Once a friend asked me to name my favorite Madonna song, and without hesitation I claimed “Borderline,” the second track from her 1983 debut album. “Ugh,” my friend replied with immediate disgust. “Pick a real Madonna song.” She seemed to mean that “Borderline” was some rock dude’s pick, not representative of Madonna’s larger catalog — not along the lines of, say, “Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” or “Like a Prayer.” The truth was, I liked “Borderline” best for the reason why my friend disapproved of my pick: it didn’t sound like the Madonna I knew, the Madonna that, frankly, I’d come to find exhausting and pretty boring.
As a gay man, I’m supposed to love Madonna — that’s at least how it feels. Which is why it’s a somewhat secret shame to admit that she doesn’t do it for me. Even as a kid, I never latched on to her songs the way many of my peers apparently did. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of them — as an artist, Madonna is especially broad and eclectic. But my favorite songs seemed to be the ones most inspired by musical theatre, the other pretty gay cultural movement that has lost some of its mainstream acceptance in recent decades. I listened repeatedly to Madonna’s ballads — “This Used to Be My Playground” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (I was a pretty maudlin tween) — and things like I’m Breathless, the album “inspired” by Dick Tracy (which also included, obviously, the songs that Stephen Sondheim wrote for her), and the soundtrack to Evita (although I admit that I’ve come to appreciate the original cast recording with Patti LuPone, who is, no question, a far better Eva Peron).
Part of my resistance to Madonna was most likely deliberate — I tend to avoid joining the cult of personality that surrounds any popular entertainer. When I originally planned on writing about the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s self-titled debut album, I expected to have nothing good to say about it and her career. In the last week, however, I’ve been listening to Madonna, and am surprised at how it stands far apart from her later work. It came out a year before her career-defining Like a Virgin, which not only included arguably her most famous song but also sparked the international attention she received for her controversial lyrics and performance style. Perhaps that’s why Madonna feels so different: it feels more pure, more straightforward pop music without the frills of a marketable personality.
There’s not much of an artistic statement on Madonna, but there’s an extremely clear aesthetic. Its strengths lie in its production rather than the songwriting or Madonna’s singing (which, let’s be honest, has never been her strongest quality). The album serves as a bridge between the fading disco era (without forgoing the European influence on the genre) and the short, radio-friendly pop hits of the mid- to late-’80s. It’s representative of Madonna’s Detroit and New York roots, which she’d later blend with more success by the end of the decade. But most of all, it’s sincere. Madonna’s imagery and artistry, which she’d ultimately define over and over again with her regular reinventions, takes a backseat to the poppy, youthful sensibility of the album’s sugarcoated sound. It’s less about Madonna and more about the sound, the careless fun of pop music.
Even in the videos for the album’s singles, Madonna doesn’t exude the fearlessness she’d later exhibit. The performances are casual and sloppy, absent of the over-the-top dancing, overworked costumes, and sexual and political imagery with which she’d be identified. It’s not Madonna the international icon, but rather a young woman on the brink, about to burst into something larger, something that would eventually, as with most female pop stars who manage to keep performing past a certain age when our culture would prefer them to slow down and let a younger cohort take over, fade in just the slightest bit. But on Madonna, her star burns bright as she brings a scrappy, downtown sensibility to a larger audience with a sonic and youthful purity that she would never again replicate.