‘She can’t be stopped!’ — 40 years of Madonna

“She can’t be stopped! There’s something wrong with her!” spluttered David Letterman when Madonna appeared on his talk show in 1994. In the months preceding, the host had cracked many jokes about the singer’s sexuality. Now she handed him a pair of her knickers and challenged him to ask her directly about her sex life instead of smirking behind her back. But her killer move was refusing to leave the stage when he said it was time to “say goodbye, now”.

Madonna is not a woman easily dismissed. Then as now, the average chart-life of a pop singer was two to six years, generally shorter for women than men. In 1991, the New York Times ran a piece singling out Madonna as a “show business veteran because she has held on for all of eight years”. They could not have predicted that, by 2022, she would be celebrating an astonishing 40 years in pop, racking up her 50 Number 1 on the Billboard Dance Chart, aged 62, with “I Don’t Search I Find” in 2020. As she said in 2016, she may have shocked the world by singing about teenage pregnancy, burning crosses in videos and simulating masturbation on stage, “but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around”.

This month, the best-selling solo female artist of all time celebrates her longevity with the release of Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones, a career-spanning collection including previously unreleased remixes of her dance floor hits. After that, she will reissue deluxe editions of 17 of her albums — including Like a Virgin, True Blueand Like a Prayer — alongside singles, soundtrack recordings, live albums, and compilations. John Earls of Classic Pop magazine argues that this capitulation to the lucrative nostalgia market, “after assiduously avoiding it for so long, is her biggest acknowledgment of pop mortality”.

Madonna at an Amsterdam photo shoot in 1984 © Kees Tabak/Hollandse Hoogte/eyevine

Perhaps. But I wonder if it’s also her way of reminding us what she’s always been about. As a fan, I felt the snap-crackle remastering of the old beatbox grooves recharging the electric delight of my youth while listening to “Into the Groove” (1985), “Like a Prayer” (1989) and “Vogue” (1990) and later dance hits “Hung Up” (2006) and “Medellin” ,2019),

During the past two decades we have got so lost in theories of Madonna that we risk forgetting the fearlessly exhilarating feeling of Madonna. There have been scores of think-pieces about her impact on the culture. I’ve written a few myself. In 2012 I expressed disappointment that the rebellious high schoolgirl who refused to conform to gender norms (not shaving her armpits; making the first move with boys) appeared to capitulate to the expectations of the pop patriarchy with a “desperate” attempt to stay forever young . Feeling more sisterly in 2019, I apologised for imposing my own demands and expecting her to stand alone against a world she wanted “to conquer, and deliver, and despise”.

Her first single, “Everybody” (1982), nailed the agenda with its chorus: “Everybody, come on, dance and sing/ Everybody get up and do your thing.” It was a song that the unknown dancer from Detroit wrote for her first demo, released in April 1982. She had the smarts to test-run it at trendy New York club Danceteria and charmed the city’s hottest DJ, Mark Kamins, into producing a more polished version.

Madonna dancing at a party, c1985 © Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Record exec Seymour Stein heard the revised version while in hospital recovering from open heart surgery. “I immediately felt an excitement,” he wrote in his 2018 autobiography. “I liked the hook, I liked Madonna’s voice, I liked the feel, and I liked the name Madonna.” When the singer said she wanted to visit him that night, Stein pressed his buzzer to call for pajamas and a hairdresser and gave her a deal on the spot.

Stein would be the first of millions inspired to dress up by Madonna. In the 1988 film Working Girl, Joan Cusack’s character tries to tear down the fantasies she inspired, saying: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna.” But that underwear dancing helped many people (particularly women and gay men) shed the drab constraints of daily life and feel powerful, sexy and free. Her confident allure was airborne. “All you need is your own imagination,” she assured us in “Vogue”, “so use it, that’s what it’s for!”

I got my first Madonna album (True Blue) aged 11 and spent hours in my bedroom tying lace and ribbons into my hair and around my wrists. I’d roll up the waist of my gray school skirt and dance defiantly to the beat of “Papa Don’t Preach” and blacken my eyes with pilfered kohl as I sank into the mysterious sorrow of “Live to Tell”. I don’t know anybody who’d claim Madonna is a great singer, but boy, can she sell you a tale, and “Live to Tell” spoke passionate truths to the hearts of young fans: “If I ran away, I’ d never have the strength/ To go very far/ How would they hear the beating of my heart?/ Will it grow cold,/ The secret that I hide?, Will I grow old?/ How will they hear?/ When will they learn?/ How will they know . , , ,

At a Live Aid benefit concert in Philadelphia in 1985 © Associated Press

When I first song along, I felt the depth of her sorrow without understanding its source. I didn’t know that Madonna’s mother had died when she was five years old. I didn’t know that she’d struggled to make peace with her father’s second wife. Or that she’d been raped after moving to New York and suffered through the deaths of gay friends during the AIDS epidemic. I couldn’t make sense of the way these experiences had left her confusingly, compellingly raw on one side and burnt on the other.

Kamins says she writes “nursery rhymes . , , that appeal to everyone, from five-year-olds to 90-year-olds.” I agree. Some part of Madonna communicates from her inner child to our own. The persona the sexagenarian chose for her last album sounds wonderfully, like a character my 10-year-old daughter could have created: “Madame X is a secret agent. Traveling around the world. Changing identities.” Glamor. Love. Sex. Power. Fear. Flight.

Across four decades in pop, Madonna has been accused of using male producers and songwriters to get where she got. It’s an allegation nobody levels at male artists. But let’s hand the mic back to Stein:

“I’d break out in a rash whenever I heard this nasty myth about how Madonna somehow screwed her way to the top . , , I defy anyone to screw their way to number one and stay there for well over three decades. It can’t be done. But please, be my guest — have fun trying! , , , trust me, no big shot picked her up and sprinkled her with stardust. Not Mark [Kamins], not me, not Svengli, not the Wizard of Oz. She was just a very passionate young lady, living it, and who knows, maybe she thrived on falling in love. But hey, she was just 24.”

At the film premiere for her 1991 film ‘Truth or Dare’ © Bei/Shutterstock

Now Madonna is 63 and selling 3D sculptures of her vagina and digital art in which she is shown giving birth to trees and robotic centipedes. She must be delighted that some people are still shocked. In 2020, I interviewed Madonna’s heroine, Debbie Harry. Then aged 75, the Blondie frontwoman said that what she missed most was the opportunity to shock. “Sometimes I dream about walking on stage with no clothes on . , , ,

The public perception of Madonna is — increasingly — of a humorless sexbot. As a perfectionist focused on delivering immaculate performances, she doesn’t often allow herself space for levity. But I’ve always found her quite funny. In that Letterman appearance, the awkward pauses and F-bombs have a neat comic timing. She was just more deadpan than women were then permitted to be in those days and seemed to get a kick out of the tension it generated. At times, she is quite capable of laughing at herself. When the cross from her rosary slipped into her jeans during a photo shoot, she joked: “Even God wants to get into my pants.”

Do I “like” Madonna? A self-professed “unapologetic bitch”, she has never asked us to like her. She has asked us to love her for succeeding entirely on her own terms while inspiring many others to do the same.

I hope these reissues and remixes won’t be the last we hear from Madonna. I suspect they are simply a manifesto refresher from a woman who has often said that what critics interpret as “reinventions” are simply the acts of a woman revealing more of herself. There will be times when we ask ourselves whether she looks “too young”, “too old” or like she’s having “too much fun” or “too little fun”. The antidote is always in the music.

The 16-track edition of ‘Finally Enough Love’ will be released digitally on June 24; the 50-track edition will be released on August 19

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