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6 August 2011
Tags: Madonna Pop Music
16 August 2011

Happy birthday, Madonna. Corny as it is to say so, no words can express the influence this woman and her music have had on me. To borrow her own phrase, she’s my ‘mother brother sister lover daughter little baby jesus’. Here are a few of my strongest Madonna memories:

  • Seeing the video for ‘Like A Prayer’ for the first time and being completely in awe of it. Growing up in a Catholic family and going to Catholic schools, this felt dangerous. Madonna’s music was banned at my school as a result. Years later I wrote an essay for my English class about how this video and Madonna’s various interviews and statements on religion (not least the amazing (and ridiculous) statement she gave when the Vatican ‘banned’ her tour) had emboldened my growing doubt over my religion and contributed to my feeling confident enough to openly question it and welcome critical voices.
  • The first cassette I ever bought: I’m Breathless
  • The first cd I ever bought: Erotica . By this point I was beginning to realise that I was gay and happily found that I could put up Erotica-era photos of Madonna around my bedroom without any of my family finding it odd. One evening I was blasting out the title track in my bedroom when my mum called me downstairs. I took a while to respond but eventually trodded out of my room, music filling the house as I did so, and made to go downstairs. It was there that I realised why mum had been calling me: the local priest had made a house call and was standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting for me. Funnily enough, he didn’t mention my choice of music.
  • My mum buying me the vhs of The Girlie Show (it was rated ‘15’ - I had just turned 14). We watched the opening together. It was far more explicit than I had imagined and I was hugely embarrassed, in that teenage way. My mum’s only comment? “I think your brother will like this.” I watched the rest of the video alone and found myself clinging to it over the next year. Its depictions of sexuality and, more specifically, gay men profoundly connected with my raging adolescence. I was completely amazed by an orgy scene which showed men kissing and simulating sex. It became one of those things that I would watch only when I was sure no-one was around, so paranoid was I about being seen to be watching and enjoying ‘gay behaviour’. Because of the ‘perfect storm’ that was my hormones, my painful realisation of my sexuality and my reaction against my religion, The Girlie Show remains my favourite Madonna tour.
  • A car drive with my mum where we were listening to the radio. The DJ played ‘Secret’ and introduced it as Madonna’s new single. My mum asked me, ‘What do you think of that, then?’ and I felt happy that she was trying.
  • I dragged my entire family to see Evita on Boxing Day 1996. After the second song my brother leaned over and whispered, ‘So wait…this is ALL sung?!’ Afterwards my dad said, ‘She’s certainly a talented lady’. That made my day.
  • 'Beautiful Stranger' always takes me back to my penultimate year of university, when I danced to it more times than is decent. 'Don't Tell Me' has the same effect for my final year. There was a sudden trend for cowboy hats in all of the gay clubs I attended.
  • I can still remember the days I bought every Madonna album between Erotica and Ray of Light. Something to Remember stands out as, due to distribution problems, my local Our Price didn’t receive the album until the Thursday of that week. I went in after school every day from Monday and the wait seemed unbearable. The guys behind the counter quickly noticed and when I walked in on the Thursday they had the cd waiting for me at the counter. The excitement and relief I felt was enormous.
  • Then came mp3s and leaks and the day of release has never been the same. All sense of occasion has gone. I can still remember when I first heard Music - working part-time in Spoils at the weekends, one of the managers downloaded the leak and played it in the store. I didn’t even know albums leaked by this point. However I can still remember the day I purchased that album because, on my trip into town to buy it, I bumped into two friends and we ended up getting roaringly drunk. We ended up in one of their flats and I drunkenly played ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ and had what I’m sure was an incoherent rant about misogyny and feminism. I threw up soon after.
  • After leaks came along, the gay bars I would hang out in would make a big deal of playing the lead singles from her albums on the day they first became available. The DJ was not kind about ‘American Life’. A couple of years later he played ‘Hung Up’ and said ‘Well that’s a lot better than that last rubbish, isn’t it?’ I felt palpable relief.
  • The whole period of Confessions on a Dancefloor when everyone decided they loved Madonna again was a joy for a lunatic fan. It coincided with the final months of me living with my brother. I dazzled him with the Grammy performance of ‘Hung Up’ as he didn’t realise M’s initial appearance was as a hologram. We watched the ‘Sorry’ video together for the first time. I listened to ‘Jump’ repeatedly to strengthen my resolve in the terrifying decision to move to London.
  • Seeing her live for the very first time, at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Kent with Matt. The day was lovely and given an added frission of excitement by what was to come. We had to go into the tent an act early in order to ensure a spot so ended up watching The Fratellis. A very insistent girl kept trying to pull me while I was waiting for Madonna to come on stage, with the most hilariously bad timing ever. When Madonna appeared on stage for the first time Matt looked at me, he later said, to see if I was crying. I didn’t cry. I just had great fun.
  • Later that year I went for a check-up at the STI clinic and was absolutely terrified. I had put it off for months and went through the day leading up to it in a hazy half-dream state. As it turned out I got the all-clear. I came out of the clinic, walked into a shop across the road and ‘4 Minutes’ instantly came on the radio. The tension rushed from my body and I broke into a huge grin. I may even have punched the air.
  • July 4th 2009. Gay Pride day in London. I spent the day in Soho with friends before Matt and I travelled to the O2 to see the second leg of The Sticky and Sweet Tour. The journey there and back was memorable enough (we had to get the boat) but there was a section of the gig where she paid tribute to Michael Jackson, who had died just a couple of weeks earlier. His music filled the O2 and people, including me, roared their approval. The Queen honouring the King. It was the only tribute that really mattered to me. Later that evening Matt and I went to the Joiners Arms and I danced like a maniac to ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”.
  • Mr Wotyougot himself texted me the day ‘Celebration’ leaked. I was in work and rushed to the toilets, where I found a Youtube clip of the song on my phone and listened to it twice before returning to my desk. God bless smart phones.

Thanks, Madonna.

20 September 2011

The album Music was released 11 years ago this week. It’s possibly my favourite Madonna album - it’s a pretty perfect example of her pop sensibility pushing some quite radical sounds into the mainstream in the guise of brilliant pop songs. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I first heard the album on the shop floor of Spoils, a kitchen reject store I worked at during university, after one of the managers downloaded it. I also vividly remember the day I purchased the album, ending as it did with me vomiting in a friend’s flat.

In ‘Don’t Tell Me’, ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ and ‘Paradise (Not for Me)’ I think it contains three of her best songs. Which isn’t half bad. It’s possibly the last time she has so perfectly married the daring and the mainstream: American Life was more in the former category while Confessions on a Dancefloor and Hard Candy were definitely the latter. We’ll see what the new album brings.

8 November 2011

Madonna Lead Singles

With a new Madonna lead single seemingly about to leak at any moment, it’s time for another random, quick little lead single ranking. AND WHY NOT?

(I’ve only included singles from full albums (so no compilations) and the singles which were the immediate leads (so no ‘Live To Tell’, ‘American Pie’ or ‘Die Another Day’).

1. Like A Prayer

2. Vogue

3. Hung Up

4. Papa Don’t Preach

5. Like A Virgin

6. Secret

7. Music

8. 4 Minutes

9. Erotica

10. Frozen

11. American Life

12. Everybody

The current leaking of little snippets of the new song happened with ‘Hung Up’ and ‘4 Minutes’. I must have listened to a crappy recording of Timbaland playing a snippet of the latter at a Christmas djing gig at least 100 times. Oops.

Tags: Madonna Pop Music
Posted: 10:11 PM

Give Me All Your Love

'Hard Candy' was billed (by Madonna and Timbaland) as a return to the sound of her first album. An album which grew out of punk and nu-wave (bands like The Go-Go's and Blondie) but fused them with the (deeply unfashionable, at the time) sound of disco:

It was a sound that Madonna stuck with for a while:

By the time of her second album, ‘Like A Virgin’, the ‘pure pop’ sound was taking centre stage but the former influences still poked through:

The final traces could be heard in ‘True Blue’ tracks like ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ but, on the whole, it’s a sound she’s never returned to. Until now. ‘Give Me All Your Love’ is what Madonna and Timbaland said ‘Hard Candy’ was - a direct reference to how it all began and the most ‘Madonna’(the album) Madonna song in over 25 years.

Tags: Music Pop madonna
6 February 2012
20 March 2012


I love Madonna. If you’re reading this, you probably knew that already. I’m teased for being a bit of a loon about her, incapable of objectivity when her name is mentioned. It’s a charge I readily admit to. How can you be objective about someone who is in your DNA, whose work has not only soundtracked your life but been instrumental in shaping the person you are? Far from feeling embarrassed about it, I feel privileged that I have found artists like her whom I feel a profound connection with - I always feel sorry for people who don’t have that, who view music as background noise to work or getting ready to go out. I think they’re missing out on so much. They could never understand why ‘objectivity’ (so feted in our society which increasingly fetishes ‘rationality’) is a useless term when it comes to an artist who you just feel on a visceral level, who is so ingrained in your life that they feel like extended family. Yes, I’ll always love Madonna.

Now, this love, this respect, doesn’t mean that I am a gibbering supplicant. Of course I prefer certain albums to others. I don’t like that she is kicking off her tour in Israel, or giving exclusive clips to Perez Hilton, or doing exclusive interviews in The Sun on Sunday. I think some of her songs, such as ‘One More Chance’ or ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, are downright awful. Undeniably, however, it means that my instinct is to look for the positive with her. Perhaps because of this, I happen to think that some myths around her have taken place in recent years. I won’t go into great detail, suffice to say that complaints about her voice and lyrics are absolutely nothing new (and Hard Candy has some great lyrics on it) and the idea, pretty much accepted these days, that she only ever worked with obscure producers for most of her career is just nonsense.

Nevertheless, MDNA feels like a crossroads album for her. I think the reaction to Hard Candy has become overblown with time (and is not unconnected to its r&b influences) yet it was certainly seen as an artistic failure. The Celebration singles were catchy enough but neither were even approaching first-rate Madonna (though the new bonus tracks, ‘It’s So Cool’ and ‘Broken’, were much better). There has of course been a new pretender on the scene (‘fingering all of the poses that Madonna liberated’) and, perhaps most crucially of all, Madonna hasn’t released a studio album since turning 50 and the vast majority of the artists in the charts today are, at most, half her age. Madonna has always refused to become a legacy act (part of the reason why she gets so much stick - she won’t shut up and just let people love what she was) and the success or otherwise of MDNA seems likely to determine her ability to maintain this.

The omens have been mixed, to say the least. In her interviews promoting W.E. there was a worrying sense that she was currently far more enthused by film-making than by music. Yet I absolutely loved ‘Masterpiece’, a boldly understated ballad of the kind she hasn’t recorded in years. ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ is a retro slice of New Wave bliss, harking back to her pre-Madonna days and catchy as hell (it was also, incidentally, an absolutely genius song to return with when everyone was waiting to see how she would ‘top’ Gaga), yet it was difficult to see how it and ‘Masterpiece’ fit together or pointed the way to the future.

Then came ‘Girl Gone Wild’. After the initial excitement of a new Madonna song died down, I felt wretched about this. It’s catchy enough but it’s completely ordinary and without a doubt the worst pre-album single she’s ever released. The vocals sound phoned in, the production is bizarrely flat and for the first time I found myself wondering if we were about to get a truly awful Madonna album.

It’s not due to be released until next Monday in the UK, yet it was ‘released’ last night on AOL Radio in North America. It was quickly ripped and spread across the internet. When I realised what was happening I turned off the tv, plugged my headphones into my laptop and didn’t move for hours.  How to explain what I felt? Relief, euphoria, affection, love. MDNA is not only a brilliant album, it’s possibly the best album she’s released since Music in 2000 (which is easily in my top 3 Madonna albums). It’s being called her ‘divorce album’ in many reviews due to the dominance of songs about the end of a relationship. I came to think of Hard Candy as a ‘divorce album’ because it so clearly covered the disintegration of a relationship but, of course, the other album by her that is accepted as being largely influenced by a divorce is the peerless Like a Prayer. Yet only one song on that really directly addressed a crumbling marriage - in contrast, it hangs heavy over the whole of MDNA. Even ‘Girl Gone Wild’ takes on new meaning in this context and it suddenly makes sense. The Act of Contrition recited at the beginning is not only a self-referential nod (in an album full of them, as all of her recent albums are) but a statement of the albums themes - the ability of a person to change themselves, to ‘be good’, the guilt felt in failing, feeling scared of the ‘loss of heaven’ and yet ultimately accepting your ‘true self’. Madonna sings that she is a ‘bad girl, anyway” and, towards the end of the album, dedicates the fun 60s-psychedelia of ‘I’m A Sinner’ to celebrating the fact. 

It’s an album about finding yourself alone, with everything that entails (not least the demented anger of the stunning ‘Gang Bang’, a dark techno-noir that sounds unlike anything she has ever done before) and realising (or deciding) that you’ll be okay. My current favourite, ‘I Don’t Give A’, is an anthemic celebration of this message and rams it home with a humour that is so often misinterpreted (from ‘I like to singy singy singy’ to the ‘American Life’ rap). You can’t help but smile at lines such as ‘lawyers suck it up - didn’t have a pre-nup!’ unless you are irredeemably dour. I’ve seen MDNA compared to Confessions on a Dancefloor meets American Life and I think that’s fairly accurate. It combines the irresistible commercial nous of the former with the sonic invention (and, of course, intensely personal themes) of the latter and it somehow works. Nothing about the record feels half-hearted. A track like the shoulda-been-first-single ‘I’m Addicted’ is breathtaking and caused me to start counting the days until I can dance to it in a club. Special mention too, to the brilliantly inventive Abbaesque charms of ‘Love Spent’ and the almost True Blue sounding ‘Turn Up The Radio’.

Who knows if the album will do well. I find myself being far more relaxed about chart performances these days, which is perhaps just as well. I’m just happy to have another great pop album. And that’s not objective - it’s fairly gushing and happy and sincere and not a little embarrassing…but I don’t give a…

22 March 2012

A Madonna setlist

Because I am in uber-gaylord mode, I knocked up a dream setlist for Madonna’s Hyde Park show: 

Video Intro – climaxes with ‘M D N A’ getting louder and louder

I’m Addicted
Girl Gone Wild
Impressive Instant
Gang Bang

Give It 2 Me Video Interlude

Love Spent
Don’t Tell Me
Bad Girl

Borderline Video Interlude

I Don’t Give A
Like A Prayer
Open Your Heart
Give Me All Your Luvin’

Live to Tell
Falling Free
Easy Ride

She’s Not Me/Some Girls Video Interlude  

Express Yourself

Turn Up The Radio

Tags: Madonna Music Pop
1 April 2012

The Real Best Ofs

Q Magazine this month has a feature on ‘the real best of’ various classic artists. The tagline is ‘forget the greatest hits’ and each artist has a little essay devoted to them by a writer who is ostensibly a fan. The idea is, I suppose, that these fans can give a passionate insight into the ‘hidden treasures’ in each artist’s back catalogue. The execution is rather awry - while some writers do indeed highlight album tracks or obscure b-sides which will be unfamiliar to casual listeners, others pepper lesser-known singles next to the usual big hits. Others still are clearly not particularly interested in the artist assigned to them.

No hardcore fan would ever agree with such a list as compiled by another. I think such lists are pointless, however, if they include the big hits. Anyone interested surely already knows them, and most of the artists are so massive that many of these songs have penetrated our consciousness whether we like it or not. With that in mind, I present my own ‘obscurities’ lists for Madonna/Bowie/Manics (and Prince, who was oddly missed out by Q), taking into account the limits imposed by the Spotify catalogue. The only criteria was - no big hits and about an hour of music.

The Q Madonna list:
Into The Groove
Live To Tell
Oh Father
Justify My Love
Deeper and Deeper
I Want You
Don’t Tell Me
Hung Up (SDP Extended Vocal)

My Madonna Spotify List 

The Q Bowie List:
Space Oddity
The Man Who Sold The World
Life on Mars?
The Bewley Brothers
All The Young Dudes
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Ashes to Ashes
Teenage Wildlife

My David Bowie Spotify Playlist 

The Q Manics List:
Motown Junk
Motorcycle Emptiness
Comfort Comes
A Design For Life
Judge Yr’self
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
All Is Vanity

My Manic Street Preachers Spotify Playlist 

My Prince Spotify Playlist

11 April 2012

Music, the internet and us.

Lucy Jones is by no means the first to worry about the impact of the internet on our listening habits, but this resonated with me by coming so soon after the release of ‘MDNA’. Madonna is one of the few artists whose new albums I anticipate with a tingling mix of anticipation and dread, because I know that it will instantly become part of the soundtrack to my life. Each of her albums is loaded with memories and associations for me. This is undoubtedly strongest and most common with her, David Bowie and the Manic Street Preachers, but there are many records which take me to other times, other versions of myself. Prince’s ‘Symbol’ album always places me back in my childhood bedroom, listening to the cassette over and over and scrambling to fast forward through ‘Sexy M.F.’ when I could hear my mum in the hall outside. With ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ I am in my friend John’s bedroom, revelling in a joint teenage misanthropy and poring over the lyrics. ‘Ok Computer’ and ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ were both bought on one of the first days after I left school. My parents were on holiday and it was just me and our dog, Kerry. She got sick and wouldn’t move from her bed, so I blasted the albums through the house while sitting beside her. I always associate ‘More Adventurous’ by Rilo Kiley with my tentative steps into PROPER ADULTHOOD – living in Glasgow, having a responsible job and falling in love with my friends over and over again. ‘The First Days of Spring’ will forever be inextricably linked with Rob, particularly when he lived in Camden and we would shuttle between there and Hackney on the 253.

There’s always the risk when engaging in nostalgia about music and when it really meant something that you’re just getting old. I’m reminded of the Coupland quote from ‘Life After God’:

I believe that you’ve had most of your important memories by the time you’re thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don’t register the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn’t compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylors’ patio furniture into their pool in the eleventh grade.

They’re not called ‘formative’ years for nothing and it seems a no-brainer that the music which soundtracks your adolescence and resulting emergence into the world would seem more profoundly evocative. Yet the point about changing listening habits is, in my own life, undoubtedly true. I probably listen to music on shuffle/playlists far more often than I listen to albums these days. I frequently have to force myself to listen to an album I’m unfamiliar with; even then, I’ll sometimes have to fight the urge to change if it’s remotely difficult. Being able to have pretty much any album you would ever want to listen to within minutes, and for free, may have its undeniable benefits but it means there is such a roaring avalanche of options that it’s tempting to retreat to what you know or, at least, the genre you’re comfortable with.

As always with question about how the internet is changing things, my thoughts turn to younger generations who’ve never known anything different. What does music (and albums, specifically) mean to them? Going by the anecdotal evidence of forums and Twitter, it seems pretty common for today’s teenagers to see albums as playlists to be amended, ditching tracks they don’t like, changing running orders etc. Do you really commit to challenging yourself, stepping outside of what you know, persevering with ‘difficult’ music, if you can simply get rid of it and reshape it to suit in seconds? The transcendent joy of ‘discovering’ a completely random song, album or artist with which you were unfamiliar, or the leap in your stomach when something clicks with you on your fourth listen to it, are experiences which seem to be made more difficult by modern technology.

This argument obviously isn’t confined to music. One of the most famous recent works looking at the effect of the internet, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that it makes us less prone to concentration and contemplation. Even more dramatically, it argues that it alters the neural circuits of the brain to this effect. A recent article in Adbusters looked at the studies of Antonio Damasio at USC which purport to show that, as well as encouraging a tendency towards more ‘shallow’ thoughts, the internet also raised the spectre of a generation with more ‘shallow’ emotions.

These arguments are much discussed and much disputed. It is, however, difficult not to see them as persuasive when you look at Twitter. It seems to be more and more common for people to rush to a strong judgment on everything and anything based on not much at all; more than that, to feel entitled to their judgment and to scorn competing views rather than be able to engage/debate with them. People will ‘live-tweet’ their way through countless tv shows and films. New songs and even entire albums will be dismissed within minutes of them becoming ‘available’. It could be argued that this is merely technology reflecting and enabling what is already there – certainly it would be silly to believe that twenty years ago we were all considered, informed and slow to judgment. Yet just as it is commonly accepted that the printing press, telephone and television changed humanity in profound ways, it is reasonable to believe that the internet is doing so currently. The positive argument is that kids growing up with it are developing the capacity to digest large amounts of info, quickly learn new things and multi-task in dazzling style. Questions about what it does to their (and to our) core beings in terms of how we relate to one another and to our culture are far more profound and so, far more difficult to answer.

When I posted the Lucy Jones article last night, my brother responded that he also adopted the habit of Mark Wood by clearing his iPod each month and putting new music on it. I think I’ll give it a try.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh