My Week With Madonna

It was not undertaken lightly. Playing Madonna songs solo is toying with people’s memories of teenage snogging at parties and remixing them through an Edwardian parlour instrument. The piano is designed to cope with complex note combinations (as are the fingers), but not such sumptuous layers of production as are found in Madge’s back catalogue, where two notes can be souped up into a cathartic rush of adrenalin.

In the more recent albums this production took on its own life, swallowing up both song and singer in a cloud of generic noises. (I wouldn’t, for instance, go near “MDNA” if I were you). But there are plenty of meaty things to get stuck into in the earlier stuff. “Like A Virgin” slowed down to a kind of Motown/Don Cherry feel, and the later “American Life”, just on the edge of her robotic future, has some nice angles on what is nearly a blues. “Ray Of Light” seems to hit a perfect balance, her voice sounds great, and is sympathetically framed by William Orbit’s lush layered grooves. That’s the key for me, the framing of “the voice”.

I was surprised at how much I liked her singing. She has a great voice. She’s not a great singer. Pop doesn’t care about “chops”, but she delivers everything with a kind of heightened emotion. Its like when you play in a musical pit band, and somehow the sentimentality that is compulsorily sniffed at completely overwhelms you by the closing night. (It was a relief to escape to the less draining world of improvised music, where a moving experience can at least be supplanted by another the next night.)

Madonna is so rich and famous, no one could ever deserve it. Early glee at this situation gives way to self parody later (“Material Girl” to “American Life” is quite a journey). I always felt she was sending up her life in the same way Prince seemed to.

She’s an easy target for mockery, envy, and shrugging ambivalence. I must say I never really bought into the whole bra thing either (a shame, those shares would have got me through the nineties quite nicely). But aside from the wave of nostalgic flashbacks her music triggered for me, it was an edifying experience to dig into the music and find some gold there. And while I don’t really feel like playing jazz just yet, the world of “other music” is as good a place to stick the shovel as any.

2 responses to “My Week With Madonna”

  1. An interesting take, Liam. And reassessment. I like your observation that: “She has a great voice. She’s not a great singer.” The latter is certainly true. Her talent has often seemed an ability to enlist great talent, those who know how best, as you suggest, to frame and enhance that voice.

    I’m sure you know Bill Frisell’s impressionistic ten-minute version of “Live to Tell”. An extraordinary thing: power-pop somehow reimagined as both soul-poignant and rock-psychedelic!

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