Mar 10

MADONNA – “La Isla Bonita”

FT + Popular67 comments • 5,465 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. 1
    Johnny on 4 Mar 2010 #

    i’ve always felt something was a little off with this song, tom, and you’ve nailed it. the chorus, specifically the lyrics, are quite clunky. the melody is still beautiful though, especially with those celestial “ahh”s. drop the main vocal, keep the “ahhs”. that would get a 9. this gets an 8.

  2. 2
    MikeMCSG on 4 Mar 2010 #

    This was the first (perhaps only ?)time a number one was succeeded by a different song with the same initials !

    I seem to recall Alan Jones in Record Mirror noting that it was a particularly low-selling number one (perhaps the lowest ever at the time). That said it’s still a phenomenal achievement to hit the top spot with the FIFTTH single release from an album. I can’t think of any others (one or two Fourths). Anyone know any different ?

    This is one of my favourite Madonna songs perhaps because she’s tapping into the same vein of escapist melancholia as all-time fave “Echo Beach” (coincidentally the subject of a gruesome assault by Toyah lower down the chart). Tom’s right- it’s in the voice especially on the middle eight.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 4 Mar 2010 #

    That’s a top critique, Tom. I now realise that I would have responded to this a lot more attentively in 1990 than I did at the time.

    There really are a lot of good things hidden in this, aren’t there? Let me add the “pa pa pa!” ad libs on the fade-out, to this list of pretty and inessential details that make the thing a ticklish pleasure.

  4. 4
    Richaod on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Somewhat removed from the song’s historical context (especially in Britain), I just love its melancholy feel – though clearly identifiably ’80s, there’s something timeless to it. Nothing against the chorus personally – they had to step it up somehow, and it fits well into her increasingly varied live adaptations of the song.

    Whatever can be said about the lyrics, the music itself may be successful as pastiche, but the video really elevates it for me (as all good Madonna videos should). If that flamenco dress isn’t convincing, nothing is.

    A different angle: http://iconography.tumblr.com/post/205997730/la-isla-bonita

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Number two watch: The start of a four week stretch for Judy Boucher’s ‘Can’t Be With You Tonight’, a record which seems to have left little trace on the British collective memory.

  6. 6
    Richaod on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Oh, and I can’t find it on YouTube, but the extended remix from the remastered edition of True Blue really brings the chorus’ backing vocals to the forefront. Might be worth a listen if you consider them the song’s highlight like I do…

  7. 7
    AndyPandy on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Billy at 5 – in the mid-90s Judy Boucher could be found working behind the housing benefit counter at the council in High Wycombe – she could still be working there now I suppose.

    I think she was Wycombe’s 2nd biggest ever popstar chartwise (after Howard Jones).Although I doubt either of them were as influential as the town’s Dance Conspiracy (“Dub War” many peoples favourite ever hardcore record), Johnny Jungle (eponymous single sometimes cited as first ever proper jungle record), or maybe pushing it a bit DJ Pulse, Caveman, Wax Doctor or Rude Boy Monty…

  8. 8
    thefatgit on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Bruce Gaitsch’s spanish guitar is the beckoning finger tempting us into Madonna’s latin kitsch parlour. And despite all the latino signifiers being present and correct in the song and the video, Patrick Leonard’s lush production keeps the song on the right side of cliche. Madonna is spreading her appeal here.

    Playing the catholic card to it’s full extent in the video, she’s showing us her pious and austere roots balanced against her passionate and vivacious side as a natural performer and entertainer. She’s saying it’s OK to be both pious AND passionate, perhaps speaking to an insular latino community in the USA, picking up a new set of fans, only to outrage those fans at a later date…

    The video of “La Isla Bonita” also offers us a debut in the form of Benicio Del Toro, yes that’s him sitting on the bonnet of the car wearing a backwards baseball cap.

  9. 9
    anto on 4 Mar 2010 #

    I’ve come to appreciate this one over time too.
    At one point I thought of it as a slightly tacky digression
    but it actually has one of the most ingenious melodies of any
    Maddonna track and the Latin setting gives it a certain sun-kissed

  10. 10
    tonya on 4 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t approve of songs about made-up places, she’s not singing about any real San Pedro. I’ve seen polls where this ranks in the top 10 favorite Madonna singles, but it’s a 4 or 5 from me. Madonna must like it, she always has it on the set list on tour. Maybe she needs the middling tempo to catch her breath?

    This #1 and the next one of M’s did prompt a cute letter from my baby sister, who wrote me in the summer of 87 that she was learning Spanish in school so she could understand what Madonna was saying.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Unwanted consistency watch: Fernando got a tom-score of 7 too. I’m pretty sure I know which vaguely latin song M. herself (let alone her fans) would rather have in her repertoire. (Ditto Careless Whisper.)

    I gather my response to this song broadly tracks others here: just wasn’t my thing at the time, but it’s worn fairly well. It still doesn’t sound like much of a #1 to me (it’s Hasta manana not Fernando, I reckon), and seeing M. recycle it for another UK #1 a few months from now will be gruesome. Still, it’s pleasant enough in parts (esp. in the fade out as people have mentioned), and Gaga’s stomping rewrite of it, Alejandro, basically works, so it remains a kind of growing point in music no matter what anyone thinks.

    My overall feelings about this track are somewhat shaped by Sandra Bernhard hilariously ripping on it in concerts in the ’90s. I don’t remember all the details, but Bernhard began by lamenting how Linda Ronstadt was once a cool hippie then rock chick but now just wants to sing La Isla Bonita, and what’s up with that? Much hilarious bitching/kvetching about Madonna followed. Yeah she started off fun and sexy but, with LIB as some sort of turning point, she revealed herself to be a blood-sucking vampire who’s killing music, and draining the ideas and life out of all her friends (including the much aggrieved SB of course!). Bernhard and her accompanist would cycle around to playing and singing a few bars of La Isla Bon. every few minutes through the rant, stopping to dish on something SB thought was imbecilic, or that offered her a target of opportunity of some sort for some sleazy anecdote (‘You know she hates hispanics? She just likes to get f***ed by them. Same way she is with gay guys actually’… people booed at that one I remember, but SB powered on heedless (‘Oh yeah, shoot the messenger why don’t you?’) perhaps belting some great early Ronstadt song, say ‘Different drum’ or ‘I’m gonna love you for a long time’ to smooth feathers). Good times:

  12. 12
    Tom on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Haha that was totally “wanted consistency watch” Swanstep! “This is her Fernando innit – what did I give that?” (I didn’t check though)

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    Tom on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Now, Chiquitita on the other hand…

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    Tom on 4 Mar 2010 #

    And I think Alejandro – which I like a lot – is in the cod-Spanish bubblegum lineage of Fernando and the much-detested-by-the-comments-crew Angelo more than it is LIB. We will however encounter a LIB-by-way-of-Thomas-Cook rewrite of sorts in the late 90s and won’t that be fun.

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    lonepilgrim on 4 Mar 2010 #

    This doesn’t do a great deal for me – a 5 or 6. One of the pleasures I do get from this is mishearing the lyrics. I’m sure she sings ‘two eyes like potatoes’ at one point.

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    swanstep on 4 Mar 2010 #

    @15, lonepilgrim. The line’s supposed to be ‘with eyes like the desert’ but I always comically misheard it just the way you did. It’s pointless complaining about enunciation in pop music, but part of the problem here is just that the line’s bad. ‘Eyes like deserts’ barely computes to begin with, but since deserts are normally continental features, the line also fights with the song’s island paradise imagery. Maybe M. mostly swallowing/bottling the line was her best option!

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    TomLane on 5 Mar 2010 #

    By this point Madonna could record anything and it would chart. But let’s be glad that what charted high, like this, was pretty good. Not her greatest of singles, but pretty good. In the States this peaked at #4.

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    punctum on 5 Mar 2010 #

    It’s hard to tell which is the more depressing – that even at this stage Madonna was still prepared to put her name to sentimental package tourist schmaltz like “La Isla Bonita,” or the fact that so many people were prepared to buy (into) it. Then I looked at the sleeve of True Blue and was reminded that the song was co-written by Madonna, which is arguably more depressing than either of the above.

    It wasn’t yet summer when the song topped the chart but there is the unmissable stench of suntan lotion and unwieldy coaches about its “te amo” and “when the samba played” and “your Spanish lullaby,” clearly aimed at the kind of visitor who wishes their Spain to be as close to Britain as possible, who would never dream of venturing into Goya country because, well, where’s the sea and there isn’t a pub for miles. Perhaps “San Pedro” is a confluence of flesh and spirit which foretells “Like A Prayer,” but Madonna’s performance is so listless – there are moments when she sounds as though she is struggling to remain awake – and the song so lifeless that the interest simply isn’t generated. The solar paradise is oddly desolate, and the song’s moping minor key conjures up the picture at the end of the Plath story “The Green Rock” when David and Sarah revisit the childhood beach they loved so much, only to find a small enclosure of sand and a green rock which formerly served as castle, sailboat and mountain but is now, stripped of the smallness and innocence of childhood, literally nothing more than a green rock.

  19. 19
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 5 Mar 2010 #

    I’ve actually always been fond of this song — “last night i dreamed i went to mandalay* again” — and indeed pitched an ideas piece to nme about the curious anglo relationship to matters hispanic, always dismissive, always shallowly fascinated (can’t remember many of the ideas sadly: though i think the link to “come dancing” as a zone of music that rock culture couldn’t grasp was in there somewhere…)

    but also wanted to write abt latin hiphop and etc**: it got turned down bcz the relevant editor didn’t like the word “anglo” heh (also to be fair he already had a piece on latin hiphop in the works)

    *as in the first line of “rebecca” but as a housename it’s full of dreamy empire semi-memory — “on the road to mandalay, where the flying fishes play…”
    **maybe if they’d given the go ahead i’d have made the balearic connection too! i kinda love the notion of the second summer of love as a blowback from the costa del sol mindset, which is also dreamy empire semi-memory re-enacted of course, the route out of back-to-backs into the sun for the brit working class once mandalay was returned to actual owners… “watney’s bleeding red barrel”, as python put it…

  20. 20
    punctum on 5 Mar 2010 #

    Addendum to #18: I caught that “Green Rock” feeling at the time because we had travelled up to St Andrews for the weekend (where we’d spent a bit of time in the early eighties); it clearly wasn’t quite summer yet – it was far too cool and blowsy (tbf St Andrews feels like that even in July) – and neither was it quite the same place we’d known; there was a distinct air of the town being “done up” and on the formerly untouched extent of beach in between Hamilton Hall and the Golf Club there had been built a marina/micro-leisure centre of some kind. From our vantage point we could hear the music they were pumping out and it all seemed to fit with this gloomily bright air of emptiness about the place: “Keep Your Eye On Me” by Herb Alpert (Jam & Lewis doing a Marcus Miller on Herb’s Tutu), “Magic Smile” by Rosie Vela, “Running In The Family” by Level 42 and “La Isla Bonita.”

    Further listening to pierce the core of the essential loneliness of Balearicism: “On The Beach” by Chris Rea, “Barefoot In The Head” by A Man Called Adam and SAW’s masterpiece, the 12-inch mix of “I Just Can’t Wait” by Mandy Smith.

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    punctum on 5 Mar 2010 #

    PPS: for many years I did not have the slightest notion to revisit St Andrews but I quite fancy taking Lena up there at some point, if only to sample the best fish and chips in the world, i.e. P&Ns in Market Street (I’m presuming it’s still there).

  22. 22
    MikeMCSG on 5 Mar 2010 #

    #18 I’m interested in the “Green Rock” story Punctum, where can I find it ? I was under the impression that “The Bell Jar” was her only venture into prose.

    I always imagine that the coda to “Echo Beach” ,the increasingly manic repetition of “Echo Beach far away in time” represents the same story of going back and being unable to recapture the magic. For me it’s also layered with the sadness of Martha and the Muffins’ very brief time in the sun and the passing of a time when I liked the majority of records in the chart (long gone by 1987).

    On a happier note L.I.B. was number one when Dale secured their League status with a nervy 2-1 win over Stockport in the first season of automatic relegation to the Conference (which seemed a much bigger deal then). Worth recalling now we’re on the cusp of finally exiting the Fourth Division (as it still effectively is) the right way.

  23. 23
    punctum on 5 Mar 2010 #

    #22 – you can find it in her short story/other miscellaneous prose collection Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams.

  24. 24
    MikeMCSG on 5 Mar 2010 #

    #22 Thanks Punctum.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 5 Mar 2010 #

    Sukrat, the Mandalay reference is spot on: you can’t go back to a magical past. This is also exactly why, like Punctum, I find the lyric rote and dully unimaginative – so many Latino cliches after such a leading opening line. The title is flat and basic enough for any English language to get the gist of it. I dunno, for a lost romantic paradise that haunts her dreams it all sounds a bit Club 18-30.

    For a wild, lost Latin dreamworld may I recommend The Breeze And I by Caterina Valente, a UK no.4 in 1954. Can she hit that note? Oh yes she can.

  26. 26
    pink champale on 5 Mar 2010 #

    swantep #16 oh, til this day i’d thought it was “eyes like pesetas” it sort of makes sense (her eyes are shiny?) and keeps the latin theme going too. she should have asked me if she was stuck. a friend had thought it was “eyes like the devil”, which I always liked.

    pity we won’t get the chance to consistency check with that other 80’s latin swerve, ‘domino dancing’.

  27. 27
    wichita lineman on 5 Mar 2010 #

    That should read ‘English language SPEAKER’

  28. 28
    The Clapton Pond Regeneration Project on 5 Mar 2010 #

    I actually find the cliches kind of appealing. It’s the ur-song exemplifying the now traditional “Latino themed single from the third album” micro-genre; I think it needed to tick all the holiday-romance-in-a-flamenco-dress boxes for it to work. It’s about as Spanish as an office party in La Tasca but I don’t think its context is about authenticity, so it works for me.

    It’s much like how I think it’s good for children to learn classic/corny jokes first before they move onto Tricolore 2/3/4 of subverting the expected punchline.

  29. 29
    Tom on 5 Mar 2010 #

    “Latino themed single from the third album”

    I think it was Sasha Frere Jones who I saw tweet a couple of weeks ago hailing LIB as a kind of CONCEPTUAL BREAKTHROUGH in what you do if you want to release too many singles from yr album – banger, banger, ballad, erm now what, A-HA!! THE LATIN ONE.

  30. 30
    LondonLee on 5 Mar 2010 #

    #18. How can it be aimed at “the kind of visitor who wishes their Spain to be as close to Britain as possible, who would never dream of venturing into Goya country because, well, where’s the sea and there isn’t a pub for miles” when Madonna is American and clearly singing about South America? You really shouldn’t let your own prejudices let you ignore the facts.

    I always liked this but I grew up listening to my mum’s Jose Felciano and Sandpipers records so I’m a sucker for this kind of Latin breeziness, fake or not.

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