The Arts

Madonna, the Material Girl Who Will Always Be in Vogue

Madonna Ciccone, musician and actor who turns 60 on August 16, is the the only female pop star to have had complete control of her music and her makeover.

If there is a single female artiste who could be called a chameleon – not only in terms of her colourful personality but, equally importantly, because she reinvents her musical style to suit current trends – it has to be Madonna Ciccone, who celebrates her 60th birthday today. In her career spanning over 30 years, Madonna has certainly come far, both as a singer and, to a certain extent, as an actress.

My own first ‘connect’ with Madonna occurred when I found out that she had provided backing vocals for Patrick Hernandez’s 1979 smash hit Born To Be Alive, one of my favourite songs from the disco era.

Four years later, I saw her on Doordarshan, through Reliance’s ‘Only Vimal’ brand which first sponsored the pre-Grammy and Grammy Awards during 1983, the same year in which Madonna launched her self-titled album. Those shows brought the world of music videos right into our drawing rooms.

The album contained several tracks that gained much traction, such as Everybody, Burning Up, Holiday, Lucky Star, and Borderline, but the album that really fascinated me a lot more, as it perhaps did the rest of the world, was the one in 1984: ‘Like A Virgin’. Madonna had chosen Nile Rodgers, one half of the duo known as Chic, (who had a massive hit during the late ’70s disco era with a song called Le Freak), to produce her second effort, which worked extremely well for the singer – it boosted her sales and also broadened her musical horizon. The album eventually sold in excess of 21 million units globally.

The title song was a perfect mix of dance pop, providing Madonna her first US No. 1 as also giving her her first UK No. 1 with the dance floor smash hit, Into The Groove, a song that shifted to a millennial audience with its intro during the final dance fight sequence of 2017’s animated Despicable Me 3.

Poster of A Certain Sacrifice. Credit: IMDB

In addition to singing, Madonna was also interested in acting and made her debut in A Certain Sacrifice in 1979, wherein she gets an egg fried on her stomach, for which Madonna was apparently paid $100!

Nevertheless, Madonna’s music career continued to move forward with the release of True Blue in 1986. A more direct connect for me was in 1989, when I joined exclusive Warner Music licensee for India, Magnasound, which, in that same year, launched ‘Like A Prayer’ with the rest of the world. At the time of the India launch, a Madonna lookalike contest was held in Mumbai, but the bigger challenge for us then was sourcing the record label mandated patchouli oil, which we had to have placed/sprayed onto the packaging to simulate church incense (as per Madonna’s wishes)!

Unknown to most, Prince played the guitar for three songs from the album, Like A Prayer, Keep It Together and Act Of Contrition, though he remains uncredited for his efforts, more, I believe, out of choice than circumstance. After all, during the ’80s, Prince was undergoing a phase when he preferred working incognito, often utilising abstract pseudonyms such as “Jamie Starr” “Alexander NeverMind”, “Christopher”, and “Joey Coco”, when he did consider taking credit for his inputs.

In 1992, the album was followed by ‘Erotica’, released by Warner Music in conjunction with Madonna’s own record label, Maverick, simultaneously with Madonna’s first publication, Sex, a coffee table book containing explicit photographs featuring the singer, which gained even more notoriety; I vividly remember it being banned in India! As one of Madonna’s more adventurous albums, ‘Erotica’ became her first studio album not to top the chart since her debut album.

‘Bedtime Stories’ became Madonna’s sixth studio album, which explored the club scene, where dubstep, a genre of electronic dance music that originated in South London in the late ’90s and was generally characterised by forced, hollow rhythmic patterns with bass lines, which had gained popularity.

Album cover of ‘Bedtime Stories’. Credit: Wikipedia

The subsequent album, 1998’s ‘Ray Of Light’, explored the sound further as it delved into electronica, including its variants in trip-hop and ambient music. Madonna’s interest in Hinduism was showcased in this album too, the direct result of her daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga, the eight-fold yoga system first described in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. Shanti/Ashtangi was made into an uptempo dance track featuring Madonna singing entirely in Sanskrit with lines such as “Vunde gurunam caranaravinde/Sandarsita svatma sukhavabodhe“.

In taking a 180-degree musical turnaround immediately thereafter, Madonna released a cover version of the classic Don McLean song, American Pie, in March 2000, to promote the soundtrack of her film, The Next Best Thing. Her rendition was much shorter than the original (containing only the beginning of the first verse combined with the complete second and sixth verses) and was recorded as a dance song co-produced by English musician William Orbit.

The sound created provided sufficient indication as to where her music was heading towards during the turn of the century, effectively establishing that Madonna had her pulse firmly affixed on the sounds being heard by the millennials to ensure that her music remained topical; and without ignoring her loyal fans through the years, she managed to capture an audience that was born well over 20 years after her first recording success.

It was ‘Music’, her eighth studio album released on September 18, 2000 where Madonna collaborated with, besides William Orbit, French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, resulting in the expected electronica vibe and an absolutely brilliant sounding title track, a genre which continued with 2003’s American Life, with recurring themes of the American dream and materialism. Preceding this album release was a single, Die Another Day, which was launched to promote the 20th James Bond film of the same name. The production cost for the music video was over USD six million, making it the second most expensive music video ever made, following Scream by Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson.

Madonna performing in 2012 in Seattle. Credit: Flickr/Ronald Wuan

Meanwhile, ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’, released in 2005, was going to have more sounds similar to her previous efforts (from the 2000s), but Madonna felt that yet one more collaboration with producer Mirwais was not necessarily the best musical route for her future career as there was likely to be a creative burnout for her and a backlash from listeners and, hence, Madonna decided to embark on yet another tangent.

So, leaving the sounds of 2003’s ‘American Life’ far behind, Madonna introduced her influences of ’70s disco and pop, referencing music of artistes from Abba to the Bee Gees. No better example of her ‘influence’ than on the fabulous lead single Hung Up, for which Madonna made personal calls to Abba songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, asking permission to sample their 1979 hit, Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!. Although the Abba songwriters are known to be protective of their material, they responded in the affirmative to Madonna, but only after ensuring the signing of an agreement that entitled them to a significant share of the royalties from sales/airplay. Nevertheless, the sounds of Abba within Hung Up resulted in Madonna’s song achieving No. 1 in an unprecedented 41 countries!

‘Hard Candy’ in 2008 became Madonna’s final studio album with the Warner Music label, marking the end of a 25-year-old collaboration, and focused on R&B prior to Madonna moving towards electro house and eurodance to the genre of EDM for her new record label, Interscope Records, for 2012’s ‘MDNA’. Next, 2015’s ‘Rebel Heart’, Madonna’s last studio album, hit EDM in virtual entirety with collaborations with Diplo, Avicii (who passed away in April this year) and Kanye West. The album release was followed by a tour lasting from the final quarter of 2015 to the spring of 2016, playing more than 75 dates across North America, Europe and Asia and, although event promoter Live Nation wanted India to be part of that tour (and were in conversation with me then), they did not receive any confirmed interest.

MDNA album cover. Credit: Wikipedia

So, how does the iconic Madonna celebrate her 60th birthday? With another album perhaps and, although there is no confirmed news forthcoming yet, what is certain is that Madonna is currently living outside Lisbon and the ever-changing persona-shifting superstar hinted that she would be returning to the pop world when she was interviewed by ‘Live with Kelly and Ryan’, an American syndicated morning talk show hosted by Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, in December last year. “[In] 2017, [I] was a soccer mom in Portugal – [but in] 2018, I’m coming back, baby,” she told fellow guest Anderson Cooper, an anchor of a CNN news show.

Difficulties on the personal front notwithstanding  and her films doing barely any better, it matters little, for after stars reach a zenith of sorts, they often forget what made them a star in the first place…but Madonna is no such ordinary star.

Madonna’s great achievement is how she has manipulated the media through provocative videos and especially through her sexuality, although, often, she has gone to extremes at times. Madonna, through her team of managers and her own musical taste, is closely monitoring the digital music space that appears to be constantly changing, somewhat hand-in-glove with social media and a her observations will perhaps be reflected in Madonna’s forthcoming album, which is rumoured for release later this year.

Nevertheless, wherever Madonna decides to be, as she moves into her 60s, nothing changes the fact that she was – and, perhaps, still is – the only female pop star to have had complete control of her music and her makeover.

Parag Kamani is a rock and pop music aficionado.