This is the first in an ongoing series where I will be reviewing all of Madonna’s studio albums, in order of release. You can read my previous post on her latest, Hard Candy, here
In 1982, an unknown singer named Madonna Ciccone was signed to Sire Records, a New York-based subsidiary of Warner Brothers that was home to new-wave heroes, Talking Heads. Madonna was 24, a former dance student from Michigan who had touted her demo tape around underground clubs such as Danceteria and Paradise Garage.
Five of the eight tracks on her debut album are self-penned, further undermining the notion that she is a ‘manufactured’ act. The opening track, ‘Lucky Star’, was the first single of hers that I bought as an impressionable Catholic schoolgirl. It is simple and infectious, recalling the Patrice Rushen hit, ‘Forget-Me-Nots‘, which Madonna loved. The lyrics are self-assured, yet tongue-in-cheek – ‘You may be my lucky star/But I’m the luckiest by far.’
‘Borderline’ was written by Reggie Lucas, who also produced much of the album. A mini-melodrama, it shows Madonna’s real flair for expressing emotion in a pop song. The mid-tempo ballad is a genre that Madonna has made her own over the years, from ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ to ‘Miles Away’. The video gave Madonna her first opportunity to work with director Mary Lambert, and it proved to be a fruitful partnership. Dressed in her own distinctive style – midriff-baring tops, tube skirts, hair-ribbons and junk jewellery – Madonna contrasted her love of street culture with the demands of encroaching celebrity.
Having initially shied away from promoting their starlet, Sire quickly realised that they had a potential phenomenon on their hands. Throughout her career, Madonna has exploited her own ever-changing persona through the medium of the music video, and after Michael Jackson, she was the greatest star of the MTV generation.
‘Burning Up’, a US single, boasted a self-consciously arty video where a newly blonde Madonna, clad in white, writhes on all fours. One of the first songs she wrote, it has more of a rock influence than the rest of the album, and the lyrics are intriguing and raunchy – ‘Unlike the others I’ll do anything/I’m not the same, I have no shame…’
‘I Know It‘ was chosen as the B-side to Lucky Star, and back in the days before CDs were ubiquitous, it closed Side One. This seems apt as it reveals a preoccupation with rejection and abandonment, the flipside to Madonna’s strident, narcissistic public image.
If the stories about Madonna’s love-life at the time are to be believed, it seems that it was she who did most of the rejecting. It is interesting, then, that she often chooses the role of a victim/survivor – perhaps working through her own guilt, making a play for her listeners’ empathy, or revealing a hidden sense of insecurity.
‘Holiday’ was Madonna’s breakthrough hit, and charted worldwide even while she was still relatively under-exposed. Produced by boyfriend John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez, it has become a dancefloor classic and is one of Madonna’s most enduringly popular songs, regularly featuring in her live shows. The feel-good message has universal appeal – which is doubly ironic, coming from someone as famously driven as Madonna, who admits she rarely goes on vacation.
‘Think Of Me‘ returns to theme of a wronged lover, defiantly picking up the pieces. While the lyrics are strong and defiant, the melody and production are a little too chirpy for their own good, and Madonna’s girlish vocals would later be compared to ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. In fact, on most of the album her vocals are distinctive and sensual, especially when she speaks.
Of all the non-singles, ‘Physical Attraction‘ is the most effective. It was written by Reggie Lucas, but once again Madonna makes it her own. The production is laidback and funky, allowing Madonna to build up the passion. When she sings ‘Maybe we were meant to be together/Even though we’ve never met before’, she makes a one-night stand sound romantic and not sleazy, and the honesty of her delivery anticipates the icon of sexual freedom she would become.
When Madonna’s first single was released, A&R men were at a loss as to how to promote her. The disco boom was over, hip-hop was on the rise, but most white female stars were in the soft-rock mould of Sheena Easton and Pat Benatar. Madonna, on the other hand, was strongly influenced by R&B. She was left curiously absent from the record sleeve, leading some of her audience to assume she was black.
Madonna later said that she had fought with Lucas over his slick, multi-layered production, dismissing the finished product as ‘an aerobics tape’. She had wanted a more raw sound, closer to the post-punk club scene where she had begun as a singer. Her wish was granted at least with ‘Everybody’, which closes the album. Produced by an ex-lover, DJ Mark Kamins, it has an edgier feel than the preceding tracks and is an all-encompassing call to the dancefloor.
In retrospect, Madonna is one of the great dance albums of the 1980s, and has been reissued many times since. Upon its initial release the album sold well, but it wasn’t until Like a Virgin (1984) that Madonna would truly become a household name. Nonetheless the world sat up and noticed the quality of tracks like Holiday, and in her adopted hometown of New York, a buzz was growing that Madonna might be the natural successor to Deborah Harry, then the reigning peroxide blonde queen of rock ‘n’ roll. As it turned out, while initially dismissed as bubblegum pop, Madonna’s influence would eventually surpass even Blondie’s.