Mar 10

MADONNA – “La Isla Bonita”

FT + Popular68 comments • 5,669 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. 31
    will on 5 Mar 2010 #

    There’s one word that sums up LIB: tired (or should that be cansado?) Tired lyrics, tired performance, tired end of campaign fifth single. It’s the epitome of the midway-through-Side-Two album track and I’m still amazed it was even considered for single release.

  2. 32
    punctum on 5 Mar 2010 #

    #30 – If you care to rephrase your question and ask it again, this time politely, and recasting your assertions as “facts,” I’ll respond. In the meantime I would advise that you try not to be so literal in your readings.

  3. 33
    AndyPandy on 5 Mar 2010 #

    wichita @25 and Caterina Valente’s “The Breeze and I” – very classy record might have to find the cd with it on this weekend now

    I actually quite “La Isla Bonita” too one of the few Madonna records I do- brought a much needed hint of escape (fake or not)to the production line at Jeyes I was working on at the time, riveting the handles of industrial cleaning machines for sports centres, schools etc – very unriveting actually.

    And a job where I was forced (for the final time!) to listen to Radio 1 as for some reason the wrecked stereo I used there could only pick that station up so for the period 86/87 I became a bit of an expert on the pop charts again…. I only got a well earned break from stuff of the ilk of Robbie Nevill, The Bangles and some track called “Comin On Strong” by I don’t know when I went into the stores/inspection and the old blokes in there had (old skool) Radio Two on…

  4. 34
    LondonLee on 5 Mar 2010 #

    Literal in my readings? You were the one who said “clearly aimed at”, I’m just responding to what you wrote. Look, sorry if I came off a bit dickish there but it sounded like you were going to launch into the Monty Python “travel agent” sketch, something I find increasingly snotty as I get older (Oxbridge boys having a laugh at stupid working class people on holiday).

    The “facts” are that San Pedro is supposedly an island off the coast of Belize and Madonna described the song as “her tribute to the beauty and mystery of Latin American people”. But even without the benefit of Wikipedia I’ve never once thought she was singing about Spain – they don’t have tropical island breezes there for a start. I can understand how some might get an “Y Viva Espana” vibe from this but I think it’s wrong, not just factually (which is beside the point isn’t it really?) but tonally too. The record company might have had that in mind, but in April?

    Please let’s not have a fight over this, I happen to like the record, you don’t.

  5. 35
    thefatgit on 5 Mar 2010 #

    I’m with LondonLee on this one. The “spanish” reference is the language of the lullaby and not the geographical origin. For me, the story is that of a latino islander missing her home, rather than a musical travelogue, which “Y Viva Espana” essentially is.

  6. 36
    swanstep on 5 Mar 2010 #

    @26, pink champale. Your and your friend’s lyrics are much better! I’d urge score(Domino dancing)= score(LIB)+2, so an 8 in my case (jolly good from the Pets that one).
    @29, Tom. What other examples of Latin-inflected, desperate 5th singles did SF-J have? (Was he thinking of britney/xtina period pop – which I don’t know that well – as following this pattern?) 5th singles from massive 1986/1987 albums included the delicious ‘Let’s wait awhile’ from Control, and ‘Red Rain’ from So. (Dress You Up was M’s fifth single from Like A Virgin, and Human Nature was the fifth single from Thriller. Now that’s more like it.)

    Actual #1 charting 5th singles are pretty jolly rare as someone said above – an album has to be truly ubiquitous (which True Blue wasn’t quite in my view) to do that. Prime suspects: Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Shania Twain’s Come On Over (produced by the same guy to the same thunderously ear-wormy specifications of course). I reckon the former’s ‘Love bites’ (which was a US #1) has to have been the most punishing (‘I canna take much more of this’) fifth+ hit of my lifetime (I remember feeling some relief when Hysteria’s sixth single and vid, ‘Rocket’ came out just because it at least meant ‘Love Bites’ would be given a rest!)

  7. 37
    tonya on 6 Mar 2010 #

    Britain vs America: Brits think it’s anticipating Balearic, but to this American it’s the Miami sound. You think she’s talking about Spain, I think she’s talking about the Caribbean. And you think the house in Rebecca is Mandalay, but I know it’s Manderley.

  8. 38
    Jonathan Bogart on 6 Mar 2010 #

    Cosign tonya.

    Madonna’s music has always had a vivid Puerto Rican/Cuban streak (if only in the busy percussion), at least until a certain something I’m sure is bunnyable which began her lamentable descent into Anglophilia. A significant chunk of the American pop audience speaks Spanish or has close relatives who do; taking inspiration from that audience and reflecting it back is generally a more significant priority for American pop stars than the feelings Britons have about package holidays.

  9. 39
    Tom on 6 Mar 2010 #

    Yes, but Madonna’s priorities making the song are not necessarily mine in reviewing it! (Or Punctum’s!) I don’t think anybody said “this is intentionally Madonna’s package holiday record” just that it happened to resonate that way for a UK audience (which is the audience I’m most interested in). And that this might have been a mechanism for it reaching #1 here as the 5th single on an album, because there’s a pattern of Brits buying that stuff. Though I did misattribute San Ped to the Med, so apologies for that.

    #37 Tonya I am 99.9% sure Pink S is making a pun with Mandalay/Manderley, and I’m envious of him for thinking it.

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 6 Mar 2010 #

    For the authentic Iberian-themed Madonna narrative experience;


  11. 41
    Tom on 6 Mar 2010 #

    Though of course San Pedro is made up, so it can be off the Falkland Islands if anyone wants it to be. Having never been to Ibiza OR Belize I will take Lee’s word for it that it’s tonally off though. I disagree w/Tonya at #10 however – more made up geographies in pop please! (And in everything)

  12. 42
    AndyPandy on 6 Mar 2010 #

    Or we could just settle for “El Vino Collapso” by Black Lace which is definitely about Spain

  13. 43
    Jonathan Bogart on 6 Mar 2010 #

    And I thought Tonya was making a joke about the way rhotic v. non-rhotic dialects process the pun.

    No worries; of course everyone is free to like (or hate) records for any reason they want. And I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about LIB; I don’t think I’d even recognize it if I heard it unintentionally. Just plumping for Latin Pop as usual.

  14. 44
    swanstep on 6 Mar 2010 #

    @40 Billy Smart. That’s a lovely song and vid.. Can’t resist linking to the vid. for M’s next single (which Bjork and Nellee Hooper, who were shooting off sparks of creativity at this point, wrote for her). Talk about made-up geographies! ‘Let’s, let’s, let’s get unconscious, honey…/Traveling, leaving logic and reason/Traveling, to the arms of unconsciousness’.

  15. 45
    LondonLee on 6 Mar 2010 #

    #41: “Tonally off” to my ears anyway — and I was living in the UK when this came out – but as we’ve learned other people have different postcard pictures in mind when they hear it. I think I just thought it was too languid to be Spanish Spanish which I’ve always associated with frantic Flamenco foot-stomping and hand-clapping.

  16. 46

    i saw the film rebecca years before i read the book, so i heard it as mandalay before i discovered it wasn’t — except then i looked about a bit and it turns out “manderley” is indeed a variant spelling of mandalay! so we’re all correct, hurrah!

  17. 47
    admin on 6 Mar 2010 #

    in Lemon Jelly’s Ramblin Man there’s a long list of place names, and Mandalay is one of them. I originally thought it was Manderley and expected the lyrics to go into fictional place names (disneyland, narnia, former yugoslavia, hem hem), but no.

  18. 48
    JonnyB on 7 Mar 2010 #

    A watershed track for me – the first single that my little sister bought with her own money from the record shop. So instantly it was defined as rubbish for the teenage me, and it took another decade for me to get over this.

    Actually I think I like it now more than I like Madonna’s more widely – er – critically appreciated – tracks. I might give her a bell later on to apologise (my sister that is, not Madonna). 7.

  19. 49
    MikeMCSG on 8 Mar 2010 #

    #36 I make “Red Rain” only the fourth. Sledgehammer-Don’t Give Up- Big Time-RR -which one am I missing ?

  20. 50
    swanstep on 8 Mar 2010 #

    @49 MikeMCSG. ‘In your eyes’ was the other single from ‘So’ that I had in mind. According to wiki it wasn’t released as a single in the UK, but it charted in US, Can, and NZ. PG didn’t see fit to include it on his 1990 Shaking the tree greatest hits collection, which suggests that PG himself originally thought of it (as you evidently do) just as an album track.

    I should add that So was a massive album for me at the time. Apart from the Smiths I spent most of 1987 listening to So, Sign of the Times, Tallulah and David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth. All of these records still sound completely fantastic to me!

  21. 51
    pink champale on 8 Mar 2010 #

    #34 a pedant (who *has* been to belize) points out that lib is not tonally right for there either – (except for geographically) belize is basically a caribbean country (for a start it’s english speaking) that is all reggae, soca and carnival*, with not a flamenco guitar or fiesta in sight.

    *though oddly, the radio stations play mainly lovelorn c&w

  22. 52
    thefatgit on 8 Mar 2010 #

    Didn’t Madonna perform this with Eugene Hutz at Live Earth? It became a gypsified stomper with violins and lots of gypsy scat vocal insertions courtesy of Eugene. If anything it became less geographically focused and more global as a result. I think Gogol Bordello supported her on her Sticky & Sweet tour, so must have (guessing as I never attended any shows on that one) performed LIB together before.

  23. 53
    MikeMCSG on 8 Mar 2010 #

    #49 Thanks Swanstep. I note ,again from wiki, in those three countries it was released instead of Red Rain so it’s an alternative fourth rather than a fiftth single. I presume the record company thought the anti-nuclear message wouldn’t play so well in those territories. A few years earlier The Police released “Secret Journey” in the US as an alternative to “Invisible Sun” for similar reasons.
    More recently when I used to listen to Virgin for a bit in the 90s they completely ignored the Cranberries’s “Zombie” then played “Ode to My Family” to death a nit-picking piece of musical censorship.
    By the way you had good taste in 86 though I’m sure the ‘Gosh would be pleased to be placed in that pantheon !

  24. 54
    AndyPandy on 8 Mar 2010 #

    And “Human Nature” for some reason wasn’t a single in the UK (at least not in the 1980s).

    Mike @49: Shouldn’t they have just censored The Cranberries full stop…?

  25. 55
    Lex on 8 Mar 2010 #

    I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have liked this much at the time, what with the cheesy/lazy holiday tat level of the Latin signifiers, but as it is I’m rather fond of it; Tom is OTM about how it’s ripe for a Balearic re-edit, and it’s odd that none (that I know of) has yet happened, given Balearic producers’ penchant for kitsch corniness. (NB that’s Balearic as in the genre rather than a specific location.)

    Madonna’s had an oddly recurring fixation on Latino signifiers, usually in a romantic context, throughout her career; this, the flamenco guitar on “Deeper And Deeper”, probably a ton more that I forget, even on her last album there was a (terrible) track called “Spanish Lesson”, and on her last tour there was a (terrible) Spanish-themed section where she dressed up as a gypsy and her band played flamenco music. Tempting as it is to ascribe this to her playing on the package-holiday market mentioned at #38, I think it’s simpler – she just fetishises Latino men (see: a good proportion of her romantic liaisons). Which could well explain why her Latin excursions tend to feel so clichéd.

  26. 56
    Lex on 8 Mar 2010 #

    Also, it’s good to see those Bedtime Stories singles get some recognition (though unfortunate that none are bunnied): it’s such an underrated album, so plush and luxuriant and opulent and just gorgeous-sounding; kind of like a white-girl take on Sade drifting into trip-hop. And while it doesn’t sound as cold as its precursor, Erotica did – quite the opposite – its lyrics delve pretty deep into Madonna’s psyche and unearth a pretty bleak, hopeless side to her (see “Love Tried To Welcome Me” in particular), and probably for the only time in her career, her metaphysical musings actually sound genuinely odd and interesting rather than Kabbalistic clichés.

  27. 57
    Rory on 9 Mar 2010 #

    Only number six in Oz. I guess we didn’t have enough of a Latin connection down our end of the world. “La Isla Filipina” might have done it.

  28. 58
    Erithian on 9 Mar 2010 #

    My misheard lyric in this is “Last night I dreamt of Lumbago” – more Spike Milligan than Daphne du Maurier. Incidentally, beyond the evident similarity between the lyric and the opening sentence of the novel, is there any evidence that Madonna was consciously echoing “Rebecca”?

    It’s a minor work in the Madonna canon, maybe, but still a more than pleasant tune, and we can surely excuse her the way it sounds to British ears and any link to “Y Viva Espana”! – this being the year Miami Sound Machine went multi-platinum in the States, and with a Tex-Mex band soon to have a bunny-embargoed hit with a song previously huge for another Latino star, Madonna had a whole other tradition to plunder. (How rich that was, came across very well in BBC4’s “Latin Music USA” series not long ago.) Then again I can imagine what it must have sounded like on a Spanish beach.

  29. 59
    Lex on 9 Mar 2010 #

    Balearic re-edit found! Discovered this in my itunes randomly – it’s the Revenge Re-work, it can be streamed here, and I’m guessing I discovered it through this ILX thread. Mostly instrumental but makes really adept use of the original production’s constituent parts.

  30. 60
    swanstep on 9 Mar 2010 #

    @59, Lex. Thanks! The Revenge Rework mix (or whatever) is *great*. That’s an M.-fan *must hear* and probably a *must have* too I reckon.

  31. 61
    thefatgit on 9 Mar 2010 #

    @59, yep, that mix has got a nice laid back Balearic vibe.

  32. 62
    swanstep on 10 Mar 2010 #

    Heh, the Revenge Rework guy has a number of ace, smooth remixes, e.g., up on youtube, of (Chic/Sister Sledge’s) Lost in Music. Also, can’t recommend enough (again) this mixtapes blog (synth-pop this week, last week Belgian/new beat, next week Rave 1992).

  33. 63
    Lex on 10 Mar 2010 #

    On the thread I linked, the download link in this post for a zip of Revenge remixes (inc. this and “Lost In Music”) appears to still be working…

  34. 64
    swanstep on 10 Mar 2010 #

    @63, Lex. Yay, got it. Thanks!

  35. 65
    Brooksie on 15 Mar 2010 #

    I like this. Liked it then and like it now. I feel no need to criticise it for being faux Hispanic. I don’t expect authenticity from a pop star. It’s for others to do that. And as a Brit I never thought she was singing about Spain, nor did it feel Club 18-30 to me. It was a pop-ballad with some Latin stylistic elements.

    Also worth noting; Madonna frequently gets writing credits, but many of the songs seem to have been written and conceived by someone else before she got hold of them. You have to wonder just how much she added / took away.

    8 for me.

  36. 66
    Steviebab on 22 Nov 2013 #

    #last night I dreamt I’d lumbago…#

  37. 67
    hectorthebat on 1 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Arizona Republic (USA) – Madonna’s 30 Best Singles of All Time (2013) 19
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 49

  38. 68
    Gareth Parker on 2 May 2021 #

    An appealing latin-tinged number in my opinion. I would award the same mark as Tom here, a 7/10.

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