In the wake of Madonna'a ostentatious Super Bowl halftime performance, PopMatters presents a rundown of the Queen of Pop's 15 finest singles.
To date, Madonna has released 75 singles across 13 albums, four soundtrack albums, and six compilation albums, with “Give Me All Your Luvin’” (from the upcoming LP MDNA) being her latest. She has had 12 number-one hits in both the United States and the United Kingdom (with different sets of songs), plus 24 chart-toppers in Canada, and 38 US, 60 UK, and 49 Canadian Top 10 hits. Madonna has dominated the radio and video airwaves for quite some time, and although the moniker of “King of Pop” is firmly affixed to Michael Jackson, “Queen of Pop” gets bounced around to every new fluffy pop tartlet who claims to integrate music and fashion like it’s something that’s never been done before
This compendium of the most significant Madonna singles ever attempts to traverse the vast terrain of subjects, styles, and themes that Madonna gravitates towards most across her 29-year-long career. Before I (and a friend) began shortlisting Madonna singles, we decided that in order to do this list justice we would need to determine the most significant themes in Madonna’s body of work, so as not to end up with 15 dance songs, 15 ballads, or 15 random songs. The songs on this list aren’t necessarily characterized by just how huge the single was in terms of critical reception or chart performance, but rather how significant they are (without potentially repeating themselves) in helping to shape this iconic woman.
Madonna has always been, first and foremost, a dance artist. There is no denying that her music is almost always catchy and meant to get you to step to the beat. Some of her most popular songs are her simplest -- “Into the Groove”, “Holiday”, “Vogue”, “Hung Up”... the list could literally go on and on. So, the pop/dance theme was a major consideration when making this countdown. Madonna has also never shied away from integrating elements of her private life that she feels comfortable divulging to the media-hungry public. Although her more personal tracks don’t always stand up as some of her best, it is undeniable that at times Madonna has managed to compete with some of the most introspective singer/songwriters around. Sexuality and gender have also been big recurring themes in her music—image being closely tied to the former and power integrating with the latter. In addition to being a powerful and sexual female, Madonna has oftentimes -- more so in her image and personal messages -- evoked some controversial and provocative interpretations of religion, be it Kabbalah, Christianity, or Judaism. Wrapped in her bombastic persona is her penchant to be provocative and controversial.
There are of course a number of other significant thematic recurrences in her music, but when distilling Madge down to her essence, she comes up as a powerful and sexual female dance/pop artist with the capacity to evoke some insightful and introspective songs from time to time. She’s more than just fluff, she’s more than just sexual, she’s more than just female, and she’s more than just powerful: she is Madonna!
Bedtime Stories (1994)
There was a time in the early 1990s when Madonna was hated! You probably don’t remember, but she was the target of so many “slut” jokes, being ridiculed for her obscenities and lambasted for presenting herself as a down-right whore. In less than thee years she released two explicit music videos (“Justify My Love” and “Erotica”) both banned from MTV airplay, published a sex-themed coffee table book, released a full-length sex-themed album (Erotica), played the key role in a raunchy erotic thriller (Body of Evidence), and made a surprise appearance at the 1992 Gaultier fashion show where she removed her jacket to reveal her exposed breasts underneath. The mainstream public saw a lot of Madonna being naked, and they hated her for being so forthright with her sexuality. Finally, in 1994 she put away the explicitness that characterized her for the first few years of the '90s and became more suggestive. Oftentimes dismissed for its occasionally schmaltzy sentiments, “Take a Bow” was a huge success for Madonna, a track accented perfectly by the fantastic video (produced as an audition tape for the lead role in the film Evita, which she would later go on to win). “Take a Bow” features a more demure Madonna, confident in her termination of a doomed relationship, and the music is accented by characteristically Asian orchestration and lovely poetic lyrics. Also, instead of shying away from her sexuality completely, the video features the scantily dressed singer making love to a television—a scene just as explicit as her previous work, but this time more poignant and significant. Madonna quickly learned that the way back into the public’s collective hearts was to focus more attention on the music than on the frankness of her sexual image.
Ray of Light (1998)
Madonna rode a pretty high wave for awhile, finally earning some of the respect of Hollywood (she so desperately sought) for turning out a wonderful performance as Eva Peron in the film version of Evita. Although she was somewhat praised for that role, even winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, she was still slightly on the outs with the music buying public, who hadn’t forgotten her earlier raunchy ways and were more and more moving away from dance/pop tunes (grunge being particularly huge at this point). So, at a time when Madonna was beginning to lose her musical significance, she searched inwardly and released arguably her best album to date—1998’s Ray of Light. The album was magnificently produced by William Orbit (whom she has re-recruited for her soon-to-be-released MDNA album), and beautifully written with her most intimate and poetic lyrics. The title track characterized the “new” Madonna that took the world by storm, and won back the hearts of those who had written her off as having reached the end of her music career. Up until Ray of Light, Madonna had always kept the public at arm’s length, never fully granting access into her spiritual and personal side. Borrowing elements from the growing popularity of underground electronica, "Ray of Light" revealed that side of Madonna that fans and non-fans had never been exposed to before, and was received with open arms from her adoring public. Madonna was back!
Who’s That Girl soundtrack (1987)
There is a side to Madonna’s career that we would all like to better forget. However, it is undeniably an aspect of what has made her such a flawed cultural icon. She’s not magnificent at everything she does, which is part of what elevates her above most other frivolous pop acts, but everything she does is done on as grandeur a scale as she can muster. “Who’s That Girl” was written solely for the purpose of promoting her lead role in the film of the same name—a film too quickly dismissed, if you ask me. Although the film was met with dismal critical reception and an even worse box-office performance, the song went on to be her second simultaneous number one hit in the US, UK, and Canada, second to “Papa Don’t Preach” only a few years earlier. “Who’s That Girl”, in many ways, represents two significant aspects of Madonna’s career: 1. The side that sees her desperately trying to win the admiration of fellow thespians;and 2. Her ability to write and record wonderful thematic songs that oftentimes eclipse the movie for which they were written (ranging from “Crazy For You” for Vision Quest to her recent offering “Masterpiece”, for W.E.). If “Who’s That Girl” and the subsequent Madonna songs from that soundtrack are any indication of how she can deftly capture the theme and feel of a film, one can only wonder what she could do scoring an entire soundtrack. Occasionally overlooked when compiling “best of Madonna” lists, “Who’s That Girl” is an insta-party from the moment it begins.
I'm Breathless (1990)
What has kept Madonna afloat for so many years is her knack to pick out emerging trends happening in the fringes of culture and bring them into the limelight. For this track and its wonderful video, Madonna borrowed elements from the vogueing craze that was making its way through many gay clubs. Originally intended as a b-side for the single “Keep It Together”, record executives deemed the song much too good to be wasted as a b-side, and thank God they did! "Vogue" was released as a lead single for Madonna's half-album/half-soundtrack I’m Breathless (Music from and Inspired by the film Dick Tracy), going on to become her biggest hit at the time. The significance of “Vogue” however, cannot be isolated on the merits and quality of the song itself. It’s undeniable that Madonna’s cultural icon status is heavily influenced by her visual imagery, which perfectly complements (and sometimes overshadows) the audio. This symbiosis between the visual and the aural is none more so exemplified than in the success of “Vogue”: not only was the promo (directed by David Fincher) a commercial success, but the tune itself glorifies and epitomizes the synergy and importance between combining imagery and audio. As the song and video have gone on to become anthems of both Madonna and fashion/style trends, “Vogue” is delivered with all the class, attitude, and panache that made Madonna so world renowned.
Needing a radio-ready dance hit for her debut album, “Holiday” was given to Madonna by then co-collaborator and producer John “Jellybean” Benitez, who had discovered the demo floating around for some time (having been rejected by many pop acts to whom it was offered to). “Holiday” was Madonna’s first hit single, and though it never really reaching the coveted top spot, it nonetheless went on to become the staple party song played at every wedding ever! It perfectly characterizes the beginnings of a monumental career that few will ever know. Quite arguably Madonna's most recognizable and popular track, the appeal of "Holiday" traverses across a variety of music lovers who both love and revile her. Those who claim to not own a Madonna album will most likely admit to enjoying this simple tune when it’s pumped up in a crowded club or social event. It’s too infectious to not dance and sing along too, and too iconic to ignore. When the opening melody of this cross-genre hit begins, you know it’s a holiday.