Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Madonna’s trajectory through the 90s has been a confused one, and who can blame her? She’d always been the object of critical interest – she was tough and canny and massively popular at a time when those things seemed deeply glamourous, and she’d helped the critics out by doing kitchen-sink Catholic ballads like “Live To Tell” and “Papa Don’t Preach” as well as her electrifying pop raunch. Those gutsy numbers offered up the tantalising possiblility that Maddy might just be for real – you know, an artist or something. And then with the Like A Prayer album she went all the way into something close to singer-songwriter disco, a tumbling pop confession session which completely took the tops off critics’ heads and left her in a very sticky situation.

It’s not that Like A Prayer was unfollowable – fans can and do make convincing arguments for any of her 90s records being its superior – but that once the cat was out of the bag, and Madonna was suddenly someone who wrote serious, autobiographical songs, her return this decade to the kind of persona-play and image-shifting that characterises all great pop stars has left her cruelly misunderstood. Madonna’s 90s records have been praised to the exact degree that they resemble Like A Prayer, to the degree that Madonna is seen as singing ‘about herself’. Hence the refried techno and cosy spiritualist bubblings of Ray Of Light gets the hosannas, while the colder, wittier, way less ‘personal’ Erotica, which reinvented Madonna as a haughty teledildonic diva, was either sniggered at or shunned.

But Madonna is often best when she’s striking a pose and there’s nothing to it. While Erotica contains some of the worst tracks she ever put to tape, it also has the wonderful, overlooked “Bad Girl”, a forties femme fatale epic that’s the most blissfully melodramatic song of her career and has the added advantage of showing more of the ‘real’ Madonna (or the Madonna I want to be real, same thing in pop) than anything on her supposedly deeper records. She’s singing the part of someone trapped by her own personality, a good-time girl who keeps throwing over the nice guy she’s got at home for darker, seedier thrills. Of course it’s corny, Hollywood stuff, but like all the great girl-group pop there’s such theatre and conviction that you’re swept along without reservations. And even if what Madonna’s singing isn’t reality for her, it might be for you, which is what counts.