Music

Fortune Favors the Brave: Madonna and Kylie Minogue Pick Up Donna Summer's Torch and Run With It

Quentin Harrison

Fourteen years after Donna Summer's declaration of independence from disco, Madonna and Minogue took up the torch of redefinition with Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue.

Call it an "ordained" cultural shift ("Disco sucks!"), but when Donna Summer offered her eighth record, her Geffen debut The Wanderer (1980), it hinted at an earlier revolution. With I Remember Yesterday (1977), Summer's view into the pop niche, defined as dramatic, stylistic switches per album, had been realized. Often recalled as the home of "I Feel Love", the remaining material like the titular song, "Love's Unkind" and "Can We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)" suggested that "disco" or "dance" wasn't the only springboard for the modern pop singer.

The Wanderer's use of rock, synth and gospel further challenged the “pop equals four-on-the-floor" rule; Summer spent the remainder of the ‘80s trying on various sonics. She crafted the transformative pop model with The Wanderer; all other pop vocalists trailed this breakthrough. Her two descendants, Madonna. and Kylie Minogue, are the brightest examples of revising the model, but retaining its core principles: change and music.

Twenty years ago, Madonna and Minogue were at a creative impasse; for both women (Madonna aged 35, Minogue aged 25) it was time to evince that they weren’t “dance pop" figurines. With Bedtime Stories (1994) and Kylie Minogue (1994), they took the "dance pop departure" vehicle on its wildest ride, one that has yet to be surpassed in the present day.

"Kiss the past until it's better."

-- Kylie Minogue, “Falling” 1994

The year 1993 had Madonna saying goodbye to the Erotica (1992) epoch. Conceived with her book, Sex, her image superseded her music. The commercial consequences were middling, but the damage to her artistic reputation stung.

Madonna's “sex as a weapon” tactic backfired; for every assured cut like “Deeper and Deeper”, the listener was subjected to messy stabs at slinkiness ("You can eat all you want and never get fat.") on “Where Life Begins”. Cunnilingus à la mode? Maybe not.

Erotica was Madonna’s fourth try, out of five, at building an album with non-single / single equivalency. The R&B inflected pop of Erotica heralded a continuation of that aesthetic on her next record. Whereas hip-hop and house asserted itself there, Madonna strove for an organic touch on Bedtime Stories.

Minogue, on the other hand, had been trying to extricate herself from the Stock-Aitken-Waterman machine since the vibrant Rhythm of Love (1990). Its singles ("Better the Devil You Know", "What Do I Have to Do" etc.) aligned Minogue to the London nightlife. Her fourth album, Let's Get to It (1991), bore the weight of her needing room to roam musically. Whether it was a conservative cover ("Give Me Just a Little More Time") or a soaring duet with an unlikely Stateside soul crooner like Keith Washington ("If You Were With Me Now"), Let's Get to It itched with impatience to get out from under the S-A-W thrall.

Enter Steve Anderson and Dave Seaman; known collectively as the Brothers in Rhythm, they'd been remixing since the early ‘90s for other artists. The Brothers in Rhythm recast of Let's Get to It's finishing move ("Finer Feelings") clutched that "grown up thing" Minogue was trekking toward. Spurned onward by a fast (and creative) friendship with the Brothers in Rhythm, Minogue signed to the BMG offshoot Deconstruction Records in 1993. Deconstruction was known for its innovative hand in the dance scene.

In the 2003 remastered edition of Kylie Minogue, this 1994 quote from Deconstruction founder Pete Hadfield detailed the acquisition of Minogue: "Kylie is regarded as a trashy disco singer. We regard her as a potential radical dance diva. Any radical dance diva has a home at Deconstruction."

Was Minogue, who'd spent the better half of her last two records in dance inflected pop (albeit under S-A-W) only going to do a repeat? A closer look at two of Deconstruction's acts, the M People and later Republica, implied something else; the former built bridges between modern disco and rare groove, the latter's rock roar couldn't be categorized as "dance".

Hadfield's slightly erroneous statement sought to tie Minogue to the clout her recent hits had afforded her. Like the M People and (subsequently) Republica, Minogue was to be (re) branded as a pop savant. This remodel was to be done through the music of the ‘90s: hip-hop, acid jazz, R&B, adult contemporary, and club chic; popular music was rife with overlapping mainstream and underground talent.

Minogue and Madonna knew that while dance pop wasn't going away, for their survival they had to consider other music circles. Additionally, the pair found themselves written off as "singles artists". Records like True Blue (1986) and the stated Rhythm of Love tried to rectify this, but some (not all) of the album tracks were lacking that snap, crackle, pop to complete the puzzle. Each woman was now on her own track to the same destination of emphasizing their music as a whole.

"Express yourself, don't repress yourself."

-- Madonna, "Human Nature" 1994

Madonna's tasteful orbit of R&B paid off with Bedtime Stories. The sessions began with "Vogue" and Erotica co-creator Shep Pettibone; they didn't spark so the parties amicably separated.

Madonna then surrounded herself with an intimate quartet of writers and producers: Dave Hall, Dallas Austin, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and Nellee Hooper. Hooper ran with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and, Björk; the other three had been cutting, or would cut, some of the most influential American R&B of the decade. Together, all four sat down to soften Madonna's music; she'd been particularly taken with the Dallas Austin piloted Pendulum Vibe, by Joi, preceding in 1994.

The beats were bottom heavy and Madonna's funky restructuring bounced on "I'd Rather Be Your Lover". The track spotlighted a recent signee to Madonna's fledging Maverick label (distributed by Warner Brothers), Meshell Ndegeocello. Her bass playing drove the citified cool that contrasted beautifully to the urgent tone (pre-'Evita') that Madonna's voice held. Alongside its original composition, "I'd Rather Be Your Lover" interpolated "It's Your Thing" by Lou Donaldson; Madonna's sampling had come into play on Erotica and she kept her choices interesting.

The ebon fueled "Inside of Me" had no less than three samples: Aaliyah "Back & Forth," The Gap Band "Outstanding" and Gutter Snypes "The Trials of Life". The mixture was so smooth, only the sharpest ear caught the singularities of the trio of tracks. "Inside of Me's" highlight was staging Madonna's improvement as a songwriter. It spun like a jilted lover's yearning, the attentive person heard Madonna’s somber ode to her mother, a constant in her lyrics.

A similarly confessional thread wove into Bedtime Stories on the warmth of "Secret" and the wounded "Love Tried to Welcome Me"; in correlation to Like a Prayer (1989) that was touted as Madonna's personal reveal, Bedtime Stories had her vulnerable with the appropriate soundtrack. Like a Prayer's "Till Death Do Us Part" couldn't be seen as staid in spite of its words because of the jovial nature of its music. On Bedtime Stories the weathered melody and rhythm of "Survival" proportioned its lyrical bite of "I'll never be an angel, I'll never be a saint it's true. I'm too busy surviving". Madonna was sensitive and street authentically.

Bedtime Stories urban soundtrack appropriation only faltered on the Erotica taint of "Human Nature”.

The Main Source's "What You Need", borrowing from Maynard Ferguson's "Spinning Wheel", was tapped for the fuzzy bassline that channeled Madonna's ire at the being "misunderstood" for her "talk about sex" on Erotica. Granted, its grittiness tantalized, but it splintered the cohesive sensuality of the LP. Even the dual slices of ambient electronica ("Sanctuary", "Bedtime Story") fit better into the arching romantic mode of the LP; the twosome forecasted the transcendent storm of Ray of Light (1998). Closing with the Asian ache of "Take a Bow", Bedtime Stories maturation secured Madonna’s secondary phase in her musical journey.

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image