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Apr 15

MADONNA – “Music”

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#872, 2nd September 2000

madonna music “Her whole career’s been like, oh, they’re the trendy person of the moment, I’ll work with them to make me younger. They’re using you.” – Aphex Twin on Madonna, 2001.

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.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    JLucas on 27 Apr 2015 #

    For me ‘Music’ is Madonna’s last real imperial phase. She’d have big hits after this, but even in 2005 she felt a lot more like she was playing catch-up, if not necessarily musically then with a grip on the charts that was rapidly slipping away from her – in America she found it particularly difficult to score major hits after this. I’d argue she only really had two significant US hits after this era – the lead singles from her 2005 and 2008 albums. Neither of them were #1s – as mentioned, this was her last.

    Maybe it’s a timing thing, but for me it really does vie with Ray of Light as my favourite Madonna album. I think it’s brilliant. Superficially gaudy with this lead single and the cowboy chic (the last time she was a real fashion trendsetter too, I’d wager), but with so much hidden depth. The title track has never ranked amongst my very favourite Madonna singles, but I think it’s cool and silly and fun in a way that she just can’t seem to afford to be any more. I definitely read the ‘Boogie Woogie’ lyric as knowingly daft rather than awkward – the next track on the album finds her deadpanning “I like to singy singy singy / like a bird on wingy wingy wingy” through thick, muddy vocoder treatment. (It’s brilliant).

    Don’t Tell Me was such a huge radio hit at the time, but feels like one of her more undervalued hits now. I’d rate it as one of her best songs ever, and a quintessential Madonna hit. The strings are just gorgeous.

    I know some people find the whole ‘I love Guy’ theme on the album a bit much, but for me songs like ‘I Deserve It’ and ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ are among her sweetest, most sincere songwriting efforts, certainly of her post-RoL catalogue. A lot of this album is as close as Madonna ever got to making a folk record, and Mirwais electronics actually enhance that effect rather than burying it. It was such a striking mix, I’m surprised more people didn’t imitate it – although you could argue the likes of Imogen Heap did similar things a few years later. It makes the music on this album sound so much more distinctive in retrospect though.

    ‘Amazing’ and ‘Runaway Lover’ are cute little throwback to RoL’s more carefree moments. The former is perhaps a little too much of a Beautiful Stranger retread, but I love William Orbit’s production on the latter, and it’s one of Madonna’s best vocals on the album.

    What It Feels Like For A Girl is another lovely vocal, and along with plaintive album closer ‘Gone’ (I don’t acknowledge the tacked-on American Pie), the most stripped back moment on the record. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two tracks strike as the most intimate and personal moments on the album, and it’s correct that Mirwais’ production stays largely out of the way for them.

    The most startling track on the album comes just before the end, the chilly, haunting ‘Paradise (Not For Me)’. Madonna’s vocals are so desolate that at times the effect verges on camp – particularly on the verses – but the ghostly, disorienting chorus is as moving as anything in her catalogue. She definitely feels like she’s playing a role compared to her delivery of stuff like ‘Gone’ and ‘I Deserve it’, but it still manages to sound more emotionally naked than she ever has subsequently. One of the strangest things she ever recorded, it would never have worked as a single, but it’s easily one of the best album tracks she’s ever done – and I think she’s had plenty of great album tracks.

    8 for the song, 9 for the album. Of all Madonna’s incarnations in my lifetime, this is the one I miss most.

  2. 52
    AMZ1981 on 27 Apr 2015 #

    It will be interesting to see how many transatlantic chart toppers there are in the years ahead, leaving aside those by RnB artists. From Madonna’s point of view her next album (two near bunnies) would a) perhaps be a little too strident in its Bush bashing – whether we like it or not he didn’t start losing popularity in the States until midway through his second term and b) not be strong enough on the song front to cross over beyond her fan base. The next album along (two bunnies) obviously repaired her commercial fortunes in Europe – one wonders whether she planned the fall and rise all along – but courted the disco and gay audience which was always going to make her a cult concern in her own country.

    I might be opening a can of worms here but might it be the case that European and American tastes diverged in the early noughties when it came to established artists. Taking a case in point; my favourite artist (and arguably the biggest name we never meet here in any way shape or form) is Bruce Springsteen who commands a sizeable following in his home country but to a slightly different audience – it’s mainly in Europe where he’s revered as a rock and songwriting icon.

  3. 53
    Izzy on 27 Apr 2015 #

    What is Bruce’s status in the US, exactly? Speaking from here it seems almost unfathomable that he shouldn’t be an open-road rock icon, but I think I’ve begun to realise that his politics have come to look too suspiciously pink to qualify him as a real American.

    If that’s right, then of all the demented consequences of polarised political rhetoric this feels like the most absurd – if America, specifically mythic rock America, isn’t about blue-collared guys standing together, what is it about?

    (PS apologies for my inevitable misunderstanding)

  4. 54
    James BC on 27 Apr 2015 #

    Ugh. Massive alarm bell whenever someone talks about “music” as an undifferentiated mass. I remember hearing a quote around this time that Ronan Keating “loves music” and thinking “yes he is exactly the kind of person who would say that”. See also the Onion article “I Like All Types Of Music”.

    Basically if you claim to “love music” or even talk about just “music” then you are, wittingly or unwittingly, part of the malign tendency that will lead to the destruction of all music, and other culture, of any value.

    I don’t necessarily include Madonna in that but then again, this is no Like A Prayer. It is better than American Pie, but people who enjoy American Pie are possibly worse than (and would significantly overlap with) people who talk about “music”.

  5. 55
    Ed on 27 Apr 2015 #

    Incidentally, while I agree the vampirism argument is stupid – her collaborations are mutually beneficial relationships* – I do think it’s highly unlikely that Madonna and Mirwais never heard this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=tDBgbFk2d-A

    (*Although I guess vampirism could be considered a mutually beneficial relationship in some cases. “Take me away from all this death” and so on.)

  6. 56
    AMZ1981 on 28 Apr 2015 #

    #53 we’ve gone a bit off topic but I suspect in America Bruce Springsteen plays the Stars and Stripes card a bit more than he does over here and – to be fair to all involved – some of it is dictated by cultural differences generally. Perhaps the division is best viewed from the US side; I think many of his US fans are perplexed that somebody so quintessentially American has such a following in Europe and some even resent the fact he spends so much time touring here. It’s worth noting that his immediate contemporaries such as Southside Johnny and John Mellencamp have never really caught on here.

    He’s not directly comparable with Madonna and a look at her singles discography suggests that by her phenomonal standards she was never quite as dominant chartwise there as she was here. She did become quite Anglicanised during the Guy Ritchie years and maybe she found a niche with the European gay audience.

    Many people have picked up on the fact that Rebel Heart (certainly her best record since Confessions From A Dance Floor and for me her best since Music) is an album of two halves and one wonders whether the collaboration heavy RnB numbers are pitched at her US audience while the world weary numbers speak to her UK fans.

  7. 57
    mapman132 on 28 Apr 2015 #

    If Bruce Springsteen isn’t a big deal in America, it’s certainly news to me. He famously has never had a number one single in the US, but he has had 10 number one albums – tied for third most in history. His tours still seem to be big business. Of course, I grew up/live relatively close to Bruce’s home base so my view may be skewed, but still…

    Also, contrary to popular belief, not all of us are hard-right rednecks. A lot of us share Bruce’s left-of-center views. Remember we did manage to elect Obama twice.

  8. 58
    Jonathan on 28 Apr 2015 #

    Born in the USA especially was huge worldwide, but it looms even larger in the US consciousness, and in a way that crosses party lines: not just in terms of the attention it infamously received from Reagan and George F. Will, but even today Chris Christie is famous as a Springsteen fan. Springsteen was a big part of the public grieving post-9/11 as well — he played the Tribute to Heroes TV special and The Rising captured the nation’s wounded Zeitgeist. The idea that left-leaning pop culture is unwelcome in America — or was even just in the period following 9/11 — is a bit simplistic, deriving as much from European condescension and a liberal victim-complex as from reality. For instance, Green Day’s American Idiot outsold Toby Keith’s Unleashed (the album from which “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” comes) by a couple of million copies.

  9. 59
    Erithian on 28 Apr 2015 #

    #52 And don’t forget we did meet Bruce, albeit briefly, via “We Are The World”!

  10. 60
    Cumbrian on 28 Apr 2015 #

    Previous discussion on Bruce touching on some of these subjects is on the Don’t Look Back In Anger thread.

    It is inarguable that he is less popular in the US than he used to be – but then at his height he was ridiculously popular, so the only way was down from there. Still, he’s not had venues curtained off on tour in Europe as far as I am aware and has had in the US in the recent past (Raleigh, NC, I believe was at least one example) and he’s still selling out multiple dates worth of football stadiums across Europe and not doing that as much in the USA – outside the North Eastern states at least.

    Some of this will be his politics more explicitly coming to the fore, I would say (Wrecking Ball is a brilliant album, up there with his best, and wears its politics on its sleeve, the Vote for Change tour in 2004 holed his boat with some of his more conservative fans) but a decent amount of his reduction in ticket selling power in the US is probably just because his fans are getting old and dying off, plus the tickets are not exactly cheap. Meanwhile, I look around his gigs in Europe and there are plenty of people my age and younger (i.e. early 30s and below) knocking around. I suspect that the brief period where he was being name-checked by The Killers, Arcade Fire, etc, could well be the starting point for that.

    I agree with the naysayers on Music, the song, and also with those praising Music the album. I like almost everything on the album more than this lead single (I’ve never really been able to get on with the clattering disjunction of the music for Music). What It Feels Like For A Girl, in particular, is sublime.

  11. 61
    AMZ1981 on 28 Apr 2015 #

    I didn’t want to extend several lengthy comments above by noting a) Bruce Springsteen’s one brief appearance on a UK number one single and b) that I was making a few sweeping generalisations. #57 I’m happy to say that I certainly wasn’t implying all Americans are red necks and apologise if that’s the impression I gave – I’m proud to have many American friends and have visited liberal America myself.

    I suppose the key point is that with every year we become more distant from Beatlemania, American and European tastes become more polarised (perhaps not helped by the fact that popular music becomes more fragmented as well). I’m certainly not disputing that many, many American recognise Springsteen as a liberal icon in the tradition of Steinbeck and others as well as a rock icon but there is a cultural divide he has to straddle (it’s worth noting as well that he fell off the radar in the late nineties as far as the UK was concerned which is how he might have picked up a younger following upon his comeback) . I think it’s fair to say he derives some of his American fanbase from the C&W scene there and I stand by my point that the strain of American blue collar rock he leads has never really crossed over here, the man himself aside. At the same time there is plenty of British rock that hasn’t exported in the other direction – Paul Weller being a case in point.

    I raised the question as an example when I asked the question of whether Madonna’s American and European audiences diverged post Music.

  12. 62
    Paulito on 28 Apr 2015 #

    @61 I know this is a further digression but I’ve often seen it argued that – as measured in chart terms at least – US and UK tastes in popular music were in fact at their greatest level of alignment in the early to mid ’80s, rather than during the Beatlemania era.

  13. 63
    IP on 28 Apr 2015 #

    Another vote for “I liked this a lot at the time, sounds a bit boring now”. Kind of the opposite of Die Another Day, which started off embarrassing and now sounds absolutely fantastic.

    On the plus side, “Music” felt like the first proper hedonistic disco-dancey floorfiller Madonna single in a *really* long time – maybe since “Vogue”? And in retrospect, it’s a satisfying foreshadow of the big hit in 2005 – possibly my favourite single of the ‘00s.

  14. 64
    mapman132 on 30 Apr 2015 #

    #61 I know you and others weren’t trying to offend, but sometimes I feel the need to point out how diverse the US really is. Notably, I felt more “at home” last fall in London and its environs than I do in places only a few hours drive from where I live!

    I’m not certain I agree though with the idea that American and UK/European tastes are diverging wrt pop music. It certainly was true in 2000, and will become more true as the 2000s continue, but it seems that things have snapped back somewhat in the 2010s. I credit the Internet, especially Youtube, iTunes, and Spotify, with this. Of course, I primarily focus on the singles chart, so probably album sales give a different view – which is where Springsteen would show up these days anyway.

  15. 65
    Steve Mannion on 1 May 2015 #

    I don’t agree that tastes have diverged between ‘here’ and ‘there’ either. The music press here are obviously keen to foghorn the success of British acts in the US but there’s been a steady stream of this over the last ten years from Coldplay’s praise peak to Adele and Mumford Removals or Whatever to the more recent post-EDM crossovers of your Calvin Harrises and Disclosures. ‘Music’ does feel prescient due to the latter aspect – if you think of it as Daft Punk-inspired and how their influence has ballooned remarkably in US pop since.

  16. 66
    Alfred on 4 May 2015 #

    #58: and Toby Keith’s politics (in his music) are complicated too.

  17. 67
    Izzy on 4 May 2015 #

    I’ve been bingeing on Bruce the past few days, and thinking about what’s upthread. I got to wondering – does the America he wrote about exist anymore?

    Obviously he covered a lot of ground, but what I hear as the main themes – desperate people let down by the institutions they placed faith in, the way out heroic but doomed – seem like they don’t really work if you never trust a higher power that you don’t have to keep cheerleading for no matter how it may fail you, or you never have to face up to there being no more self-determining to do.

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