledged this quite candidly and actually set out her business plan when he asked her about keeping in touch with the New York hip-hop crowd she first worked with: “I used to hang out with them in clubs before I even got a record deal. There’s a little culture going on there ‘cos of those kids making big, getting over. The graffiti writers and the break-dancers. But I think I have much more of an oversight than they do. They just want to prove that they can do something that’s going to be bigger than just the Bronx. I plan on making this go on for a much longer time – I don’t think they have further aspirations.” They had inspired her, she had taken what she needed from them regarding image, attitude, choreography, some musical elements – and then developed it into something else.
That point about ‘oversight’ is how she has survived, together with her ear for a tune and eye for detail. She’ll notice an underground trend and bring it to the masses, a classic example bring 1990 single Vogue. She took a dance craze, found the best producers to work on the music to provide an authentic sound, and marketed the resulting product in a more effective way than anyone else. Whilst no longer an innovator (she follows trends rather than sets them these days, for example the sexually explicit content on her recent albums which was not a feature of her work until others set that precedent), she is still “growing as an artist” as she predicted. She is a star, she is the centre of attention, and she has plenty to say, but an observation made by interviewers and colleagues throughout her career is that she listens very carefully and learns quickly, another explanation of her longevity.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Dec. 4
ADAM ANT Ant Rap (CBS CBSA1738)
ALTERED IMAGES (Clare Grogan) I Could Be Happy (Epic EPCA1834)
The POLICE Spirits In The Material World (A&M AMS8194)
BROS Sister (CBS ATOM9)
Neneh CHERRY Inna City Mama (Circa YR42)
DURAN DURAN Burning The Ground (EMI DD13)
ELECTRONIC (Neil Tennant) Getting Away With It (Factory FAC257)
MADONNA Dear Jessie (Sire W2668)
SINITTA Lay Me Down Easy (Fanfare FAN23)