Mar 10

MADONNA – “La Isla Bonita”

FT + Popular67 comments • 4,215 views

#589, 25th April 1987, video

Madonna’s appropriation move into Latin pop is a tightrope walk between corny and respectful: on the one hand an arrangement which packs in every Hispanic signifier bar a finishing “Ole!”, on the other a performance that has far more authority, conviction and love than her last excursion into pastiche. “La Isla Bonita” on paper looks like the most awful quesa – but right from “Last night I dreamed of San Pedro” it goes in a different direction, a reverie full of the real ache of missing somewhere beautiful – there’s something close to dread in her voice.

But in a British pop context “La Isla Bonita” resonates slightly differently: here San Pedro sounded like a Mediterranean island, which meant package holidays, and at the time I disliked “Bonita” as basically a middlebrow cousin of “Y Viva Espana” and suchlike. Eyes like a desert instead of straw donkeys and sombreros, but the principle was the same. Well, I was a bit of a fool back then. Especially since the collective ache of a holiday ended was about to transform British pop culture: a bunch of DJs and partygoers determined to establish the vibe of Ibizan clubs back home, and succeeding in the most remarkable ways.

The ripple effects of the Second Summer of Love – still 15 months off at this point – have transformed how I hear “La Isla Bonita” as an adult: now it sounds like Madonna making a Balearic record. For those unfamiliar with the thin slicing of dance music genres what that means practically is that now when I listen to it I tune in to its buried spaciness, I want more of those Spanish guitar runs, more inessential prettiness, more of the dream and not so much of the song the dream created. Frankly, my ideal version of “Bonita” would be an 8-minute long disco edit which pushed the lumbering chorus to the sidelines: that’s the one bit I still agree with my younger self on, a spell-it-out wake-up call in an otherwise captivating pop track.



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  1. 51
    pink champale on 8 Mar 2010 #

    #34 a pedant (who *has* been to belize) points out that lib is not tonally right for there either – (except for geographically) belize is basically a caribbean country (for a start it’s english speaking) that is all reggae, soca and carnival*, with not a flamenco guitar or fiesta in sight.

    *though oddly, the radio stations play mainly lovelorn c&w

  2. 52
    thefatgit on 8 Mar 2010 #

    Didn’t Madonna perform this with Eugene Hutz at Live Earth? It became a gypsified stomper with violins and lots of gypsy scat vocal insertions courtesy of Eugene. If anything it became less geographically focused and more global as a result. I think Gogol Bordello supported her on her Sticky & Sweet tour, so must have (guessing as I never attended any shows on that one) performed LIB together before.

  3. 53
    MikeMCSG on 8 Mar 2010 #

    #49 Thanks Swanstep. I note ,again from wiki, in those three countries it was released instead of Red Rain so it’s an alternative fourth rather than a fiftth single. I presume the record company thought the anti-nuclear message wouldn’t play so well in those territories. A few years earlier The Police released “Secret Journey” in the US as an alternative to “Invisible Sun” for similar reasons.
    More recently when I used to listen to Virgin for a bit in the 90s they completely ignored the Cranberries’s “Zombie” then played “Ode to My Family” to death a nit-picking piece of musical censorship.
    By the way you had good taste in 86 though I’m sure the ‘Gosh would be pleased to be placed in that pantheon !

  4. 54
    AndyPandy on 8 Mar 2010 #

    And “Human Nature” for some reason wasn’t a single in the UK (at least not in the 1980s).

    Mike @49: Shouldn’t they have just censored The Cranberries full stop…?

  5. 55
    Lex on 8 Mar 2010 #

    I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have liked this much at the time, what with the cheesy/lazy holiday tat level of the Latin signifiers, but as it is I’m rather fond of it; Tom is OTM about how it’s ripe for a Balearic re-edit, and it’s odd that none (that I know of) has yet happened, given Balearic producers’ penchant for kitsch corniness. (NB that’s Balearic as in the genre rather than a specific location.)

    Madonna’s had an oddly recurring fixation on Latino signifiers, usually in a romantic context, throughout her career; this, the flamenco guitar on “Deeper And Deeper”, probably a ton more that I forget, even on her last album there was a (terrible) track called “Spanish Lesson”, and on her last tour there was a (terrible) Spanish-themed section where she dressed up as a gypsy and her band played flamenco music. Tempting as it is to ascribe this to her playing on the package-holiday market mentioned at #38, I think it’s simpler – she just fetishises Latino men (see: a good proportion of her romantic liaisons). Which could well explain why her Latin excursions tend to feel so clichéd.

  6. 56
    Lex on 8 Mar 2010 #

    Also, it’s good to see those Bedtime Stories singles get some recognition (though unfortunate that none are bunnied): it’s such an underrated album, so plush and luxuriant and opulent and just gorgeous-sounding; kind of like a white-girl take on Sade drifting into trip-hop. And while it doesn’t sound as cold as its precursor, Erotica did – quite the opposite – its lyrics delve pretty deep into Madonna’s psyche and unearth a pretty bleak, hopeless side to her (see “Love Tried To Welcome Me” in particular), and probably for the only time in her career, her metaphysical musings actually sound genuinely odd and interesting rather than Kabbalistic clichés.

  7. 57
    Rory on 9 Mar 2010 #

    Only number six in Oz. I guess we didn’t have enough of a Latin connection down our end of the world. “La Isla Filipina” might have done it.

  8. 58
    Erithian on 9 Mar 2010 #

    My misheard lyric in this is “Last night I dreamt of Lumbago” – more Spike Milligan than Daphne du Maurier. Incidentally, beyond the evident similarity between the lyric and the opening sentence of the novel, is there any evidence that Madonna was consciously echoing “Rebecca”?

    It’s a minor work in the Madonna canon, maybe, but still a more than pleasant tune, and we can surely excuse her the way it sounds to British ears and any link to “Y Viva Espana”! – this being the year Miami Sound Machine went multi-platinum in the States, and with a Tex-Mex band soon to have a bunny-embargoed hit with a song previously huge for another Latino star, Madonna had a whole other tradition to plunder. (How rich that was, came across very well in BBC4’s “Latin Music USA” series not long ago.) Then again I can imagine what it must have sounded like on a Spanish beach.

  9. 59
    Lex on 9 Mar 2010 #

    Balearic re-edit found! Discovered this in my itunes randomly – it’s the Revenge Re-work, it can be streamed here, and I’m guessing I discovered it through this ILX thread. Mostly instrumental but makes really adept use of the original production’s constituent parts.

  10. 60
    swanstep on 9 Mar 2010 #

    @59, Lex. Thanks! The Revenge Rework mix (or whatever) is *great*. That’s an M.-fan *must hear* and probably a *must have* too I reckon.

  11. 61
    thefatgit on 9 Mar 2010 #

    @59, yep, that mix has got a nice laid back Balearic vibe.

  12. 62
    swanstep on 10 Mar 2010 #

    Heh, the Revenge Rework guy has a number of ace, smooth remixes, e.g., up on youtube, of (Chic/Sister Sledge’s) Lost in Music. Also, can’t recommend enough (again) this mixtapes blog (synth-pop this week, last week Belgian/new beat, next week Rave 1992).

  13. 63
    Lex on 10 Mar 2010 #

    On the thread I linked, the download link in this post for a zip of Revenge remixes (inc. this and “Lost In Music”) appears to still be working…

  14. 64
    swanstep on 10 Mar 2010 #

    @63, Lex. Yay, got it. Thanks!

  15. 65
    Brooksie on 15 Mar 2010 #

    I like this. Liked it then and like it now. I feel no need to criticise it for being faux Hispanic. I don’t expect authenticity from a pop star. It’s for others to do that. And as a Brit I never thought she was singing about Spain, nor did it feel Club 18-30 to me. It was a pop-ballad with some Latin stylistic elements.

    Also worth noting; Madonna frequently gets writing credits, but many of the songs seem to have been written and conceived by someone else before she got hold of them. You have to wonder just how much she added / took away.

    8 for me.

  16. 66
    Steviebab on 22 Nov 2013 #

    #last night I dreamt I’d lumbago…#

  17. 67
    hectorthebat on 1 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Arizona Republic (USA) – Madonna’s 30 Best Singles of All Time (2013) 19
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 49

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