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Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005)
Two years after the disastrous American Life saw her potentially catapulting of out of the limelight for good, Madonna struck back against all those who loathed that album. Instead of facing it dead on (the way she did 10 years previous with “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories), she decided to step lightly around the topic, for America had become significantly less forgiving than ever before and her brazen “absolutely no regrets” attitude wouldn’t have gone over so well. “Hung Up” struck big. It rode the wave of speculation that surrounded the release of the phenomenal Confessions on a Dancefloor, which saw Madonna return to her disco roots. But wait! Madonna was never a disco queen—she came out in the early ‘80s with much more rock/pop-inspired dance numbers to ever be considered disco. Ah, see, she fooled us all. Confessions is much more of a prequel to her debut—a pre-Madonna if you will. “Hung Up” was inspired by the music that Madonna enjoyed during her early twenties frequenting the Danceteria in New York mashed together with her love of ABBA. “Hung Up” is exceptional for a number of reasons: 1. It marks the second time in history that ABBA has agreed to let another artist sample their music, citing nothing but admiration and respect for Madonna; 2. It is the biggest global hit Madonna has ever had (to date), earning her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records; 3. It has sold more than nine million copies worldwide; 4. It’s kick-ass; and 5. And, it proves that even after 21 years Madonna can still dominate pop/dance charts the world over. Rocking Farrah-hair and a leotard in the video, “Hung Up” stands as one of the best post-‘90s Madonna singles.
Vision Quest soundtrack (1985)
Madonna was only two albums into her career when she recorded this cu from the Vision Quest soundtrack. Up until this point, she had only one other ballad under her belt—the failed “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from Like a Virgin—but we’re not going to talk about that. “Crazy for You” marked a new direction in which the pop-artiste would excel. Here Madonna proved that she still possessed all of the same charisma and persona in a slowed-down sultry and subdued offering,. The song went on to transcend its appeal beyond the already loyal Madonna fans by reaching those who had dismissed the singer too early on. Although Madonna didn’t have a hand in writing the ballad, it stings of her presence. Her delivery suggests a stronger sense of yearning and desire that a lesser performer would have surely fumbled over. It was also the high-school slow dance song for many, many years to come. Who among you can tell me that you don’t immediately scan the room for someone to dance with when you hear the opening drum fill and orchestration?
The Immaculate Collection (1990)
There has never been such an atypical number-one radio hit from another pop artist before or since “Justify My Love”. Predominantly spoken-word, “Justify” is a breathy, seductive, and sexual track that many have tried to emulate, but none have ever managed to duplicate—except for, of course, Madonna herself. Written by Lenny Kravitz, the song was inspired by a poem written by Ingrid Chavez. With added lyrics by Madonna, it inaugurated the hyper-sexual theme which dominated her career during the early ‘90s. Although snippets of her aggressive sexuality was apparent in videos for “Like a Prayer”, “Express Yourself”, and “Vogue”, it wasn’t until 1990 when “Justify” (and the accompanying controversial video) was released that Madonna went from stylish suggestion of sexuality to full-fledged explicitness. Although the video is the perfect visual representation for such a sexy tune (directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino and banned just about everywhere for its frank display of queer sexuality), the song itself stands as one of the best and most innovative singles ever to grace the mainstream public. It’s an atmospheric tune with a heavy rhythm section, perfectly spoken lyrics, and breathy backing vocals. It paved the way for many female pop artists to follow suit with their own versions of strong sexual subjects—Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”, Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U”, and Lady Gaga’s… well, Lady Gaga just isn’t sexy. However, although those female pop tartlets tried in earnest to duplicate the sexual power that Madonna displays so effortlessly, there was always an impression that theirs was done with someone behind the scenes pulling strings. With Madonna, there was never the impression that anyone other than herself was in control. Also check out the equally exotic and wonderful remix entitled “The Beast Within”, where Madonna reads through the Book of Revelations between choruses of her singing, “Wanting / Waiting / Needing / For you / To justify my love.”
Ray of Light (1998)
“Drowned World/Substitute For Love” is the least successful Madonna single listed here. It was never officially released in the US, but managed to crack the UK Top Ten UK and become a hit in most countries across Europe. Its place on this list is due mainly to the fact that—artistically, stylistically, and lyrically—it is her best recording. It is an honest and sincere portrait of a pop icon who saw her fanbase dwindling after the much-despised sexual controversy that plagued her career during the mid-‘90s. Although she managed some great successes during the time after Bedtime Stories and before Ray of Light, most had written her off as being incapable of climbing out of the hole that had she dug herself into. “Ray of Light” was her successful return to the dancefloor, but it was “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” (the perfect opener for the Ray of Light LP) that revealed a much more vulnerable and personal Madonna, stripped of pretense and her shameless “I’m-not-going-to-apologize-for-anything” attitude. In the song she narrates the choices she had made throughout her career and the sacrifices that came with them. The track proved that when everyone believed Madonna was too full of herself to ever regain the public’s adoration, all she needed was to forget everyone was listening, take a page from some of the most introspective songwriters at the time, and make the kind of music that meant more to her than it did to everyone else. “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” is, in many ways, a sequel to the heartbreaking “Live to Tell”.
Like a Prayer (1989)
Madonna was almost always seen as a strong independent woman, but it was “Express Yourself”, the second single from Like a Prayer (1989), that cemented her with that characteristic. For the song, Madonna positioned herself as a feminist preacher summoning her congregation to heed her views on self-expression in love and relationships. Now, the song might sound like a clichéd sentiment, but in the late ‘80s, the third wave of feminism was only beginning to enter into the mainstream. The video—directed by David Fincher and featuring a multitude of various Madonna personas—confused many fans and critics as to the true intention of the song. Was she calling for women to be stronger and independent? If so, why was she chaining herself to a bed and waiting in heat for her male lover to return? Madonna responded to anti-feminist criticisms saying that the song wasn’t about independence, but rather expressing yourself in a relationship with someone you love—not censoring your feelings and not accepting ill-treatment from your lover. It was a testament for women to take control of their lives and demand the respect and love they deserved from the people who claimed to love them most. And in that proclamation, you can still be sexual, desirable, and super hot like Madonna too. That’s why “Express Yourself” is the perfect heterosexual feminist anthem about self-possession and love.