(Every few days or weeks, I pick a music artist or band, compile a chronological playlist of all of their singles (based on Wikipedia, Discogs and a few other sources) and then try to arrange that playlist in such a way that I like each song more than the previous song. Rearranging the songs is a never ending process so once I’m at a point where I think I’m pretty close to how I feel, I share the results with you 10 or so songs at a time. I’ve come to define “singles” in a pretty broad way so that it includes any song that was used to promote an album (via video or single) or any song that charted in a significant way. Generally speaking, I don’t include remixes or live versions of songs that were previously released as singles.)
Listening to this group of songs, I was struck by this feeling that every person listens to music differently. As my friend put it just today:
“Music is such a wonderful art. I like to think I have a uniquely special relationship with the music I love. Then I realize everyone else feels exactly the same way. Weird.” – Tori Barron
I think she is completely right here – each of us experiences music in our own way. One of the cool things about artists who’ve had long and varied careers is that different people can be fans of different parts of that career. For example, I love mid and late period Beatles but am sort of meh on early Beatles (though I can appreciate the importance of those songs).
Anyhow, I’m about to list some classic Madonna tunes pretty low and its not because they’re necessarily bad songs – I just experience them this way.
90. True Blue
From 1986’s True Blue, Third Single
I appreciate that Madonna really tried to branch out stylistically on True Blue (the album) but that doesn’t mean I necessarily like many of the songs from it. I grant you that “Like a Prayer” (the song) would not have necessarily happened if she’d not already been branching out as of this album. In essence, I appreciate much of True Blue in a sort of academic sense than in an actual “I enjoy the music” sense. When I started making this list, I assumed that this song would be top 30 but I’d not listened to it since the 80’s and listening to its 50’s-girl-group-cum-80’s-pop in this decade put me off. It sounds dated right from the “Hey – what?” exchange at the beginning. I still rather like the bridge but I want to remove it and place it in a better song.
89. Don’t Cry for Me Argentina
From the soundtrack to the 1996 film version of Evita, Second Single
OK, I struggled with where to rank this song. I think Madonna does a reasonably decent version of this late-20th century standard but here’s where we run into trouble. I just don’t like the song by itself anymore. I am so over it. All versions of the song. I would not choose to listen to any version outside of the context of the show. In context of the show, I get that its a string of empty platitudes performed with emotional commitment to win the love of the Argentinian people (and that bites a little close to home in the USA in 2017). In the hands of a great performer, you can be won over to understanding why Evita was so well loved. Take the song out of the musical and its just a string of empty platitudes sung with emotional commitment. It used to trigger a sort of emotional flashback to the first time I saw it sung live (on Broadway! During its original run!) so I enjoyed it in that sense but I no longer get that shot of phantom empathy. Now, I just cringe. Not Madonna’s fault.
88 Give Me All Your Luvin’ (featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.)
From 2012’s MDNA, First Single
Hey! It’s 2012! Let’s take the sound of the half-hearted “Hey – what” vocals on “True Blue,” make them cheerleaders and build a song around that! MDNA is not my favorite recent Madonna album. Its ok, I guess, but she’s had records I’ve enjoyed much more both before and since. While the video for “Give Me All Your Luvin’” was a great mini-commercial for her then-upcoming Superbowl Halftime performance, but I think its a light-weight, lazy song that makes bad use of Nicki Minaj (who can do no wrong in my eyes since I saw this) and M.I.A. (who I’m aware exists). I do like that she references “Lucky Star” in the lyrics.
87. American Life
From 2003’s American Life, First Single
This is a tough one – without the rap breakdown, I’d maybe be ranking this a lot higher. My dislike for the rap breakdown might be irrational but I think it has something to o with authenticity. Now, on the plus side, I think she is really rapping about things she’s familiar with, so good on her. She doesn’t put on some fake rap persona (in this sense, the rap is a sort of spiritual descendant of Blondie’s “Rapture” rap) – Madonna raps as Madonna. The thing that strikes me as inauthentic is that last line – “I’ve just realized that nothing… is what it seems.” In general, I try to avoid the trap of assuming that songs are actually about the person who wrote/sings them, but this song is at least presented as being about autobiographical. I don’t believe for one second that Madonna just realized that things aren’t what they seem. She’s a smart and savvy person and she walked this lyrical trail a bit back in the days of the superior “Human Nature” on Bedtime Stories. I know that’s a minor thing, but it really irritates me and makes it hard for me to enjoy this song in toto.
From the 2011 film W.E. and from 2012’s MDNA, Third Single
I was not aware that there was a movie called W.E. were you? For a few years, I’ve felt bad about not liking the song “Masterpiece” because I thought it might be about her love for one of her children. I’m relieved to report that its about the love affair described in that film so I no longer need to feel bad about not especially liking it. I dig the drum and guitar work, but kind of find the rest of the song to be a little cloying.
85. The Look of Love
From the soundtrack to the 1987 film Who’s That Girl?, Third Single (outside the US only)
I’m not going to go off on an extended rant about Madonna as an actress. I’m just going to say she’s a better actress than she’s given credit for being but when left to her own devices she is unable to do her best work. I’ll talk about her best screen performance in 35-45 songs. Madonna’s soundtrack to Who’s That Girl is a fairly decent album featuring some decent artists that gets overlooked when discussing her career. I was unaware of this song when it was released but I think I might have maybe liked it if I’d been exposed to it back in the day. It has a sort of haunting quality to it (its a character study of her role from the film) that has a certain appeal. However, all these years later, it doesn’t quite click with me. None-the-less, as of this song, we’re starting to enter into the “this song is ok, I guess,” range and away from the “nope” range.
From 1989’s Like a Prayer, Third Single
The title track from “Like a Prayer” was an amazing leap forward for Madonna and several tracks on the album are just great. There are also some tracks that sound like she’s hedging her bets a little bit in case her fans don’t dig her new direction by deliberately holding on to her earlier sound. Its truly her last single with that classic 80’s sound – which makes me cringe due to years of telling myself I didn’t like it. However, I acknowledge this is not a song that annoys me – I can take it or leave it. I do like her vocal work on the bridge.
83. You’ll See
From 1995’s Something to Remember, First Single
Something to Remember was an album made in response to perceived declining pop chart success. Apparently, there are people out there who weren’t crazy about Bedtime Stories and Erotica. I know, right? Madonna decided to record an album of ballads and it really did help rejuvenate and rehabilitate her image. I don’t know, I loved her 90’s work so I wasn’t quite sure what she needed to fix. I like Madonna’s ballad work fine. “You’ll See” is pretty forgettable to me, but my wife sings a fun version of it with different lyrics every time so it has that going for it.
82. I Know It
From 1983’s Madonna, Shared UK Single with Lady B’s “Attractive Young Man Wanted”
OK, so, apparently, in the UK, it is (was?) a practice to release a 45 rpm single that features a song from a different artist on each side. “I Know It” was generally a b-side to Madonna songs (I think to both “Holiday” and “Lucky Star”) but on this one UK single by Lady B, its the b-side to that song. I can only hold “I Know It” in my head when I’m listening to it. I think its a “I’m not staying with you because you just want to break my heart” song but I could be wrong. I mean, I’m thinking of it and there’s nothing there – which is to say, its just my brain in its default state. If you wish to experience my typical brain default state, think of the word “duh” and just hold it like a mantra in your head for about five minutes.
81. American Pie
From the soundtrack to the 2000 film The Next Best Thing, First Single
I thought this was going to be #101 for sure. I’m still not crazy about it. I’ve listened to it a bunch of times and I have a few things to say about it.
First, I think the edit is really smart. Madonna choose to focus specifically on the lyrics that focus on religion, music in general and dances. If you weren’t previously familiar with the song, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an extension of her ouevre. In this form, it becomes less of an epic about the death of Buddy Holly et al leading to the loss of innocence of America at Altamont (with a dig at Bob Dylan) and more a song about loss of innocence in general. As a post-modern work derived from an earlier classic work, I reservedly think it works lyrically.
Second, I’m not sure it entirely works musically. I don’t mean in comparison to the Don McLean (who praised this version and was grateful for the roylties) original, I mean on its own. Now, Madonna’s take on the song was a huge hit so what-the-hell-do-I-know. However, I don’t think the song is particularly vocally challenging for Madonna (she cut the verses that let McLean unleash his fury). Furthermore, the 2000 Ray of Light / Music era orchestration seems to be more gimmicky (“Let’s turn Don McLean’s folk song into a dance club song”) and less genuinely interesting. The song was criticized as sounding like it was a karaoke version of “American Pie” and I think that critique has some merit.
Finally, its worthwhile to think about what it means for Madonna to sing this particular American classic. I imagine she knew that many people were going to hate it no matter what she did because the song is a sort of sacred cow. She chose to do it anyways. Perhaps she thought that it was just the correct song for its parent movie or maybe she was being deliberately provocative (why not both?). I think it was a particularly bold choice on her part to record this song and the more I listen to it, the more intrigued I become.
I too had the “I immediately hate it” reaction when she released “American Pie” but this was no based on the quality of the song but, rather, on the very idea of Madonna covering it. But why shouldn’t she cover it? As it happens, I think its a little dull, but the day it came out was surely not the day the music died (even if many of us acted like it was).
Coming Soon: Those two songs? Ranked so low? Whaaaaaa?