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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. 1
    Alan on 26 Apr 2015 #

    I mostly remember the interminable performance of this during Live 8 http://freakytrigger.co.uk/pumpkin/2005/07/pub-8-3-the-elgin/

  2. 2
    Kinitawowi on 26 Apr 2015 #

    Insert innumerable jokes about calling this thing “Music” being a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.

    As with Oops I Did It Again all that time ago, my primary exposure to this song was always with its video, its incredibly 60s tone seemingly a conscious attempt to recreate the success of Beautiful Stranger. (Think Of Yesterday, indeed.) But then there’s the hideous touch of modernity, Ali G’s cameo, and suddenly this Madonna is – for possibly the first time in her musical life – confused. A record that looks to the past and the future at the same time, and catches the best of neither.

    2.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 26 Apr 2015 #

    I like the Lipps Inc/Kraftwerk style of the production and perhaps it sounds great in a club or remix but once this gets started it sounds a bit monotonous (and not in a good way) – something that the video appears to try to gloss over with Ali G’s comedy stylings, a cartoon sequence and strippers. I loathe most of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s ‘characters’ so his contribution is particularly irritating for me and hard to ignore.

  4. 4
    thefatgit on 26 Apr 2015 #

    I disagree with Aphex Twin’s statement. It screams of ageism and underlines a belief that if you find a style that works for you, you must follow its path to its conclusion. Last year’s album suggests he has found his style and is sticking rigidly to his path. The Aphex path is a pretty fascinating and unusual path, but a path all the same. Madonna has no respect for paths. She will continue to kick over the KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs and wander among the flowerbeds into her twilight years and more power to her.

    Tom pretty much nails it for me, but I’m taking my score a notch higher. (7)

  5. 5
    mrdiscopop on 26 Apr 2015 #

    A record that aches to have its finger on the pulse of dance culture but deploys the phrase “boogie-“woogie”.

    Music has nonetheless had a surprising longevity in Madonna’s repertoire. The qualities that see it marked down here (repitition, monotony) make it eminently adaptable.

    Even in the original form, I like how the hi-hat pattern goes slowly mental; and the theremin-esque refrain at the end is still a thrill. A five or a seven, depending on how irritating Madonna is being on any given day.

  6. 6
    Tom on 26 Apr 2015 #

    Did I make it obvious enough in the review that I think Aphex is wrong? Maybe not, in which case I might amend it.

  7. 7
    Tom on 26 Apr 2015 #

    #5 “Boogie-woogie” is ridiculous, but it’s surely knowing – for one thing, why would she suddenly use it at this point after 18 years of making records for the dancefloor? It doesn’t work, but I don’t think it’s straightforwardly trying to sound hip, or unaware it doesn’t.

  8. 8
    Tom on 26 Apr 2015 #

    Actually, is there anything in the record and its rhythm that could make “boogie-woogie” apt? This is one of those times my lack of musiciology really tells, unfortunately.

  9. 9
    Mark M on 26 Apr 2015 #

    I’m struggling to think of a song my opinion of changed so completely, so completely. First time I heard it was when I’d dropped by The Face offices, and was told, ‘You’ve got to hear the Madonna single – it’s amazing.’ And that first time I heard it, it did seem amazing – machine-y, daringly extreme for a big star, excitingly retro-futurist. Went away telling other people, ‘Wow, wait until you hear what Madonna has done.’

    Around a week after it had hit the TV channels, I was growing tired of it. Those same elements – especially the treated vocals – started to become grating. Rather than a radical collision of interesting elements, on repeated exposure, it felt like a grab-bag of attention-seeking sonic gimmicks.

    Another week on, and I absolutely hated it. Still do. Madonna hasn’t done anything I’ve liked since.

  10. 10
    AMZ1981 on 26 Apr 2015 #

    Firstly a couple of stats. Music was Madonna’s tenth number one single making her the fourth artist at that point to break double figures after Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Cliff Richard. She also became the third female artist to feature on ten UK number one singles, just two weeks after Melanie C became the second (Geri Halliwell of course being the first). Last but not least Music gave her back to back number ones for the first time since La Isla Bonita and Who’s That Girl.

    Madonna’s image has always been that of an untouchable pop goddess, willing to take risks (and end up with egg on her face when it goes wrong) but ultimately proving stronger than her critics. However every so often the mask slips as it did on the Like A Prayer album and again on Ray Of Light and it’s probably unsurprising that her confessional albums are her most highly regarded. However there is a case for Music being her best straight up pop album and almost certainly the best post Like A Prayer. Rolling Stone even ranked it on their Top 500 Albums Of All Time List. And yet fifteen years after release it’s rarely mentioned in dispatches.

    Music the song was never the best advertisment for the album at the time and hasn’t aged well. The album also suffers from rather too obviously singing Guy Ritchie’s praises (eight years later she’d write a song about him called The Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You. And yet I listened to Music the album a few nights ago and was reminded of how fantastic it was; the title track sits better in an album context and the magnificent almost closer (American Pie being tagged on at the end of the UK version) Gone may be her most undervalued song. It is perhaps surprising that she waited until three singles in before releasing the album’s astonishing centrepiece, What It Feels Like For A Girl.

    Going back to chart stats but had Music been released a week later the whole top ten would have stayed static; as it was she entered at the top and the previous week’s top ten all dropped a place. I might be wrong but leaving aside the occasions where no chart was published and the previous chart carried over this might be the closest we ever came to a completely static top ten. For this to have happened in 2000 would have been a delicious irony.

  11. 11
    Doctor Casino on 26 Apr 2015 #

    The video is as silly as it ever was – at the time I remember being annoyed that it was hijacked by some weird comedian I’d never heard of, but even without him it’s just a blizzard of distractions, transition graphics and an unconvincing table dancer scene meant to convince us of… what? Madonna is shocking and transgressive? Not much there for the year 2000, and anyway, she receives the attention from the dancer like a bachelorette party from Dubuque and the effect is spoiled. Better: Madonna is in drag as a present-day pop star? If so, she treads a fine line between trite jokes about pimps and bling, already well worn out, and just being offensive. On the whole I think she errs on the side of dullness here and that more or less applies to the song too; it sounds better than I remember it, and I like the squelchy voices and bloops and bleeps, but it’s really not much of a song. For me the paean to an abstraction just feels like an admission of being out of ideas. I vote 3 or 4, nice soundscape but nothing besides its performer to make it a #1.

    The parallels to Discotheque might be worth probing.

  12. 12
    Doctor Casino on 26 Apr 2015 #

    I should add that this was played a LOT on what was left of the American video channels at the time, so I had many chances to build up annoyance at “Is you…Madonna?”

  13. 13
    mapman132 on 27 Apr 2015 #

    The first transatlantic #1 of the 21st century…and unless I’m forgetting something, Madonna’s last US #1 to date…

    I’m a bit surprised at Tom’s lukewarm reaction, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. I didn’t like it myself as much as the Ray of Light trilogy – too hip-hoppy for my tastes perhaps? Still, I guess I could go as high as 7/10.

    Some random notes:

    – Unsurprisingly, the first song simply named “Music” to hit #1. Surprisingly, a quick Ctrl-F on the index page reveals it’s the first song with “Music” in the title at all to hit #1. Amusingly, if we don’t count MusicAL Youth, the only two acts with Music in their names were back to back.

    – Anyone else notice this is the second #1 in a row in which the video contains the artist getting annoyed when a taxi driver lowers the volume on their song?

    – I quite like Madonna’s current record back here in 2015. Doesn’t seem to be doing anything on the charts though :(

    Finally, haven’t seen the article, so my only thought on “musical mid-life crisis at 42” is that certain postings of mine in recent months may well speak for themselves….

  14. 14

    I feel that I can hear a trace memory of A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” in feel and shape (more the way AToH played it live than the original single)?

    It’s this kind of boogie-woogie — as invoked by AToH or The Fatback Band or Baccarat in highly arranged late 70s disco, rather than the piano style that e.g. Pinetop Smith was famous for in the 1920s.

  15. 15
    flahr on 27 Apr 2015 #

    “radical collision of interesting elements […] grab-bag of attention-seeking sonic gimmicks” but surely these two phrases mean exactly the same thing???

  16. 16
    Andrew on 27 Apr 2015 #

    I feel like the “boogie-woogie” lyric is a knowingly cheesy throwback, ridiculous within the context of (what was at the time) a very modern-sounding pop song.

    After the almost imperious majesty of the Ray of Light album and the earnest reading of ‘American Pie’ (both of which I love) it was refreshing to hear Madonna being fun and frivolous again on ‘Music’.

    ‘Beautiful Stranger’, held from the top spot by S Club 7’s debut, was just as joyful, and a much better song than ‘Music’, both melodically and thematically, the tension of its verses snapping away to a euphoric chorus. ‘Music’ is sort of *all* release, and feels like more of a groove than a song per se. In that sense, it has direct parallels with the boppy, languid post-disco of Madonna (the album), although the Madge of 1983 probably wouldn’t have shoe-horned in a lyric about “the bourgeoisie”.

    There was a time when it wore on me a bit, with Madonna performing it for four tours in a row at the expense of neglected gems. Although mixing it up with ‘Disco Inferno’ (on the Confessions tour) and ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’ (Sticky & Sweet) was novel, when you take away the song’s musical backbone, the top line isn’t really all that strong.

    However, I’ve come around to it again – a strong 7.

    (‘Impressive Instant’, from the Music album, is a highlight of this era. “I like to singy singy singy, like a bird on the wingy wingy wingy” is perhaps my favourite nonsense lyric of all time.)

  17. 17
    swanstep on 27 Apr 2015 #

    Ha! I never noticed the ‘acid rock’ line before. Thanks Tom.

    Signs of the music-business models changing: I picked up the album Music first week of release at Walmart on some exclusive, frighteningly good special deal. I think it was $5.99; at any rate, cheap as chips or so it seemed. And, as AMZ1981 has conveyed, the album was pretty jolly good: beyond the tracks he mentions, ‘I Deserve It’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me’ (a personal fave among M’s vids too) are all good to excellent. The album version of ‘What It Feels Like A Girl’ is indeed superb; the single/video mix, however, was dreadful, as was Mr Ritchie’s video for it – the only real botch-up of this album release cycle for M.

    The triad of Bedtime Stories, Ray Of Light, and Music is M’s ultra-impressive second career peak in my view. As for ‘Music’ itself, however, I broadly agree with Tom’s assessment: it’s got charm and brutal robotic energy and the intro’s especially inviting… but the ultra-locked-in faux-primitive beats and synths and empty spaces between them (rather like much of Kanye’s Yeezus) make it hard to listen to repeatedly. The upshot: I don’t come back to ‘Music’ very often, but I really enjoy it whenever I do, then I don’t need or want to hear it again for a while. ‘Music”s an impressive and deserved worldwide #1, but like wasabi one doesn’t want too much of it:
    7

  18. 18
    weej on 27 Apr 2015 #

    I always heard it as ““bourgeoisie and the rabble” – which makes a little more sense, though it’s still odd in a Madonna song.

  19. 19
    Izzy on 27 Apr 2015 #

    10: that static top ten stat is weird. Was TOTP still going in 2000? Considering it didn’t play records which were going down, that must also have been about its most also-ran episode ever.

    As for Music, it’s okay but notably short of singable hooks. I was going to suggest that that renders a Madonna record pretty much pointless, but given that she was always the weakest singer of all elite stars, I’m not sure why that should be so. (5)

  20. 20
    Steve Williams on 27 Apr 2015 #

    #19 For that reason, Top of the Pops dropped the rule that it could only play records going up the charts in the nineties, and it would regularly play the previous week’s number one for example. Indeed by this point you could argue that the definition of a big hit was one that went down the chart slower than the others.

  21. 21
    Tommy Mack on 27 Apr 2015 #

    “Yeah, the bourgeoisie are the ones still buying your records” I churlishly thought to myself at the time but then this grew on me.

    Covered by Goldblade, topping the bill at Manchester’s Night and Day Cafe’s Madonna night. ant man b were asked to play but I said we’d only do it if we could do Material Girl and someone else had already bagged it. Not my smartest move but I didn’t really know my Madonna back then.

  22. 22
    DanusJonus on 27 Apr 2015 #

    To take the static top 10 thing and make a bit of a leap (just for fun and because for some reason I love those kind of statistics), in June 1994, we had the rare occurrence of there being no new entries in the top 20. Although Wet Wet Wet were number one at the time so I suppose the whole record industry could have just given in and decided to wait until it finally started dropping down the charts.

    Obviously around Christmas and New Year, you get a new chart each week although there’s often no new releases and the positions generally swap around slightly with no major changes. Without wanting to go through every festive chart, there might have been a fairly static top 10 during these periods?

    The no new entries in the top 10 would happen again in a couple of years from where we’re up to at the moment. I think once downloads started to be counted in 2006 it happened a lot more regularly. If memory serves the downloads would count for the week before the CD was released, hence you got some good old fashioned chart climbers, which had become a rarity over the previous 15 years or so.

    While not quite static charts, I felt the need to share this information nonetheless.

    I suppose my desire to share this also underlines my lack of love for ‘Music’.

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 27 Apr 2015 #

    After ‘Ray Of Light’ I found, unlike before, Madonna would really struggle to ‘keep up’ with who she was working with in terms of bringing something interesting and intriguing to the record…at least when there was enough of that in the music itself. She does manage it better on two or three of her later #1s compared to this which is just too carried by Mirwais and his crafty knobs. I liked ‘Impressive Instant’ more.

    The Ali G stuff was cringeworthy too – the character already tired by that point. I loathed Madonna’s Anglophile (although you may well argue it was more tasteful than her prior Geisha dalliance(s) phase and this was its height. Still this is sparky fun in spite of it all.

  24. 24
    glue_factory on 27 Apr 2015 #

    The machine squiggles and gradual crescendo in this make it seem like the first acid house[1] number one to me.

    [1] Apart from whichever ones I’ve forgotten, obviously.

    It’s not my favourite Madonna number one, but it’s still up there. 8/10

  25. 25
    anto on 27 Apr 2015 #

    In total agreement with both the score and the review here. It’s a game attempt to enter middle age with a bit of sparkle but calling this song Music reminds me a bit of the Fast Show’s part-time football fan shouting ‘SOCCER!!’ (before leaving at half-time because the home team were a goal down and he had better things to do).

  26. 26
    Phil on 27 Apr 2015 #

    I’d never seen the video before, so thanks for that – really awful. I like the song, though – it does have the sound of an established star going down the New Stuff Emporium, but it wears it lightly (as in all the lyrical naffness) and, I think, carries it off. 7 for the song, 1 and let us never speak of it again for the video version.

    Re the video, I wonder if they started with the lap dancers & worked out from there? As I watched that section of the video in appalled fascination, I did think the relentless mechanical bounce of the track fitted it horribly well (and Madge tried something similar but marginally more decorous with a 2005 bunny).

  27. 27
    Andrew on 27 Apr 2015 #

    Madonna was around five months pregnant when the video was filmed. This would explain the cartoon sequences and the awkward limo shots with Madge in a big coat. (Has me thinking about a pregnant Jane Danson as Leanne Battersby in Corrie, carrying a strategically placed outsize clipboard around the Underworld factory for months on end.)

    The Ali G stuff is very cringeworthy. On the one hand, I suppose it’s difficult to know how badly comedy will date. On the other, Ali G really had already peaked some time ago in summer 2000.

    Then again, you could argue that music videos have dual purpose: art and advert. As an advert for the song, it doesn’t matter at all that it hasn’t dated particularly well, it clearly served its purpose at the time in helping the song to the top of the charts.

    It doesn’t seem like the intention with the ‘Music’ video was for it to be one of Madonna’s artier efforts. It’s certainly no ‘Frozen’.

    It did get a DVD single release, though (remember them?). I think the only other Madonna single to get one was ‘What It Feels Like for a Girl’.

  28. 28
    Izzy on 27 Apr 2015 #

    I don’t remember DVD singles! Were they common?

    I’d have appreciated the option a few years earlier – VHS singles I guess – as much of my ‘digging deeper’ music consumption came about through taping the Chart Show Indie Chart, which meant even in the best case scenario I only ever saw the middle two minutes of any of these clips. From memory these were generally not of a quality such that I ought to have been aching over the loss.

    All are now permanently on offer on youtube of course. I was kind of heartbroken when I recorded over the indie chart introductory carousel, and then next time around they’d changed the graphic to some kind of space theme. I’d loved it and never thought I’d see again, but thanks to the modern world I can watch it any time I like, followed by ten blurry seconds of Northside.

  29. 29
    Andrew on 27 Apr 2015 #

    From around 2000 the DVD was exploited a little as part of the multi-format boom/chart hype exercise, before the physical singles market died on its arse. Madonna may well have been one of the first.

    DVD singles were often released in a jewel case (like a CD album) rather than the slimline ‘J’ case of a typical CD single, and retailed at about £3-4, although Madonna’s were both in full-size DVD cases that you could slot in with your films (albeit slimmer and with a tougher plastic) and were a quite preposterous £6 or £7.

    As a Spice Girls fan I have a few by Victoria Beckham and Emma Bunton from 2001, Mel C from 2003 and Geri from 2005 (really past the point where they were at all common, I reckon).

    None of them number one singles, incidentally (Emma’s bunny didn’t have a DVD).

    Annoyingly, the only DVD player in our house in 2001 was my brother’s Playstation, so I probably only watched them once each. Also irritating were the b-sides exclusive to DVD, accompanied by a rotating slideshow of about four photos.

  30. 30
    Tim Byron on 27 Apr 2015 #

    This song seemed pretty omnipresent to me in Australia – all over music TV, and on radio in shops, etc. I feel that the song still has some of Madonna’s oop magic – it still has a certain pull and a certain knowledge of a good hook. But yeah, it is a bit of hard work, a bit boring, as Tom points out. And you suspect that Madonna wanted it to be more profound than it is, and that she didn’t have the kind of collaborator in Mirwais who could focus her thoughts and energies on that kind of thing. I much prefer ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me’. (I don’t think I knew who Baron-Cohen was at this point – he might not have gotten much press by this point in Australia – so I remember seeing him in the video clip presented as someone I was meant to already know, and mostly being confused by him rather than finding him funny or offensive).

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