Time Ticks By: Madonna's Iconic Career From Holiday to 'Madame X'

Huw Baines 20 May 2019

In case you hadn’t heard, or if Eurovision isn’t your bag, Madonna is back. The Queen of Pop’s new album, ‘Madame X’, is set to land on June 14 and bring with it the latest in a long line of live extravaganzas, including a huge run at the London Palladium. As we prepare for what’s doubtless going to be a quiet, reserved affair, we thought it wise to wind back the clock and take a look at some of the songs that helped make her one of the most iconic pop artists of them all. Spanning a teetering stack of hits, this is Madonna’s legendary career in 10 foundational moves.

Holiday (1983)

New York in the early ‘80s was no joke. When Madonna landed in the city, another kid out of the midwest determined to make it, she found a violent, dangerous place that also teemed with creative energy. Post-punk, post-disco, and as hip hop continued to evolve, she gravitated to the city’s art and club scenes. “I felt like I had plugged into another universe,” she wrote in an essay for Harper’s Bazaar in 2017. “I felt like a warrior plunging my way through the crowds to survive. Blood pumping through my veins, I was poised for survival. I felt alive.” Her early work reflects this era, with her first hit single, Holiday, coming produced by Fun House DJ and freestyle pioneer John “Jellybean” Benitez, whom Madonna was dating at the time.

Like a Virgin (1984)

The first of Madonna’s 12 US number one singles remains a signature moment and, not coincidentally, one of the greatest pop songs of all time. Written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg during their imperial phase (also home to the Bangles’ Eternal Flame, the Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You and Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors), and produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Like a Virgin served as the title track of Madonna’s second LP, underlining the feverish work ethic that fuelled her nascent career. Emerging only 18 months after her debut, ‘Like a Virgin’ found her branching out into more stripped down, chart-leaning pop while expanding her reach into the MTV-fuelled world of music videos. The single’s clip, shot in Venice by rising promo star Mary Lambert, is almost as recognisable as its hook.

Into the Groove (1985)

A couple of firsts here. Into the Groove was Madonna’s first UK number one and co-opted for the soundtrack of Desperately Seeking Susan, which doubled as her debut in a major film role. Like all of her best work from this era, the track fuses Madonna’s dancefloor roots with a shimmering pop quality—it’s simple, effective and catchy as hell. It’s also remained a live staple, feeding off co-writer Stephen Bray’s bassline, even if she hasn’t always mustered much enthusiasm, or sensitivity, when discussing it. “Into the Groove is another song I feel retarded singing, but everybody seems to like it,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009.

Live to Tell (1986)

The lead single from ‘True Blue’ encapsulated so much of what made that record a creative breakthrough for Madonna. Examining archetypal ideas of love and relationships through the lens of her marriage to the actor Sean Penn, it was accompanied by a shift in image and presentation as her exuberant, pastel edges were sanded away for a look inspired by stately Hollywood glamour. As with a lot of ‘True Blue’, Live to Tell was co-written with Patrick Leonard (Bray also returned to help out on the LP) and eventually featured on the soundtrack to At Close Range, a fantastic, entirely bleak film starring Penn and Christopher Walken. A refined, silhouetted ballad, it became her third US number one.

Like a Prayer (1989)

Throughout her career, Madonna has made a habit of fusing airtight pop songs with religious imagery that thumbs its nose at the constraining patriarchal and Catholic elements of her upbringing in suburban Michigan. Several times she has crossed swords with the Pope, and Like a Prayer is perhaps the most famous example. Its video enraged the Vatican with its portrayal of Stigmata and Madonna getting hot and heavy with Leon Robinson, who played a religious figure apparently inspired by Saint Martin de Porres. When the dust settled, all that remained was a dead commercial deal with Pepsi, a killer song and a totally iconic promo clip. Madonna’s accompanying Blond Ambition tour doubled down on the meshing of Catholic iconography and sexuality, redefining live pop spectacle in the process.

Vogue (1990)

One of Madonna’s signature tunes sprang from humble beginnings. Released as a tie in with 1990’s largely terrible Dick Tracy movie, in which she starred as Breathless Mahoney alongside then boyfriend Warren Beatty, ‘I’m Breathless’ stands as a similarly throwaway entry in her discography, aside from its house-influenced lead single. Madonna is said to have come across voguing at Sound Factory in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood and learned more about ball culture from dancer José Gutiérrez. Eventually, she pushed (or appropriated) the dance style, invented in the city’s black and Latinx LGBTQ scenes, into the mainstream with David Fincher’s video for Vogue and the hiring of several club regulars, including Gutiérrez, for the Blond Ambition tour.

Frozen (1998)

If not a total bust, then the early ‘90s found Madonna failing to replicate the era-defining sounds of her work in the previous decade. As the millennium approached, 1998’s ‘Ray of Light’ changed all that. Frozen served as the album’s lead single and introduced a razor-sharp, modern take on electronica crafted in collaboration with producer William Orbit and the returning Leonard. Chris Cunningham’s wonderful video, meanwhile, laid out another image change with Madonna’s severe black-only wardrobe lending weight to the song’s melancholy and the shape-shifting special effects of the clip. On the Drowned World tour, she performed the song in a kimono designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier that had a wingspan so large that it required a couple of dancers to hold its sleeves.

Ray of Light (1998)

Madonna has a good hit rate when it comes to churning out classic title tracks, and this one is no different. In a few high energy minutes Ray of Light (the song) drove home the creative, almost hippyish, freedom at the heart of  ‘Ray of Light’ (the album). Its pulsing beat and chiming guitar chords situated it at the zeitgeisty corner of techno and Sheryl Crow, while live performances emphasised the video’s juxtaposition of hyper-speed, day-to-day drudgery and flailing-limbed freedom. With this album Madonna wanted to challenge preconceptions of herself, but in doing so zero in on who she is. The self-analysis of the lyric sheet did that, as did the selection of collaborators who could spark something in her. “They bring the cold. I bring the warmth,” she told Spin in 1998.

Don’t Tell Me (2000)

The Drowned World tour catered for two records: ‘Ray of Light’ and its successor ‘Music’. Moving on from her new age dance vibe, Madonna settled into what became known as her cowgirl phase thanks in part to the memorable video for Don’t Tell Me. The song, a clever, glitchy pop-rock cut with a pronounced country lilt, is perhaps the album’s finest moment and also stands out for creating chart history. When it landed at number four on the Billboard 200, Madonna tied the Beatles for the second most top 10 singles in the US. It’s a distinction she now holds outright after overtaking Elvis Presley with her 37th entry, the Justin Timberlake collaboration 4 Minutes.

Hung Up (2005)

There are some musical crimes that can’t easily be forgiven, and messing with Abba is one of them. That makes it all the more remarkable that Madonna’s interpolation of Gimme Gimme Gimme’s riff into Hung Up created not an abomination, but a floor-filler of pretty much equal standing. Produced with Stuart Price, the track righted a lilting ship after 2003’s largely execrable ‘American Life’ LP and ushered in the wildly successful ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’. This latest reinvention—full disco, including the John Travolta-inspired video for Hung Up—was parlayed into the Confessions tour in 2006, which was at the time the highest grossing by a female artist (she’s since broken her own record twice, with the MDNA and Sticky & Sweet tours, while Taylor Swift has also surpassed the mark).

Tickets for Madonna’s Madame X tour are on sale at 9am on May 24.

Madonna Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun January 26 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Mon January 27 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Wed January 29 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Thu January 30 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Sat February 01 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Sun February 02 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Tue February 04 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Wed February 05 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Thu February 06 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Sat February 08 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Sun February 09 2020 - LONDON Palladium
Tue February 11 2020 - LONDON Palladium

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