Jan 10

MADONNA – “True Blue”

FT + Popular38 comments • 3,791 views

#577, 11th October 1986, video

Musically, if the Madonna brand stands for anything it’s for smart, up-to-date club pop. But there’s often been a side to her that’s attracted to pastiche, as if she wants to prove she can take on styles way outside her era and range and master them as slickly as she dealt with freestyle, R&B, and electronica. “Hanky Panky”; the Evita incident; and this bouncily backwards-looking girlpop tribute.

Can she do it? Formally speaking, of course she can: she has the songwriters and the work ethic and “True Blue” bubbles and blushes in all the correct places. It’s fun! But even discounting the wall-of-tin production it seems to lack conviction. The girl group sound Madonna is playing with worked not just because of its catchy sweetness but because – whether coded or not – there was an awful lot at stake in the songs: the best of them grab a moment or a situation and freeze-frame the immense ridiculous intensity of teenage feeling. Exactly what “Papa Don’t Preach” did, in other words, and to go from that song’s frustration and dread to lines like “I’m so excited that you’re my best friend” is a shift in emphasis from content to form that sacrifices a lot. Still she could have pulled it off – the opening exchanges with the backing singers hint at something tougher and sassier than the song we get. But the rest of “True Blue” is deliberately flimsy and brittle, and before the end Madonna sounds a little bored. Like most of her pastiches it feels like a distraction.



  1. 1
    Tom on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Sorry for the delay on this – WordPress ate almost the whole of it and I was too annoyed to rewrite! Back on something like schedule this week, I hope. 1986, I’ll finish you yet, you bugger.

  2. 2
    Richaod on 12 Jan 2010 #

    I’m quite fond of this – it’s certainly not as good as Cherish, but if anything, the problem for me is that the song’s innocence has been stained, closer to naivete ever since Madonna’s divorce from Sean Penn… And no, I don’t entirely believe that its sentiment is separable from her personal life. The “no more sadness” bridge is pretty great though, something of a counterpoint to the lightness of the rest of the song.

    Also, the video is HORRENDOUS; it takes whatever’s wrong with the song and magnifies it thousandfold.

    This feels a little gratuitous by now, but my review of the single(and many others): http://iconography.tumblr.com/post/196794808/true-blue

  3. 3
    LondonLee on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Is that Debbie Mazar in the video?

    Madonna could do a lot of things but I think this sort of pure innocence was beyond her and the song (and production) doesn’t have enough of anything else for her to work with. It’s her ‘Frankie’ isn’t it?

  4. 4
    punctum on 12 Jan 2010 #

    The clear aim of the True Blue album was to coax Madonna’s profile into the realm of Proper Musical Superstar – bear in mind that even with Like A Virgin under her hopefully alluring belt 18 months previously she wasn’t yet considered a sizeable enough fish to be asked to participate in “We Are The World” – and thus its quality is divided between the modestly adventurous and the immodestly banal. The smack-jack-wake up punch of “Open Your Heart” – and to a lesser extent “Where’s The Party?” – represents the album’s clearest assimilation of influences (mostly sonic, scarcely philosophical) from Cupid & Psyche ’85, while the significantly stark midnight chimes of “Live To Tell” provided what is still one of Madonna’s finest ballads.

    A pity, then, if a predictability, that after “Papa Don’t Preach,” the other two UK number one singles to be pulled from the album were probably its two most boring tracks. “True Blue,” the song, is a straightforward soda-pop ’60s girl group update with a smattering of schaffel, evidently intended as a hymn of faith and devotion to Mr Penn – and her blow-by-blow account of that story can be found on her next official album – and is almost stubbornly uninteresting other than a few stray flecks of very minor interest; the curiously British way in which she pronounces “bursting,” the harmonic (in)congruence between Madonna’s “and I’m gonna be” and the backing singers’ “like a glove” in the second and third choruses. Even in a pre-Beatles revivalist mindset it sounded wooden and polite next to something like “Walk Like An Egyptian” (which latter manages to make both the Shangri-Las and the Trashmen live again). Perhaps it’s best viewed as an early calling card for someone whose future stepmother-in-law would be the Chairwoman of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association, if we’re talking “true blue.”

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 12 Jan 2010 #

    My God, 1985/6 really is a dismal slog isn’t it? Is something good coming up soon? A number one single so desperately routine that Madonna didn’t even feel the need to put it on her first greatest hits album… and yet another highly choreographed sixties pastiche video drained of any charm or gaiety. Dreary and lacklustre.

  6. 6
    Tom on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Don’t worry Billy because coming up next is –

    oh, ok. Worry.

  7. 7
    punctum on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Don’t worry Billy because coming up next is –

    oh, ok. Worry.

    “‘Ere, wot’s that supposed to mean?”
    “I should have fort it was obvious.”
    “Don’t come the innocent wiv me!”
    “We need ter TORK!”

    That’s enough clues…

  8. 8
    Kat but logged out innit on 12 Jan 2010 #

    I LOVED True Blue and still do (but it’s still only my 3rd favourite Madge #1).

  9. 9
    Erithian on 12 Jan 2010 #

    “Get aht ah my PUB!”
    “Sort it aht!”
    Poor old Madge, to think we’re getting off the subject so soon. Yes, I quite liked it, but it’s hardly in the major league. Nice pastiche, and she was to do much much worse in this vein, but there’s not an awful lot to say about it.

  10. 10
    Jungman Jansson on 12 Jan 2010 #

    I’m not going to disagree with the majority here. I think “True Blue” works well enough as an album track, but it doesn’t really have any standout qualities as a single. Pastiches seem to be hard stunts to pull off even for the most skillful writers and performers, and even when they do work, there’s always the risk that you admire the result for successfully imitating its source material rather than just thinking “oh yeah, great song”.

    It’s a pity that we won’t get “Open Your Heart”, which is clearly my favourite single from True Blue. (Not to mention the video – that thing really put ideas into my young and impressionable mind).

    SwedenWatch: #18 for a single week. Better success on the Tracks chart where it entered at #2, but was held off the top by Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Is this the Madonna we love, or the Madonna we expect? TB (hurhur) ain’t gonna get any pulses racing for sure, and the title track from the album just sounds like filler compared to LTT or PDP. Unfortunately for Madonna, we can’t help but compare this to what she has done previously. Indeed it is found wanting. Standalone, it’s quite a breezy little nod to the 60’s with all the 80’s production values present and correct. Where’s the soul, though? Where’s the conviction in her delivery? She could have written this song for Tiffany or Debbie Gibson…mallrat pop for the stonewash brigade.
    Just a 5 for me.

  12. 12
    will on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Yes, distinctly second rate and lacking in conviction. As pointed out upthread, she would go onto do the Brill Building pop homage thing a lot whole better on Cherish.

  13. 13
    lonepilgrim on 12 Jan 2010 #

    it’s a pleasant, catchy melody but the production sounds like a BonTempi organ on preset. I could imagine this sounding a lot better with a more considered arrangement. As a pastiche of the 60s girl groups it goes on too long. The original 60s hits were much more concise bursts of energy whereas this plink-plonks away for what seems an age. 5 for me

  14. 14
    anto on 12 Jan 2010 #

    I would argue that by this stage Madonna was on such scintillating form that even her lesser works would be the highlight of another pop singers career. True Blue is slight but rewarding.
    Certainly some of her very best didn’t reach number one – Borderline, Live to Tell,Cherish.
    I promise to use a football analogy only once but when a team are in the habit of winning championships they have the occasional season where they win it by memory – Liverpool in 1982 and 1990 Man Utd in 2003 and 2009. They might not have been the best team that particular season, but they’re experienced and confident enough to drag themselves to top.
    Perhaps like Hello Goodbye Super Trouper or I’m your Man this is a
    number one by memory.

  15. 15
    thefatgit on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Just seen the video…couldn’t help thinking she was going to burst into “For bonzer car insurance deals,
    Get along to Sheila’s Wheels”.

    And yes, that is Debbie Mazar!

  16. 16
    tim davidge on 12 Jan 2010 #

    Far too worldly a character to pull this sort of thing off convincingly, and in addition, I must say this is an allusion to 60s pop rather than an attempt to recreate it. ‘Wall-of-tin’ is a good description of the production – it has some of the sweetness but none of the mellowness of pop from the ‘Brill Building’ era. One thing is commensurate with the period it tries to emulate though – unlike some of the hits we’ve been going through lately, it’s not a long record. And in spite of my reservations about it, it’s catchy and tuneful so all in all it’s not actually a bad pop record. A 5 from me.

  17. 17
    swanstep on 13 Jan 2010 #

    As Billy Piper, #6 mentions, there’s some reason to believe that Mad. herself doesn’t care for this one: like Angel from the Like a Virgin disc, True Blue gets omitted from her greatest hits/best ofs, etc.

    For myself, however, I really enjoy what I suppose one must call ‘second-tier’ Madonna stuff: angel, true blue, spotlight, causing a commotion haven’t been overplayed and aren’t overbearing. They’re just good tunes to bop around to. Or something. I like ’em. (Stephen Bray often seems to at least co-write this stuff.)

    Anyhow, I like the ‘hey guys’ at the beginning, the girly-solidarity vibe overall, and the first few notes of the middle eight – ‘No-oh more sadness….’ – to which the song returns. I *love* the last tricksy harmony third time through the chorus: the rushed, slightly tense(?) ‘And I’m gonna be”s, especially the one right after Mad. has punched up ‘Your heart fits me like a glove’. There’s something ace about all that. The more I think about it, in fact, this song is only a few lyrical and musical polishes away from being a classic (I think Stephin Merritt/Magnetic Fields may have rewritten this one a few times to their advantage).

    Less thrilled about the 6/8 beat and associated drum fills. Particularly in the 12″ mix, they feel played out from Billy Ocean’s (not especially compelling) ‘When the going gets tough’ earlier in the year.

    I’m evidently more enthusiastic than most about this record, but Tom’s 6 seems about right.

  18. 18
    TomLane on 13 Jan 2010 #

    80’s Electronic Motown. Got to #3 in the U.S. Not quite sure if Madonna is fond of this song. It’s not on any of her compilations released in the States (including the 2CD one that came out last fall). Oddly, this is one of my wife’s favorite Madonna song’s. I remember her buying the 45. As for me the initial 6 feels about right. I’m sure Madonna would give it a similar grade.

  19. 19
    Tom on 13 Jan 2010 #

    #17 yeah, my review is a lot harsher than the mark – I do enjoy it, as you say most 2nd-tier Madonna stuff is well worth a spin. But I had nothing interesting to say about the ways I enjoy it and plenty about the ways I found it frustrating.

  20. 20
    swanstep on 13 Jan 2010 #

    BTW, True Blue has always reminded me of an utterly fantastic Lesley Gore song and record, which you can hear on youtube, here.
    It’s hard to believe that that wasn’t a huge hit, but Gore was going out of fashion by the mid-1960s.

    I was hoping to provide a link to an even more awesome Gore record, ‘What am I gonna do with you?’ but that appears to have disappeared from youtube. (Q. Why do Gore’s records tend to sound so great? A. A young Quincy Jones was her regular producer.)

  21. 21
    Marina72 on 13 Jan 2010 #

    Great post and I think you’re absolutely right that Madonna works best in contemporary dance, but I can see why she’s drawn to other genres – she has an aura of the old-fashioned Hollywood star about her. True Blue isn’t one of her very best IMO but it has a sort of goofy charm which you don’t expect from Madonna, and it does reflect beautifully how infatuated she was with Sean Penn at the time.

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 13 Jan 2010 #

    However, the best song written about Sean Penn at this time was Lloyd Cole’s ‘Sean Penn Blues’ on Mainstream, the story of an abortive poetry reading given by the troubled actor:

    The Western Minnesota intercollegiate circle
    Telephoned they said
    Hey Sean could you mosey on down to our gala ball?
    It reads “Mr Madonna kicks some beat poetry”

    If I could I would I would I swear I would be better
    But it seems I am just a natural no good
    And what’s more I like living like that

    After seven lines seventeen maybe I had to stop
    These philistines were yelling “Hey Sean!”
    I could not be heard for cowhand laughter
    I picked up my books and headed for the door
    And if I trash this TV then I know I will feel better…

  23. 23
    wichita lineman on 13 Jan 2010 #

    I think the middle eight jumps out because the rest of the song is such a plod. A genre exercise and, as Tom points out, an approximation which misses the point of all good girl group records – their sharp teenage sense of drama and immediacy. Cherish is sweeter, Frankie is much weaker, but this is only a 4 or 5 for me.

    Re 20: Yes! Lesley Gore is the real deal! She was a teenager, cute but not too cute, a little nasal, a little naive, with the best producers and writers at her disposal. Besides Quincy Jones she was produced/arranged by Jack Nitzsche (who was behind Swanstep’s fav, the Goffin/Titelman-written What Am I Gonna Do With You and the eerie funereal You Sent Me Silver Bells) and Van McCoy. Can’t think who did her 1967 soft summer beauty California Nights but it was someone of equally high calibre.

  24. 24
    Conrad on 13 Jan 2010 #

    I can see I’m going to have to avail myself of a Lesley Gore compilation – I always loved the 81 remake of It’s My Party, so time to investigate further I think.

    As for this, well it’s a bit dull really isn’t it. A 3 or 4 would be about right.

  25. 25
    Mark M on 14 Jan 2010 #

    Re 3: if this is Madonna using pastiche to move away from her early persona, then it could be regarded as mildly ironic that Debi Mazar is in the video – former Mudd Club employee, make-up girl on New York Beat aka Downtown 81 and sometime flatmate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mazar was right at the heart of the turn of the decade downtown scene from which sprang the early Madonna look. But Mazar – who is one of Madge’s solidest mates, apparently – was also on her way up and out of the skanky bohemia, although obviously in a less spectacular manner.

  26. 26
    MikeMCSG on 14 Jan 2010 #

    I think Mads omitted it from The Immaculate Collection (in favour of No 4 hit “Open Your Heart”) because the lyrics were too personal to her and Sean. It’s OK but not one of her best.

    Interesting that it got to number one at the same time as she was being absolutely trashed for her performance in “Shanghai Surprise” (Sean Penn reportedly made his friends pledge never to watch it). What was that saying about no such thing as bad publicity ?

  27. 27
    pink champale on 14 Jan 2010 #

    i said on the ‘frankie’ thread that there was a great girl group pastiche coming up, but it turns out memory was playing tricks on me and, the great bridge apart, this really isn’t much cop. dave marsh didn’t think so though, putting it at number 258 in his list. unfortunately this isn’t one of the entries that’s online but i think i remember from my repeat readings 15 years ago that he thought it was the contemporary production that took it from being a simple pastiche into something more special. but a lot of his eighties picks are kind of mental.

  28. 28
    AndyPandy on 14 Jan 2010 #

    I know that Madonna always had her name listed as a songwriter on her tracks but always with someone else – did she really have much input in their composition or was it just a trick done through a combination of her as the sassy businesswomen maximising the profits and an attempt to give her credibility with the rock bores with whom “its oh so important to write your tracks”?
    Fake songwriting credits obviously reached the farcical in the era of the Spice Girls and other girl bands where I don’t think anyone was fooled that any of those groups had anything approaching real input in the composition of their songs.
    But with Madonna however does anyone know if she had anything more than a minimal input into writing the songs – I’d be interested to know if anyone know the truth on this issue.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 14 Jan 2010 #

    @28. At least on some occasions (e.g., Lucky Star, Burning Up) Mad. gets the sole writing credit, and on many other occasions (Holiday, Borderline, Like a Virgin) she takes no writing credit. This suggests that she played things pretty straight credit-wise at least early in her career. My sense is that on her recent albums, say since working with William Orbit on Ray of Light, her writing credits have been more pro forma. She’s thinking about just writing and producing the album as a whole with a given collaborator, so that that’s what gets noted each time rather than the exact % contributions each party made to each individual song. That seems sensible to me, but it does open the door to certain sorts of skepticism about Mad’s contributions.

  30. 30
    Mark G on 15 Jan 2010 #

    Well, it’s like the old Lennon/McCartney thing, it covered contributions from Mal Evans, Donovan, and whoever was in the room at the time.

    People would quite often get some sort of ‘percentage point’ for songs they were not officially credited for.

  31. 31
    spaceboy on 16 Jan 2010 #

    If I was going to play anything by Madonna at a wedding, this would probably be it. It sounds like it could have been written in the 50’s. If you were to play some of those girl group pop songs and slow them down a bit, it could have sounded a little like this.

  32. 32
    abaffledrepublic on 16 Jan 2010 #

    Seems that there’s something of a downer on this one on Popular. I didn’t like it at the time, finding it far too cutesy, but since then I’ve come to like it a lot. As noted upthread, its non-inclusion on Madonna compilations means it hasn’t been overplayed. I certainly prefer it to the single which followed it. Open Your Heart strikes me as space filler, a flavourless, dull song with an air of ‘will this do?’ about it (it’s safe to discuss it because it didn’t get to number one).

  33. 33
    swanstep on 16 Jan 2010 #

    @32,abaffledrep, I felt the same way that you do about OYH until I heard the original 12″/extended mix. It’s on youtube, unfortunately in fairly poor audio quality, here. With 9 minutes to stretch out the slight stiffness of OYH that’s a liability in the standard mix becomes an advantage. It’s really one of the great missing-link tracks between the Kraftwerk of TEE and the brutal techno that would soon rule some clubs (and that doubtless Mad. herself was grooving to early versions of in 1986).

  34. 34
    Caledonianne on 22 Jan 2010 #

    Sorry – best thing about this for me was the YouTube comment –

    “Good God. Was she BORN looking forty years old?”

    As I had been thinking exactly the same thing.

  35. 35
    DV on 31 Jan 2010 #

    I’m with that guy from Reservoir Dogs on this one.

  36. 36
    Brooksie on 15 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t get the dislike for this at all. I have to say this is one of my faves. Here’s how I see it:

    Madonna doesn’t put it on her compilations because it was about Sean (Penn). “True Blue” was an expression he used. I doubt that she has any issue with it apart from the emotional connection to a declaration of love that went south.

    This song (to me), is what I believe Madonna to really be. There is no deliberately provocative content, no producer-oriented ‘strings’ on the intro, no labored depth, it’s a barely-layered piece of pop dance fluff, and I think this is what Madonna sounds like when she isn’t trying to be impressive. Bear in mind Madonna often uses other people’s songs, then she ‘tweaks’ them (and gets a credit) and works with a producer to create the whole sound. If this sounds a little thin and weak, maybe that’s because Madonna herself – when not aided by producers and other people’s material – isn’t very deep / heavy. It sounds simple and honest to me.

    Finally; I think that song fits perfectly with the requirements of a teen pop album. The teenage psyche – particularly that of the teenage girl – is an almost schizophrenic one, therefore there must be a song for all moods. This song, when matched with all the other tracks on the album, has a perfect emotional place. It’s the song I can most picture girls dancing and singing along with using a hairbrush in front of the mirror at a ‘sleepover’. Remember that Madonna’s core audience was primarily teenage girls (she appealed to much more than that – as a star has to – but certainly they were her biggest demographic). This song speaks to teenage girls probably more than any other on the album, lame pastiche or not. I’m willing to bet if the genders ranked the singles from True Blue in order of favourites, you’d find the girls would rank this (on average) a lot higher than the guys. This song is uptempo, catchy, and it’s about “true love”; if you’re a teenage girl with a hairbrush and a mirror, then this song would be hog heaven. If you’re a middle-aged man then this song probably doesn’t sound anywhere near as high in quality as ‘Papa Don’t Preach’. For me – this song is great, but then again I always liked pure joy in pop music.

  37. 37
    DJBobHoskins on 5 Jan 2014 #

    Why is the single version so hard to find?

  38. 38
    hectorthebat on 18 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 258
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

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