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Mr Brainwash

Celebration is Madonna’s third greatest hits package, spanning her thirty–year career. She has also released collections of remixes and ballads, as well as eleven studio albums and several film soundtracks. A two-disc compilation, showcasing such a prolific artist, seems almost minimal.  It is accompanied by a double DVD featuring nearly fifty videos.

The cover, by street artist Mr Brainwash, is striking, if perhaps too obvious a riff on Warhol’s Marilyn. But Madonna is an icon in her own right, and Celebration’s booklet includes some of the best artwork on any of her albums. Browned newspaper featuring printed lyrics are overlaid by images from Madonna’s many incarnations; there are montages, a Banksy-style billboard, and my own favourite, a young Madonna surrounded by smashed records.

The artwork recreates the New York club scene of the 1970s and 80s where Madonna found her niche. That spirit of ‘reinvention’ has echoed through the following decades, and sets her apart from her imitators. Now she is a phenomenon on the scale of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson – the only woman in that select club, and by far the most provocative.

Some critics would argue that Madonna’s true genius lies in marketing, but the music tells another story. While the Beatles split acrimoniously, and Michael and Elvis faded away, Madonna remains a dominant force, running ahead of the pack.

Celebrating The Music

Disc One begins with a string of killer dance anthems – Hung Up, Music, Vogue, Holiday, Into The Groove – while Disc Two boasts two haunting power-ballads, Frozen and Live To Tell. Elsewhere are clusters of pop classics – Like A Prayer, La Isla Bonita, Papa Don’t Preach – showcasing Madonna’s inimitable vocals, small and girlish maybe, but perfect for pop. Her voice, while limited in range, has an immediacy that more technically accomplished singers struggle to match.

La Ciccone’s years of ‘sexual discovery’ and rebellion are marked by the sublime Erotica and Justify My Love, and her most recent, artistically brilliant decade in Europe, experimenting with leftfield producers like William Orbit (Ray Of Light, Beautiful Stranger) and Mirwais Ahmadzai (Hollywood, Don’t Tell Me),are also featured. Some older hits, including Lucky Star, Crazy For You, Who’s That Girl, and Cherish, have immense nostalgic value though are possibly less innovative.

No retrospective would be complete without the star-making Like A Virgin and Material Girl. Express Yourself shows Madonna at her most spirited and assertive – Shep Pettibone’s video mix, rather than the album version, is selected. Fortunately, Shep’s other Immaculate Collection remixes, Into The Groove and Like A Prayer, which have dated badly, and are replaced by the remastered originals. Secret, one of Madonna’s sweetest love songs, gets a second hearing, along with the more recent, underrated Miles Away and the dramatic, sentimental Take A Bow. Open Your Heart and Dress You Up, two minor gems from the eighties, are revived – the major omission from this era is Angel.

Inevitably, some of Madonna’s diverse back catalogue is neglected. Celebration is very eighties-heavy – all five singles from her first, self-titled album are featured (including a new mix of Everybody) while only the title track of 1992’s Erotica makes the cut. The decade when Madonna-mania first began is now the height of retro fashion. Madonna’s later work has been edgier and rather less poppy, and Bedtime Stories, Ray Of Light, Music and Confessions On A Dancefloor are all under-represented. Fan favourites like Burning Up add a spicy, vintage flavour, but some older tracks, like Gambler, Causing A Commotion, Look Of Love and This Used To Be My Playground have been, perhaps unfairly, forgotten.

Madonna’s fierce, slightly overcooked Bond theme, Die Another Day, makes the grade, as does last year’s 4 Minutes– however, with the brass intro and rapped coda (by Timbaland) edited out, some of  its distinctive qualities are lost. Unusually for Madonna, 4 Minutes already sounds a little clunky, more a vehicle for Timbaland and Justin Timberlake than a pure Madonna song.

And the two bonus tracks on the CD, Celebration and Revolver, break no new ground but consolidate existing trends – trance and hip-hop respectively. Celebration, produced by Paul Oakenfold, is light and airy – described as ‘the sound of tomorrow’, it is nonetheless very reminiscent of the early 1990s Ibiza sound. Revolver, composed by Lil Wayne and featuring a rap interlude, seems rather like a Britney Spears or Rihanna cast-off, somewhat ironic considering these younger stars owe so much to Madonna. In Madge’s hands, thankfully, Revolver is more man-eater than Lolita.

Listeners on iTunes will find a third ‘new’ song, It’s So Cool. The lyrics and vocal are quite promising, but Oakenfold’s reworking is standard Euro-disco, in the manner of yet another Madonna clone, Kylie Minogue. It would be interesting to hear the original demo, made during 2003’s American Life sessions with the more radical, imaginative Mirwais.

While the content is mostly outstanding, production values are decidedly patchy. The remasters of Madonna’s early work are uniformly excellent, freeing old favourites from that dreaded 1980s tinniness and restoring them to their very best. However, some of the editing is clumsy and while most listeners won’t notice, those glitches will undoubtedly disappoint hardcore fans.

Celebration On Video

The DVD also presents some technical problems – while it is described as remastered, I didn’t notice many major improvements in quality overall. European buyers should note that the Amaray set is in NTSC format, which will play on PCs and laptops, but probably not on non-US television/DVD players. The Digipak may be a better choice for fans outside the US. The cover, another of Mr Brainwash’s ‘Warholisations’, is unimpressive.

Disc One covers Madonna’s early career, from 1983-93. Crazy For You, Into The Groove, Live To Tell, Who’s That Girl, and I’ll Remember all appear on DVD for the first time. These are all film tie-ins, and mainly of interest to collectors. Burning Up, True Blue and Deeper And Deeper, also new to DVD, are original videos. Deeper And Deeper, a paean to New York nightlife,is a boon to this compilation, and the song really should have been included on the CD as well.

After Michael Jackson, Madonna was the leading light of the MTV era. Borderline, Like A Virgin, Papa Don’t Preach, La Isla Bonita and Like A Prayer, all directed by Mary Lambert, recall a time when videos reigned supreme, complete with storylines, characterisation and exotic settings. Though Madonna’s film career has been hit-and-miss, as a video performer she has achieved immortality.

Open Your Heart, Express Yourself and Vogue are exquisitely styled and perfectly choreographed, borrowing from a variety of influences including classic Hollywood and German Expressionism. Justify My Love and Erotica also make their DVD debut, but in censored form. Other hits include Lucky Star, Cherish, and Rain.

Disc Two is some consolation to critics of the CD tracklisting, as the 1990s and beyond are covered quite comprehensively – including, for the first time, all but one video released since 2000. The grainy promo for Secret matches its soulful aesthetic, while Bedtime Story is inspired by surrealist art.  Chris Cunningham’s Frozen, featuring a shape-shifting, witchlike Madonna in the Mojave desert, is starkly beautiful, while Jonas Akerlund’s Grammy-winning Ray Of Light set new trends in video-making – moving away from the setpiece video to the dance-focused shorts of today.

Guy Ritchie’s ultra-violent What It Feels Like For Girl is shown in its entirety, suggesting that sex is a bigger headache for record companies than homicide. In the tough, survivalist Die Another Day, Madonna transcends the Bond theme remit. Music is –one hopes – a satire on ‘bling’, while Don’t Tell Me is a haunting, elegiac slice of Americana. Hollywood is perhaps the last great narrative video from Madonna.

In recent years, touring has taken precedence over video and the best of Madonna’s newer releases, Hung Up, is also one of the simplest. Human Nature, Power Of Goodbye, Jump, Give It 2 Me, and Miles Away also make welcome appearances, and the selection is padded with the likes of Take A Bow, I Want You, You’ll See, American Pie, Beautiful Stranger, Love Profusion, Sorry, Get Together, and 4 Minutes.

A new video, for the Celebration single, concludes the listing. Madonna cavorts with boyfriend Jesus Luz, but the pace is rather slowed by Benny Benassi’s leaden remix. An alternative promo is available on Madonna’s Myspace page, featuring some mildly amusing fan footage and a remarkable sequence where Madonna’s 13 year-old daughter, Lourdes (‘Lola’), poses in the famous white wedding dress, recalling her mother’s earlier performance in Like A Virgin.

Some of Madonna’s finest videos – Oh Father, Bad Girl, Drowned World (Substitute For Love), Nothing Really Matters – are absent, though they have been featured on previous collections. American Life, Madonna’s most political record, is omitted from both DVD and CD. After the onset of the Iraq war, Madonna withdrew the controversial video which was, nonetheless, a minor masterpiece. An inferior cut was released (and is best forgotten), but the complete version briefly saw the light of day during 2004’s Reinvention tour.

Celebration is a powerful reminder of Madonna’s extraordinary longevity and the wide range of her musical accomplishments. It is also the final offering in her 27-year partnership with Warner Brothers. Future albums will be distributed through tour promoters Live Nation. Now aged 51, Madonna will have to compete with far younger stars, most notably Pink, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga.

Whether her Madgesty now chooses to rest on her well-earned laurels, or continue to break down barriers in music, fashion and popular culture, one thing’s for sure – Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone is anything but a one-hit wonder, and is one of the few artists left in the music industry who can accurately be termed a ‘living legend’.