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
3. Hung Up
4. Papa Don’t Preach
5. Like A Virgin
8. 4 Minutes
11. American Life
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.
‘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.
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…
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
Girl Gone Wild
Give It 2 Me Video Interlude
Don’t Tell Me
Borderline Video Interlude
I Don’t Give A
Like A Prayer
Open Your Heart
Give Me All Your Luvin’
Live to Tell
She’s Not Me/Some Girls Video Interlude
Turn Up The Radio
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
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:
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
My David Bowie Spotify Playlist
The Q Manics List:
A Design For Life
Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
All Is Vanity
My Manic Street Preachers Spotify Playlist
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.