While Jimmy White Shoe’s recent rants have been dissin’ on my identity forming decade, some pretty significant things happened in music during the 80’s that continue to shape high/low culture at large and many of the most significant are one named wonders: the ubiquitous Bono, Sting, Cher, Prince, and of course – Madonna.
Arguably one of the most instrumental forces in music and pop culture, Madonna continues to amaze and astound critics by continually re-creating herself just when most think she has hit the wall. Her recent interest in some Hollywood form of Kabala notwithstanding, Madonna’s music has always carried a deepened understanding of spirituality than most would not be willing to credit her with. Take her 1986 release “True Blue” for example. Released during my last year in college during a time when George Bush Sr. was ascending to the big chair in ‘Casablanca’ in DC, Demi Moore in “St. Elmo’s Fire” was young but still older the age Ashton Kuscher is now, and the first Iraq crisis was introducing us to Saddam Hussein – “True Blue” was a mammoth worldwide success. CD purchases were eclipsing album sales, but you could still see Madonna’s platinum blonde head throw back in ecstasy on big album covers throughout Tower Record stores as you drove by. “True Blue” reached No. 1 in the U.S. and 27 other countries (at the time unprecedented for a female artist) and spawned five smash singles. The lead-off track, “Live To Tell,” hit No. 1 in the U.S. and was followed by four more top five tracks: “Papa Don’t Preach” (No. 1), “True Blue” (No. 3), “Open Your Heart” (No. 1) and “La Isla Bonita” (No. 4). The album cemented her chart domination in the U.K., where “Papa Don’t Preach,” “True Blue” and “La Isla Bonita” all hit No. 1. Showing herself to be a multi-media star bar none, she not only wrote and produced the album, but was the artistic director for all the videos that came from the singles. “Papa Don’t Preach” scored a nod for Female Pop Vocal Performance. “True Blue” is probably Madonna’s biggest selling studio album worldwide, with estimated sales at 20 million.
My memories of the single “Live to Tell” will always be wrapped up (like most memories of music in the 80’s) with James Foley’s video for the song that was also included on the soundtrack to Foley’s film “At Close Range.” Foley would go on to direct Madonna in her first major movie outing – Who’s That Girl? – as well as her “Papa Don’t Preach” video, some episodes of “Twin Peaks” and the David Mamet masterpiece, “Glengarry Glen Ross“. The fact that it is a ballad makes it a strange song for a lead single, but it continues to be a haunting memory and, I would argue, one of the best things Madonna has done. It is a simple song set within a very simple video – the camera pulls into a darkened room where one spotlight is on the platinum head of Madonna, with her back turned to the camera. As she slowly turns to face the camera, she looks directly through the lens at you as a viewer – no leaping over boy toys in S & M gear as in her later “Erotica” era videos (although David Fincher’s video for “Bad Girl” with Christopher Walken was cool…) . There is the empty longing – maybe akin to Brannon’s celebration in an earlier posting of Zizek’s ala Lacan’s notion of desire as the center to faith – that Madonna allows the camera to hold onto. As the music moves forward and the various flashes of the movie clips from “At Close Range” jump cut in and out of the video (with her then husband Sean Penn and Christopher Walken), we still find Madonna alone, in a darkened room, in a basic Laura Ingells Wilder- esque ‘Little House’ dress. There is something in that loneliness that feels like the most authentic thing Madonna has ever done. The effect is similar to watching Carl Theoder Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” or Sinead O’Conner’s video and cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1990 – open and vulnerable to the point of being painful because that level of vulnerability calls us out in ways we can’t reciprocate but live our lives for.
The song is a typical pop song – 4 minutes and 30 odds seconds – and doesn’t overstay its welcome like a lot of pop trash on the radio these days. At 3 minutes into the track we get one of the most profound things Madonna has done in music – 1 second of pure silence – before her voice enters into the silence with the lyric “If I ran away”… and then the music starts up again as if trying to catch her. Her voice drifts upward on the line “If I ran away” and this floating freedom is wonderful to hear. Given the turn to bitmapping, overdubbing, and sampling everything to the point of making a song the equivalent of an over-stacked Big Mac, there is something in that 1 second of silence that brings a line like “If I ran away” into such relief that even 20 years later… I can still feel it.
(If you want to watch the James Foley video – go here and then drill down to “True Blue” and click on the video feed for “Live to Tell”)