Icon: Madonna

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 02.12.13 in Icons

From the very start, Madonna has called the shots. She has most always co-written her own material, a quality that immediately distinguished her from most disco warblers. But unlike, say, Donna Summer, who did the same, she also clearly controls her image, and takes an active hand in her sound: She’s co-produced nearly all of her records since 1986. Although her instrumental skills remain limited, the singer ensures that her output bares an unmistakable authorial stamp. No matter who she works with, the results have always been — and will always be — unquestionably Madonna.

Although her movie career is typically (and often justifiably) derided, this auteurist quality of her records, videos and concerts makes Madonna akin to the world’s greatest film directors. She’s the only constant in a career that has stretched over 30 years, yet for the first 20, her discography was nearly infallible no many how many collaborators came and went; she boasts more chart-topping club hits than even the most prolific producers. With domestic mass appeal rooted in her upbeat material while continuing to command the mainstream abroad for her soul-searching work, Madonna is venerated around the world for both her crowd-pleasing ways as well as her deeply personal, sometimes deeply serious aesthetic. She may have initially courted comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, but she’s since matured into the Woody Allen of pop — the rare trickster who became a true artist. Here then are her sleepers, her interiors, her Manhattans, and her stardust memories.

In Chronological Order



Released in the summer of 1983, Madonna's debut album was a snapshot of the dance music that had gone back underground in the early '80s through most of America, but was still omnipresent on the streets and radios of New York City. It's disco that is far leaner than its '70s incarnation, but not yet thoroughly electronic, and still rooted in R&B forms. Current yet classic, Madonna has aged the best of the singer's early albums because it's her most focused and insistent. Six of its eight tracks rightly became pop hits, club anthems, or both.

Reggie Lucas — a guitarist for Miles Davis who helped create sleek smashes for sophisticated soul divas Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman — produced much of the album and co-writes key cuts "Borderline" and "Physical Attraction." DJ Mark Kamins also contributed production while Madonna's DJ boyfriend John "Jellybean" Benitez remixed tracks; Fred Zarr, whose synth sound defined countless NY '80s jams, contributes keys; Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of disco group Pure Energy pens the transcendent "Holiday," and the rising lucky star writes the rest herself. No ballads interrupt the steady flow of Linn drum beats, synth basslines, staccato guitar licks, and churchy background vocals, and Madonna's growling, yearning presence is already fully formed. She's not polished, though, and that's exactly as it should be; she's alternately tough and yielding in a way that totally suits this material. You can feel her hunger in every utterly engaged moment.

Like A Virgin


Madonna's career was already on an upward trajectory. But with the late-1984 release of her second album, a record completed then delayed by the slow-building success of her first, things went bananas. Produced by Nile Rodgers on the heels of helming David Bowie's mega-smash Let's Dance, Like a Virgin offers a poppier variant on the Bowie/Rodgers rock-funk alliance, and is far more provocative and polished than her 1983 debut. Its indelible hits, the title track and "Material Girl," still largely define the singer as a shrewd cultural commentator that many still willfully distort into a gold-digger, completely ignoring that her coy/theatrical/robotic/girlie delivery suggests irony and role-playing. Rodgers contributes his trademark guitar scratching throughout and fellow former Chic members Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson join in on bass and drums for the most R&B-leaning cuts. The rest tilts to New Wave lite with mixed results: The quality drop-off from inspired baubles like "Dress You Up" to filler on the level of "Stay" will rarely be this steep again. Paradoxically, her film career got off to a strong start right after this album with Desperately Seeking Susan before turning decidedly motley.

Recorded digitally, with bottom end doubled on bass guitar and synths, Like a Virgin's blockbuster status re-emphasized after Michael Jackson's Thriller that '80s dance music would be even bigger than '70s disco, especially when delivered by a videogenic superstar capable of crossing gender and color lines. Madonna's vocals may be overdubbed here far more than on her debut, but she's also more mischievous, and the resulting ambiguity allowed scholars, feminists, moral custodians, and countless Madonna wannabes both professional and fan-sized to pick up from the singer radically different signals. Like Bowie, Madonna discovered that pop music became more fun the more it could be mutable. Here she starts twisting.

True Blue


Inspired by her passionate marriage to Sean Penn, Madonna's summer 1986 release True Blue advanced her control over her music and image. She co-produced and co-wrote every track, as she was considerably more famous and successful than her collaborators here; ex-bandmate Stephen Bray, and Patrick Leonard, former keyboardist for failed Toto clone band Trillion. Her sound was still dance-pop — brittle drums clatter loudly, a mid-'80s quality that time-stamps True stronger than most of Madonna's output. But the R&B shades of her first two albums fade while retro girl-group giddiness, Latin rhythms, dramatic balladry and tougher rock aggression came to the fore on results far more varied than her previous LPs. Having toured behind Like a Virgin, Madonna's delivery improves considerably, and the melodies are more substantial: Even if the instrumental performances sometimes elsewhere tip the other way into lightweight kitsch, there's no denying that "Papa Don't Preach," "Open Your Heart," "Live to Tell" and "La Isla Bonita" are varied but durable classics that rightly boosted Madonna's profile considerably; without them, more typical dance numbers "White Heat" and "Where's the Party" would've served well as singles.

Madonna now commanded attention like no other pop phenomenon since the Beatles: Michael Jackson may have sold more and Prince wasn't far behind, but serious scholars and feminists now analyzed Madonna's songs and videos with unprecedented zeal. What did it mean for her to go against her father's wishes and keep her unborn child in "Papa Don't Preach"? What was she saying by putting herself in a stylized peep-show booth for "Open Your Heart"? Were these complicated feminist statements, or the very opposite? The debate was so huge that all but the youngest and most casual fans had to take sides that informed the way the world hears these records even today.

Who's That Girl Soundtrack


Ostensibly a soundtrack for the summer 1987 flop caper comedy in which she starred, Who's That Girl is more like a Madonna EP fleshed out with unrelated dance dreck. (Scritti Politti's delirious "Best Thing Ever" provides the sole non-Madge highlight.) None of her four contributions are remembered among her upper echelon of songs, although this isn't entirely just: The Latin-inflected title track topped the pop chart, while the self-referential "Causing a Commotion" reached No. 2 and was a deserved club anthem in remixed form. Together with the murky, moody ballad "The Look of Love" they suggest the turmoil of her now-abusive marriage, and so there's a weight here that's often overlooked amid the filler. The melancholy bridge of "Who's That Girl" in which this ordinarily steely superstar concludes, "No one can help me now" may be the first unguarded moment in Madonna's discography. More would be revealed in Like a Prayer.

Like A Prayer


Completed the same month Madonna and Sean Penn filed for divorce, 1989's Like a Prayer finds the star analyzing her life — seeking strength and sometimes finding struggle in Catholicism, marriage, friends and family — while reinventing herself as a far more adult artist by reclaiming and updating the music of her youth. Co-produced and co-written by Madonna mostly with Patrick Leonard but with key contributions by longtime collaborator Stephen Bray, Madonna's fourth album draws from classic gospel ("Like a Prayer"), Sly & the Family Stone ("Express Yourself"), Elton John ("Promise to Try"), Motown and the Association ("Cherish"), the Beatles ("Dear Jessie"), Simon & Garfunkel ("Oh Father"), go-go funk ("Keep It Together"), Latin folk ("Spanish Eyes"), and Jimi Hendrix ("Act of Contrition").

When one considers that the album also features contemporary influences like Prince (who appears in "Love Song" as strikingly low-key duet partner) and even the Smiths (note the ringing guitars and domestic despair of "Till Death Do Us Part"), Like a Prayer comes across as a particularly remarkable achievement because her eclecticism is presented as an explicitly autobiographical statement. Up to this point Madonna was largely seen as a sexy provocateur with streetwise songs, savvy videos, and a scattershot filmography, but Prayer presented her as an introspective singer-songwriter. The racial, religious and feminist debates over this album's hugely popular and controversial videos for "Like a Prayer" and "Express Yourself" both expanded on and distracted from this relatively new image of Madonna as legitimate auteur. Yet everything came together during the following year in what would be her crowning and most influential achievement, the Blond Ambition Tour, which raised the bar for pop concert presentation on nearly every level.

I'm Breathless


Released to promote her actually quite good performance in Dick Tracy, this is essentially Madonna's 1990 fantasy of a vintage musical in which she sings every number. Only four songs — including three by Broadway maestro Stephen Sondheim — appear in the film; his "Sooner or Later" won an Academy Award the next year, and having sung repeatedly it in her Blond Ambition Tour, the star absolutely nailed it on the Oscars. Here, like much of the rest, it's a tad belabored: Stripped of her usual multi-tracking and holding notes far longer than her usual punchy material demands, Madonna sounds like she's trying extra-hard to pull off vocal licks just outside her comfortable reach.

As songwriters, though, she and Patrick Leonard acquit themselves; their swing-jazz ditty "Hanky Panky" (a largely forgotten Top 10 hit celebrating spanking) and the reflective ballad "Something to Remember" would make swell Glee numbers. The knockout here is, of course, "Vogue," the star's tribute to not just classic Philly disco, house music and the drag balls of Harlem, but also to many of the Hollywood vixens she celebrates throughout I'm Breathless and indeed her career. Both femme-centric cult-y and ultra-mainstream (it's her all-time biggest US single), "Vogue" is quintessential Madonna.



"Give it up, do as I say/ Give it up and let me have my way" Madonna says at the outset of this set to a willing S&M bottom and, by extension, her fans and the music industry. Having recently scored considerable coups with material that would've been considered uncommercial coming from any other act, the singer put her power to the test on her fifth and wildest album, the first for her own label, Maverick. Like her art-photography-slash-softcore-porn book Sex, Erotica addressed female pleasure, self-hatred, the death of gay friends and mentors from AIDS, lovers who raced away from emotional intimacy, man-stealing so-called pals and other thorny subject matter. While "Deeper and Deeper" ranks amongst her most uplifting, melodious dance tracks, much of the rest is far darker, emphasizing rhythm, words, and bass over tunes Madonna talks and whispers throughout. When she does sing, it's usually in her sultry lower register.

The models are deep house music and the hip-hop-informed spiritual R&B of Soul II Soul, here served up by collaborators Shep Pettibone, the co-author of "Vogue" who contributed his revered remixing services to You Can Dance and The Immaculate Collection, and newcomer André Betts. The sound is dirty, sometimes even distorted, as Madonna creates boudoir jazz by way of crackling samples and thwacking machine beats that push her diary-like poetry into provocative shapes. Sometimes she's trifling, updating Motown songwriting tropes via street slang and puns: Calling the trollop in "Thief of Hearts" who steals her beau "little Susie ho-maker" is particularly cute. And sometimes she's delicate in a way that she rarely gets credit for achieving: Check her gently bending chorus on the concluding "Secret Garden." Her experiment in how far the public and media would let her go generated mixed results: Sex sold well but was panned mercilessly. Erotica achieved significant sales by most any other artist's standards, but not hers. Suddenly, Madonna seemed overexposed, both literally and figuratively. A new approach was in order.

Bedtime Stories


Following Sex, the backlash against Madonna's transgressive image climaxed. At first, she struggled to tone herself down, but couldn't quite do it: A tender soundtrack ballad, "I'll Remember," was promoted with a profanity-intensive David Letterman appearance in which she gave her panties to the host and suggested he smell them. Bedtime Stories, her October 1994 album of comparatively subtle R&B, showed similar growing pains. "Secret," the first single, scored big, but listen closely and you can hear that it's more than a little blue, as if Madonna deeply resented the widely shared belief that she should hold herself back in order to save her career, but didn't know what else to do.

Co-written and produced by TLC overseer Dallas Austin, Mary J. Blige producer Dave "Jam" Hall, Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper, and R&B crooner Babyface, most of these stately ballads and muted mid-tempo grooves share that sense of hurt — not just over sour relationships, but also her career itself. Her largest chart-topper since "Vogue," the Babyface collaboration "Take A Bow" ruminates on both simultaneously. Pain and a renewed fear of failure made her an alternately sharper and blunter lyricist: "I'm not your bitch, don't hang your shit on me" from "Human Nature" couldn't have attacked her critics more plainly, even if her cartoony delivery undercuts her assault. But there's nothing compromised about the Björk-penned title cut, an undulating ambient techno showstopper that points the way to her artistic peak.

Evita: The Complete Motion Picture Music Soundtrack

Evita Soundtrack

Madonna's stylistic conservatism continued from 1994's Bedtime Stories to 1995's surprisingly masterful ballad collection Something to Remember to this staid soundtrack for the 1996 musical biopic of Eva Perón in which she starred. As a piece of music, Evita — aside from its biggest hit, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" — isn't particularly accessible: Unlike composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's earlier Jesus Christ Superstar, this rock opera is much more opera than rock. But its depiction of the famed Argentinian First Lady as a charismatic iconoclast dovetails with Madonna's own mythology, a parallel that works much stronger in the film than on this lengthy, story-heavy album. She's no Patti LuPone, but Madonna belts with impressive technical precision. Unfortunately, the singing lessons that enable her to pull off the sustained vowels that music theater demands subsequently messes with her pop singer diction. From here on, Madonna often sings "properly" — sometimes with a stilted, pseudo-English accent — even when a less precise, more natural delivery might better suit her material and message.

Ray Of Light


Madonna was by now a mother of a child fathered by her fitness trainer/lover Carlos Leon, practicing yoga regularly, studying both Eastern mysticism and Kabbalah, and a far more accomplished singer. All of these emotional, physical and spiritual changes shaped 1998's Ray of Light. It's where she discovers tender elements of both her voice and personality: Where she'd generously multi-track her voice while favoring wit and strength over vulnerability, here she contributes a careful and more caring delivery that's matched by co-producer/co-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist William Orbit's largely synthetic and finely tweaked studio backing. With songwriting and production help from her favored ballad co-creator Patrick Leonard, pop craftsman Rick Nowels, and keyboardist Marius DeVries, Orbit and Madonna craft an inward-searching singer-songwriter album disguised as an otherworldly electronica departure.

Synths abound, but there are plenty of strings and electric guitars as well: The steady-driving smash title track ranks as one of dance music's smoothest rock appropriations. Madonna had repeatedly proved herself a consummate singles act, but here her ability as an album artist peaks. There's not a whiff of filler: From the fame ruminations of album opener "Drowned World (Substitute For Love)" to her mourning failed relationships in "Frozen" and "The Power of Goodbye" to the closing mythological parable "Mer Girl," every cut feels lyrically and musically committed and coherent within a diverse but sustained and well-sequenced whole. Before the year's end, Madonna and Leon would separate, but Ray of Light would live on as her most accomplished and finessed album.



At the early height of her popularity, Madonna polarized listeners like few pop phenomena. But 1998's Ray of Light gave her broad respect, and its synth-driven introspection proved more popular internationally than any of her studio albums since 1986's True Blue. That approval empowered the singer to dive even deeper into electronics and self-exploration on 2000's Music. Through Maverick Records, she had received a demo by Mirwais, former guitarist of French New Wave band Taxi Girl, who became her largely unknown primary collaborator here. His Daft Punk-y quirks blend seamlessly with her early-'80s disco-funk for Music's title track, one of her most joyous singles ever. Elsewhere she embraces acoustic guitars, both straightforward ("I Deserve It") and glitchy (the nearly country-ish hit "Don't Tell Me," written by her singer-songwriter brother-in-law Joe Henry). The risks she takes on wayward album cuts like "Paradise (Not For Me)" are balanced by concise, well-written ballads like "What It Feels Like For a Girl," one of her gentlest, yet most-barbed feminist statements. These different directions didn't collectively match Ray of Light's unity, but they add a worthy plateau to that album's peak. Nothing suggested that another backlash loomed right around the corner.

American Life


Launched by the second most expensive video ever, Madonna's appropriately tense 2002 Bond theme "Die Another Day" scored her another Top 10 victory. So it must've come as a shock to all involved that none of the subsequent singles on 2003's American Life got higher than No. 37 in the US. The album's criticisms of the title's subject matter couldn't have been more timely and ill-timed: The US invasion of Iraq had begun, and the Dixie Chicks suffered an instant, massive boycott for an anti-Bush remark just as Madonna planned to unleash a crazy war/fashion video for "American Life." Although she substituted a tamer replacement right before the video's release, this album's artwork depicting her as a glam Che Guevara combined with the single's clunky rap interlude about her soy latte, Pilates, her many employees, and her dissatisfaction with those privileges rubbed most US media the wrong way during a key post-9/11 moment when the slightest criticism of Uncle Sam was considered anti-patriotic. Unlike its eclectic predecessor Music, American Life is mostly one thing — not particularly fun or catchy electronic folk. This second Mirwais/Madonna pairing isn't a total dud; no doubt inspired by her new husband Guy Ritchie, the strummy yet thumpy "Love Profusion" clicked abroad, but wasn't released as a single here after its predecessors flopped spectacularly. Moreover, the album's Re-Invention World Tour became the highest grossing concert attraction of 2004. Suddenly a split widened between what the US mainstream would accept from Madonna and what her longtime international fans expected.

Confessions On A Dance Floor


Given that nearly all of her catalog has been squarely aimed at clubs or at least remixed for them, it was a bit wacky that Madonna's late 2005 album was widely hyped as a return to her disco roots. Confessions on a Dance Floor avoids the folk guitars of her last few albums, but otherwise it's not drastically different. Soul-searching themes still get set to computer beats — only this time they pound harder with less syncopation and, apparently, greater commercial intent. She may have renounced her celebrity-centric ways with American Life, but the fact that she started this album with a prominent ABBA sample ("Hung Up"'s "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)") instantly recognizable to millions of Europeans, club-pop connoisseurs, and gay men surely suggests she was nevertheless eager to catch the attention of her fan base.

Confessions embraces the Eurodisco tradition from Donna Summer to Pet Shop Boys to David Guetta via her new primary collaborator Stuart Price, combining eternally hip synthpop paradigms with hands-in-the-air trance anthem gaucheness. Although only "Hung Up" clicked on US Top 40, Confessions did so well overseas it was as if American Life never happened. Here, its success was more moderate, as it came a couple of years before Gaga brought the stadium-dance formula employed by most of it back to radio. The highlight, though, is "I Love New York," which suggests early Liz Phair jamming with LCD Soundsystem covering the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Yes, it's that good.

Hard Candy


If Confessions was Euro-centric and classic, 2008's Hard Candy is all-American and of its moment. Like its predecessor, Candy suggests that the clock was ticking on her marriage to Guy Ritchie and, indeed, the pair filed for divorce late that year. The giveaway is that Madonna's lyrics on the happy songs — particularly the smash Justin Timberlake duet "4 Minutes" and its less successful follow-up "Give It 2 Me" — are rote and over-generalized, whereas the anxious cuts "Miles Away" and "She's Not Me" are honed and precise. Her collaborators Timbaland, Timberlake, the Neptunes and Danja created much of the greatest hip-hop, pop, and R&B of the past 20 years, yet what should've been monumental is often shockingly slight. Sometimes a brilliant bridge offsets a shoddy chorus ("Beat Goes On"), but too much here seems phoned in, as if no one dared to prod these masters — Madonna included — to reach their full potential. Unconsciously, the star acknowledges the coasting: Over the album's far-funkiest groove, "Dance 2night," she sings, "You just gotta give more, more, more than you ever have before." No one's doing that here.



It's telling that after 2012's MDNA harsh Europop, Hard Candy's largely stale R&B tastes better in retrospect. There's so much here that should be beneath Madonna, and the desperation is palpable: "Gang Bang" crosses a line simply because its violence is so mindless, and although she's made a career out of pop-art provocation, she's never before stooped. She's written simply at times for decades, but there's a world of difference between "Into the Groove" and "Girls Gone Wild." Despite the now-ness of big name DJs like Benny Benassi and Martin Solveig, much here recycles earlier themes and sounds: "I Don't Give A" retreads "Human Nature;" "I'm a Sinner," one of several tracks to reunite her with William Orbit, revisits the psychedelia of "Beautiful Stranger" while dumbing down everything smart, spiritual, and sexy about "Like a Prayer." MDNA rallies on its final three cuts, "Love Spent," "Masterpiece," and "Falling Free," which bring the substantial melodies elsewhere repressed, and the deluxe edition adds welcome lyrical depth regarding her latest connubial mishaps ("I Fucked Up," "Best Friend"), but even here she hits her nails too squarely on their heads. This is Madonna at her most blatant, and it's not flattering.