I am the same age now – just turned 42 – as Madonna was when she released “Music”. Last week, with delightful serendipity, Spotify released a study suggesting that listeners hit a “musical mid-life crisis” at 42, as their tastes suddenly skew (a little) back towards the mainstream: are they trying to keep up? Was Madonna? The image of her as trend-chasing, desperate, even “vampiric” (as that Aphex interviewer glossed it) has hardened as the hits dried up. But the Aphex quote shows it was current in the Music era – how he framed the singer’s interest in working with him.
As I said writing up “Frozen”, it’s a bad model for Madonna’s career, designed to diminish her. It’s a particularly poor fit for Mirwais Ahmadazai, her main collaborator across the early 00s. Mirwais was neither trendy – only the most dedicated of French house followers knew much about him – nor young: he was approaching 40 himself when he started working with Madonna. He’s a choice that sheds light on what she was actually up to across the 90s and 00s: she had a sound in mind, and found someone she was comfortable working with to explore that sound and what she could do with it. When she had a different idea, she eased her collaborator out of the deal. As with William Orbit, she valued experience, not youth.
The reference point I used for the Orbit collaboration was James Brown in funk taskmaster mode. But if you’re keen not to flatter Madonna – especially since Mirwais is the only one of Madonna’s sidemen not to shine much outside their work together – there’s another comparison (and contemporary) you might use: Morrissey, who from his mid-30s settled into a steady collaboration with a bunch of rockabilly journeymen. Like Madonna’s partnership with Mirwais, Morrissey’s work with ex-Polecat Boz Boorer et al hovers from steady to dubious, though Madonna’s bolts of genuine inspiration are more frequent.
So what about “Music” itself – the single that opened this phaselet of Madonna’s career? Is it mid-life crisis, determined change of direction, or an artist finding a comfort zone? Bits of all three, maybe. It’s bracing, aggressive even; clattering robot bop and the rawest-sounding electro we’ve met since Flat Eric. “Music” is certainly doing its best to make you think this is a harsher Madonna than the crowd-pleasing swirl of her soundtrack work with Orbit. The first thirty seconds or so past the spoken-word intro are terrific: machines grinding out a lop-sided groove, descending vocoder pleas (”DO YOU LIKE MY ACID ROCK?”) and enter Madonna, cool as you like, from stage left: “Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on…”
After that, though? The alienation doesn’t let up, and Madonna is in no mood for concessions. “Music” works its groove remorselessly, refusing you anything much in the way of melody musically or vocally: this is as Kraftwerkian as she ever got, except Madonna’s robot rock has more grease and grime to it, less beauty. But it’s also too busy, piling up sounds, and some of its tricks are determinedly ugly in ways I can’t appreciate – the overlapping, out-of-phase vocal lines on the chorus, for instance.
The other problem I have is that all the disorientation tactics hide one of Madonna’s most boring, least inviting songs emotionally. Madonna likes music, you see, and most of “Music” is a restatement of that, at length, to the point where it starts feeling – unthinkable for her! – defensive. “Don’t think of yesterday and I don’t look at the clock” – it’s OK, really, we believe you! That monotonous vocal line, and the clank and grind of the backing, make loving music sound awfully hard work, like a really brutal workout regimen. (So maybe my 42-year old self can relate – “Music”’s awkward, gritted-teeth forward momentum does capture what it feels like when the pleasures of youth need more and more effort. But I don’t believe that’s what she was going for.)
The irony is that as a concept for a song, ‘think of yesterday’ sums it up too well. From Chuck Berry to ABBA, the rock era was scattered with songs about music in the abstract, as a force of life-changing or world-changing power. They’re part celebration, part self-justification: “It swept this whole wide land / Rock and roll forever will stand”, as The Showmen put it. That’s the vibe I get from “Music” – and the “bourgeoisie and the rebel” bit does sound great, whatever it actually means. But Madonna herself pushed beyond that a long time ago. “Into The Groove” is better than “Music” not just because it has better hooks but because it feels more lived, more personal, less monolithic – it doesn’t try to switch clumsily from personal testament to grand idea, it has the self-belief to trust that you won’t need that.
“Music” was a statement, and did its job, at the time, of underlining Madonna’s late-90s renewal by confirming that her sound would stay mutable, her ambition remain obvious. This was important: for all the excellence of Ray Of Light, it had the feel of a mature record, the kind of album that caps careers and might herald a gentle fade. “Music” ruled that out. Fifteen years on, it still crunches enough for me to enjoy despite its large flaws. But the only statement this song can make now is its central one – “Music makes the people come together” – and while it’s no less true, it’s no less banal.