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.