Perfect Sound Forever


Lost in her music
by Luis Sanchez
(December 2005)

In a year-end Rolling Stone record review from 1984, Kurt Loder had this to say about Madonnaís eponymous debut album: "Madonnaís bare-bellied, fondle-my-bra image is strictly bimbo city, and of course it sells--this debut album was one of the yearís longest-running hits. Take away the ravaged-tart trappings and thereís nothing else to talk about." Over twenty years since she began seducing people and pissing them off, it is amusing to read that statement when I think about just how much has been written and discussed about this woman. Yet every time she makes a creative or personal move, the basic sentiment, in some form or another, is still conveniently trotted about. In the beginning, it was, "She just likes to shock people." As the years passed, itís turned into something more like, "Sheís a masterful businesswoman, excellent at marketing herself." Twenty years on, notwithstanding the stupid controversies, "shrewd marketing," unconvincing acting choices, and the tenuous credibility of the Kabbalah Learning Centers, is it weird that all I really care about is the music?

Yes, something that seems to have escaped some people is the fact that Madonna does indeed make music and that some people actually listen to it. I donít know why it bugs me so bad, but it is frustrating to relate my interest in Madonnaís music to other music fans, and it seems the point of contention always has to do with the issue of authenticity. The discussion is inevitably monitored by words from the holy gospel of rock, words like "musicianship," "authorship," etc. The difficulty is how to reconcile her image and her musical and personal subjectivity. Madonna is a threat to the latter two things because she doesnít stay still long enough for anyone to put a finger on her and because, instead of concealing the construction of image, sheís never deluded herself into believing that image doesnít matter. And I wonder how much of is to do with the fact that Madonna is a woman. Is Elvis treated this way? Certainly, her thrust of imagination is one of the more fascinating things about her. She brings a certain drama, a kind of push and pull, to the way we perceive the coherence of celebrity image, identity, and meaning. The thing is she does it not through rock but through pop music. Because isnít Madonna more pop than anything else?

The problem with this is that popóin a sort of inverted way to rockóalso prefers its figures to know their place. They are meant to be flat and staticóstatic on album covers, flat on wall posters, circumscribed within the frame of the video screen. They are not built to last beyond a shelf life predestined by market forces. What makes Madonna so intriguing to some and so annoying to others, from this perspective, is that after two decades, she is still carrying on as if no one told her this.

I am reminded of the first time I saw Madonna perform live. It was at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, July 21, 2001, and it was the first show of the American leg of her Drowned World Tour. It had been ages since the last tour, and I was ridiculously anxious to hear and see how attached she was to her earlier work. Not very much at all, as it turned out, and who knew she could be so fucking dark? Among others, she addressed themes of punk situationism, the abuse of women, and the pain and loneliness of growing up without a mother. Musically, I loved that she took a deliberate risk for the tour, eschewing the past in favor of an imaginative present. The music combined rich electronics and live performance in unconventional arrangements , and the musical direction was commissioned not to an experienced veteran but to the obscure, albeit brilliant, twentysomething artist/producer Stuart Price (a.k.a. Jacques Lu Cont of Les Rhythmes Digitales and member of Zoot Woman). While these were my favorite things about the show, my point is that she obviously didnít acquiesce to the idea that a pop star is defined by her hits or by an alliance with quaint nostalgia or purism.

She opened with "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," a brilliant song about change, armored in full punk regalia, simultaneously targeting the "Madonna" anyone thought her to be with iconoclasm and enacting her pop music ethos: confounding celebrity identity by singularly assuming pop directive and celebrating pop pleasure. She brought the house down by closing the show with a deeply sensuous and bombastic performance of "Music." Amidst a barrage of video screens flashing images of myriad identities and styles sheís tried on, Madonna danced on stage in a way only she can, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned on the front with the word "Mother" (she has two children?) and on the back with the word "F*cker" (she has two children!). It is this sort of witty irony and self-consciousness which will always separate her from the more direct sales pitches of the Britney's, the Christina's, the J. Lo's, and the Gwen's.

Believe me, I could bang on for ages about my own fascination with Madonnaís "authenticity" and how it works in the world of pop, about how her handling of the problem of creativity in a commercial industry works by inverting the commercial process and the power relationship between studio producer and performer, about conception, singular vision, design, and purpose, blah, blah, blah. But I think all of these things only really matter to people who think about the music and not to those of us who listen to it. What matters more to me than thinking about how it is made is how the music gets to me.

Let me backtrack. The first time I took real notice of Madonna was because of the song "Like a Prayer," and I think that encounter exemplifies what has come to matter most to me about it. I saw the video first on MTV. What impresses me about it visually is the Catholic imagery jarringly juxtaposed with Madonnaís highly kinesthetic performance, her passionate dancing, and her physical interactions with the other figures in the video. Confident in the physicality of her body, she is in one shot evoking religious solemnity as she warmly caresses the face of the saint statue, clearly enjoying the vibrations of the music by dancing in the field of burning crosses in another, and finally interacting in a joyous display of gospel-inspired dancing with the choir in the end. Like Madonna, I was raised Catholic and it seemed both a bit disconcerting and exciting to see someone interacting with these things in a way so differently from the way I was taught. There she was, this beautiful woman with disarming eyes, singing and dancing amidst these apparently holy objects, and all I wanted to do was dance with her. I immediately got the record.

The fantastic thing about the song is the palpability of it. It begins with a jagged, anxious electric guitar that drops out as soon as it begins, and an emotional tautness is immediately struck as a gospel choir comes in softly behind Madonna, who sings about urgency. The softness of the verses is strengthened by the spectral intonations of the background choir, while Madonnaís voice, with a confident command, does much to relate a very present emotion: "I hear your voice / Itís like an angel sighing / I have no choice / I hear your voice / Feels like flying." The combination of passion, sensuality, and the language of mysticism in the style of St. Teresa of Avila resonates with me. But the secret of the songís power does not lie in the meaning of the words. The real power is created as she emphasizes the intuitive stress-points of the words and phrasing, driving them through their completion, clearly reveling in the process. And as the verses move into the athletic choruses, lyrics like, "When you call my name / Itís like a little prayer / Iím down on my knees / I wanna take you there," are similarly imbued with a palpability as Madonna stresses their collusion with the rhythmic patterns of the music. This quality is developed during the bridge of the song as Madonna, together with the choir, leads the chord progressions in ascension until they reach a moment of creative interaction between sensuous, rhythmic focus and spirit-possessed gospel style. Itís all very physical. It literally moves me.

When I go to the earlier records and follow her musical path, this kinesthetic mode repeats itself over and overó"Burning Up," "Into the Groove," "Open Your Heart," "Vogue," "Deeper and Deeper," "Ray of Light," "Skin," "Impressive Instant," "Nobodyís Perfect," "Hollywood," etc. I recognize that her weakest musical moments (Iím Breathless, Bedtime Stories) occur when she strays too far from a couple of things.

What continually amazes me about Madonna isnít shrewd marketing; itís her set of ears. Iím convinced she genuinely enjoys listening to music as well as making it. She has impeccable taste in producers, and her instincts for the right sounds are hardly obvious. Rather than relying on commercially proven marketability, her decisions to work with particular ones (Patrick Leonard, Shep Pettibone, Andre Betts, Nellee Hooper, William Orbit, Mirwais AmahdzaÔ, Stuart Price) bear work that resists dominant pop sounds and the general sounds of ordinary life by engendering quite distinct sonic spaces (not totally unlike BjŲrkís) and, therefore, different ground for her listeners to explore the places music suggests to us.

Listening to a Madonna song, regardless of where I am, I become highly aware of my place and situation and how the music works to fill the space in which I am present. The interesting thing is that an overwhelming majority of Madonnaís music does much to foreground the materiality of itself and the material properties of sound in general. My favorite Madonna albums--Like A Prayer, Erotica, Ray of Light, Music, and American Life--convince because of her understanding of the transformative power rooted in the physical elements of music, and sheís never been afraid of the electronic tangibility of a synthesizer or a programmed beat. Conventional vocal smoothness, lyrical content, and melody are subordinated by the qualities of rhythm, timbre, and grain/textureóall of which are quite appropriately fundamental to dance music.

Itís not so surprising (and the BjŲrk comparison ends here), therefore, that a large portion of Madonnaís records are dance records, which means, quite simply, they are meant to be danced to. Her passion for dance is well-documented in all the (good) bios, and I believe the fundamental part of her musical mythology should always be her background as a dancer. It began as a young girl and teenager when she devoted herself to proper dance lessons, even pursuing dance as a professional career into her early twenties; it transformed when she was introduced by her ballet instructor to gay disco culture and became enamored with the pleasures of club music and dancing. She continues to show a certain appreciation and respect for dance culture by quite often integrating elements from the club remix versions of her songs into her live performances and videos. Advance word on her latest album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, suggested that it would be the dance-pop testament of her career. Her latest album is nonstop and dance-focused, paying respectful dues to the seminal 70s (ABBA, Giorgio Moroder, Tony Manero). But the evidence of its brilliance isnít in retrospective disco kitsch; itís in the thick pulsations that diffuse, the insouciant vocals, and in the prescient synthesizer vistas.

What I love about Madonnaís music is the way it confidently celebrates the physical pleasures of the body and dance through sound. Her music is a means by which many of us, female and male, can access distinctly physical and pleasurable experiences of ourselves in the context of everyday life. For males, this is no small feat. Society conditions us to constantly patrol how we use our bodies. Weíre meant to keep a kind of distance from experiencing and enjoying the physicality of them in public when it doesnít involve competitive contact sports, and dancing is often associated with something less than full masculinity. Madonna isnít credited for the way she enjoys her body in her music and performances and how sheís brought the pleasure of dancing and dance music to a wide audience. With it, I am freed from the rational, emotional, and physical stiffness which Iím socialized to exude as a man.

I canít forget when this doctrine of the kinesthetic revealed itself to me. For a second time, I was fortunate enough to see Madonna perform live, this time at Londonís Earls Court, August 19 2004, during her Re-invention Tour. Though more straightforward, and again under the musical direction of artist/producer Stuart Price, Madonna hadnít lost any of the musical nerve that I loved about the Drowned World Tour (I donít think Iíve heard such a good combination of electronic sinews and guitar muscle work as well live anywhere else). It happened during an interlude towards the end of the show when a lone bagpiper in full bagpiper dress entered the empty stage playing a melody I recognized but couldnít name. He was soon followed by a group of drummers who played along with him the way itís traditionally done at highland games. At first, I was slightly bemused. But when the bagpiping and drumming ushered the band, Madonna and her dancers (all wearing kilts) onto the stage for a renewing performance of her classic pop pledge of allegiance to the dance floor "Into the Groove," the pieces met. The great thing about Scottish pipes and drums is the combination of palpable texture, drone, and rhythm. Itís all about how the sound physically vibrates through your ears, resonating in your viscera, and how the rhythm ushers you into making meaning of the music with your body. Everything I love about Madonnaís musicósound, dance, experience of the bodyócolluded in the performance of this particular song. I and about 19,000 others in that arena were literally moved.

Madonna is no Springsteen, itís true. But Springsteen is no Madonna. There are times when arguing musicianship and authorship can be amusing, but Iíd rather be listening to the music instead. There is something genuine in the moment that begins "Into the Groove"; itís just a matter of whether or not you accept the invitation offered by that programmed beat, wrapped in synthesizer: "And you can dance / For inspiration / Címon.../ Iím waiting."

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER