by James Royce
My 12 year-old daughter listens to the usual bevy of flashy female singers: Swift to Gomez, Perry to Goulding. Now they all seem a little generic, warbling on about their conception of life’s numerous struggles, all against a catchy back beat. It all sounds like it’s been there forever. But it hasn’t. Female artists singing about more than pleasing their boyfriends and being pathetic is not standard. The career of Madonna Ciccone tracks a large curve in the arc towards strong female lyrics and a power persona. In pop music, her influence is unmatched. Her Immaculate Collection, released in November 1990, tells one of the major storylines in the progression of women artists in popular music.
She was born lucky, with the name Madonna, a name perfect for pop Diva’dom (imagine if it was Sharon). Her early career as a dancer and in a few post-punk bands hardly identified her as a major talent. Her first solo album, Madonna (1983) simmered rather than set the world alight initially, entering Billboard’s charts almost unnoticed at 190.
Her third single from the album, Holiday, became a worldwide hit and set Madonna on the path that was to see her become one of the biggest acts in recording history. Her eponymous debut album soon began to gain on the momentum of Holiday and two further big singles, Lucky Star and Borderline established her globally.
These three songs open Immaculate Conception. The first, Holiday, is a fairly sappy, empty pop number. Hearing this track today it’s hard to understand how Madonna went so far. The vocals are ordinary, even chirpy, and the lyrics are Gidgetish. Which is what makes hearing it at the base of Immaculate so interesting. This was a conventional, ’80s dance number and gives a sense of what the mainstream was listening to when Madonna landed. The journey from here is largely that of female pop music to today.
Lucky Star runs a pretty mundane lyric through a killer, bassy, moog beat. It’s perfect for the ’80s dance floor, but already it has additional layering to Holiday and though not vastly different from that track, it builds on it and offers an incrementally more complex and interesting sound.
The ability of Madonna to write catchy pop hooks is already in evidence in these two tracks, even if her lyrical sophistication was yet to come. Borderline gives an insight to an emerging wordsmith, with a deeper sensibility married to her unerring aim on manufactured pop hooks.
Pop took a turn with Madonna at the wheel in 1984, with the release of her second album, Like a Virgin. Already by now the bleached hair, the weightlifter’s bangles, the lace tops and fishnet stockings — all developed from the punk look — were becoming essential items and creating a fashion moment in their own right. Madonna was driving her career through her look as much as anything.
But Like a Virgin and its cheeky title track put the artist onto another level. The word “virgin” was still a little risque and singing about it, titling a song with it even, was a touch rebellious (she and Richard Branson broke some barriers there). And with lines like “It feels so good inside”, Madonna’s habit of the sexually infused innuendo was perhaps first heard.
Like a Virgin is track four on Immaculate, and is a signpost to Madonna’s unwillingness to stay still. She seems to have been determined to make her star as much out of talent and ambition as out of perennial statement making, although, interestingly, she is not given any writing credit for the song.
Material Girl is in a similar vein, laying down the sassy, wordly ingenue line which Madonna was fashioning into her stock in trade.
Her take on femininity and on the world at large, as channelled through her art, was becoming not only a useful career move, but culturally iconic. Her lyrics were becoming woven with broader themes not generally at the centre of dance tracks and pop songs. Immaculate‘s next tracks Live to Tell, Papa Don’t Preach and Open Your Heart, all from the True Blue album (1986) define the moment perfectly.
The stand-out of this trio is Papa Don’t Preach. This is an extraordinary, complex and expansive track, perhaps a watershed in pop history. In dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, it also layers the narrative with the pregnant woman’s relationship with her father. For Madonna was raised a Catholic and she lost her mother when she was young. She subsequently held tight to her dad, and in the context of her that upbringing the song is emotionally honest and explosively raw.
In drawing threads between a woman’s conjugal relationship with a man, fears of her father’s judgement and her daughter’s love, it enters some dark and surely unchartered pop music territory.
Like a Prayer, taken from the 1989 album of the same name, takes Madonna’s by now mega career into further outlandish territory. This remarkable track, and the now legendary video, cooks up a spicy stew of religion, social injustice, racism and authority. The video, with its black Jesus, burning crosses, church choir and its To-Kill-A-Mockingbird narrative, was highly controversial. It was another savvy Madonna PR victory.
It fairly blew the minds of conservative belts all around the world and kept Madonna in the news columns as well as in the charts. Express Yourself, the next track, captured Madonna’s aim for her and her audience. She was making a major career on doing just that.
By the final tracks, Vogue, Justify My Love and Rescue Me, Madonna is beginning a phase of her career that oscillates between cynical self-exploitation and courageous self-expression. Raunchy videos, explicitly themed lyrics and boudoir beats became de rigueur for the lady now arguably bearing the biggest name in popular music. While occasionally PR overtook the music, there is no denying that the journey from Holiday to Justify My Love traverses a large expanse of female pop artistry.
This latter phase – in this album’s time frame at least – saw Madonna’s always fine balance between presentation and pure musicality on an ever finer keel. As such, while her efforts at this time can come across as camp titillation, Madonna’s work was also courageous and ground breaking. In standing up to convention she was making a new one, one that female artists would run with in the subsequent years. Many women, and men, can thank for her spinning the gears a little more towards not only greater gender equality, but sexual freedom too.
Immaculate Collection is the biggest selling compilation album by any solo artist. With around 30 million sales worldwide, it is one of the best selling albums of all time, period. In Australia, the album stayed at number one for a total of 10 weeks over the Christmas/New Year months in 1990/91, and is certified 12 times platinum with almost 1 million units moved here.
Immaculate Collection is a narrative in itself. It is a story of women and pop music in the decade leading to 1990.
Madonna was a creative force, morphing and inventing styles as she went. Musically, she can be under-rated; as a pop songwriter, lyricist and producer she excelled. In terms of the songs, there is not a blank track on Immaculate.
Immaculate Collection is pop music history, in itself a living timeline of an era. And a really great album.
My daughter has never heard of her, but she’ll get it one day.