Madonna – Like a Prayer (1989) & Ray of Light (1998)
Madonna should not still be relevant.
– Talent-wise, she’s an adequate dancer and in terms of technical proficiency, she’s certainly not a very good singer.
– Shock value was a big part of her early publicity. By definition, shock value is unsustainable, it’s supposed to wear off as people become desensitized.
– She’s a pop star. Pop stars tend to come and go. Pop radio hits are often quickly forgotten or dismissed as “That’s so (undesirable year)” by a fickle public.
Yet three decades have passed since her self-titled debut and her current net worth is in the neighbourhood of one billion dollars!
To paraphrase the mid-90s Milk campaign, Hey Madonna, what’s your secret?
My theory: Madonna realized it’s called the music business. She wisely focused some energy on the second word.
The music still matters (and I’ll get to that) but as an entrepreneur, she understood what it took to stay in the game. It’s really just following basic business advice:
Madonna understands her limitations
Her vocals aren’t the greatest and so it’s not about hearing her sing, it’s about the show. She can dance but smartly dances with a group on stage. She can write songs but also employs top notch co-writers, musicians & producers.
Madonna reinvents herself
Perhaps taking notes from the ultimate chameleon David Bowie, there are distinct phases of her career. Fashion & music transformations receive equal emphasis.
Madonna is versatile
Her different pursuits have resulted in varying amounts of success but few others have a business card that reads Singer/Songwriter, Actress, Director, Dancer, Author, Philanthropist, Savvy Businesswoman.
Madonna gives ’em something to talk about
Any publicity seems to be good publicity in her case. I think she genuinely believes the Oscar Wilde quote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
It doesn’t hurt that her records (particularly Like a Prayer) feature some catchy tunes.
Like a Prayer begins with the title track, perhaps Madonna’s finest song to date. I’d imagine those who have sat through one too many karaoke butcherings may have heard enough but I’m still a fan. Express Yourself keeps the momentum going on the second track before the oddly underwhelming Prince duet, Love Song. It’s not a bad song by any stretch but the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. For a dynamite 1989 track with a nearly identical name, check out The Cure’s Lovesong.
I hesitate to assign the label of ‘guilty pleasure’ as one shouldn’t feel bad about listening to a solid pop record. So I shall feel no remorse, this is a good one.
If the 1001 list has a bias, it may be the inclusion of several ‘comeback’ records. Or considering LL Cool J’s adamant plea to not use that term, perhaps ‘statement of continued relevance’ records. Though she was far from out of the spotlight in the 90s, Ray of Light is often regarded as Madonna’s musical return to form.
Ray of Light isn’t nearly as instantly accessible as Like a Prayer. Just as immediately likeable shouldn’t be dismissed as lightweight, less accessible doesn’t necessarily mean more depth. Her 1998 effort is more atmospheric, more electronic, more mysterious. There are some strong moments early on, the middle sags somewhat before picking up steam again towards the end. Which I suppose not only summarizes Ray of Light but Madonna’s overall career trajectory in the 90s.
Lifelong devotees? She’s got plenty. Critics? No shortage there either.
Say what you will about the “Queen of Pop” – as long as her name stays in the conversation, she’ll probably be glad you have an opinion!