Madonna has gone through so many musical guises that it’s difficult to trace her musical roots. Though it’s clear that dance is the dominant gene in her musical DNA, there have also been flashes of soul, R&B, and even punk. After her self-mythologized arrival in New York City, Madonna found musical refuge at legendary punk music venues like Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. Still, she grew as an artist in the early days of her career as a disco singer with Patrick Hernandez and found an affinity with the gay community in gay dance clubs. When listening to her music, it’s easy to hear the influence of ballroom culture. And when asked about her musical influences, Madonna’s answers are predictably all over the place: David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Ross. Madonna as a musical artist is a collage of American pop culture.
Because she’s a student of popular music, Madonna’s greatest work is simultaneously creative yet derivative. Though she’s an original, she’s also an artist who creates work out of appropriating other works of art. On her 2005 album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, this act of referencing and alluding points to the significant influence that 1970s disco music has had on her work. Confessions on a Dance Floor is a self-contained dance record and a study of dance music from the 1970s to the 2000s. Despite being a pioneer in dance music, she stands on the shoulders of artists like Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, Chic, and Sylvester, who created some of the essential dance music of the 1970s. Madonna clearly sees herself as not only a student of these giants but also their peers.
Disco music has (finally) started to earn the respect of critics after being dismissed as tacky, trendy, mindless pop music that evokes images of polyester, bellbottoms, and leisure suits. Though the craft behind disco is considerable, the genre’s ascendance into the mainstream meant that the decadent excesses of the 1970s were inextricably liked to disco music—the periodic revivals of disco’s popularity since the 1970s were often exercises in nostalgia or kitsch. For an artist like Madonna, disco music laid the foundation for her ground-breaking work in dance music.
Though Confessions on a Dance Floor revels in the kitsch and camp of disco music – Madonna is nothing if not a camp queen – there’s tremendous skill and craftsmanship behind the music, which is the meaning behind the title of the record. As she explains it herself: “That’s why I called it Confessions on a Dance Floor…Most people equate dance music with being fluffy and superficial; it’s just about having fun. That’s fine, but I can’t write 12 songs about nothing. My feelings or point of view inevitably sneaks in.”
One of Madonna’s greatest strengths as an artist is seeking great collaborators. In the 1980s, she found a kindred musical spirit with producers like Patrick Leonard, Reggie Lucas, and Niles Rodgers. In the 1990s, she made beautiful music with Shep Pettibone, Babyface, and Nellee Hooper, before creating her outstanding work with William Orbit. With Orbit, a perceptible shift happened: though still a pop artist, Madonna also incorporated heavier club and DJ culture elements into her music. Her singles and album cuts were starting to sound like her remixes. For Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna turned to Stuart Price, the English DJ and producer, who spent most of the 1990s performing and recording with various acts, including Zoot Woman and Les Rhythm Digitales. He had previously worked with Madonna on a track from her vastly misunderstood and underrated album, American Life (2003).
With Price, Madonna created a nonstop dance party that celebrated the history of dance music and her regal place in that history. When she samples ABBA on the album’s first single, “Hung Up”, she pays homage to the Swedish Europop band and refits their sound for the 2000s. The memorable, prancing melody line from the band’s 1979 classic “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” provides “Hung Up” with a catchy hook. It emerges in the song, muffled behind a ticking clock as Madonna sings, “Time goes by, so slowly.” As it gains volume and strength, it’s joined by a glittery wall of sound, thumping beat, and rubbery bass. The lyrics describe a longing and yearning that turns into apathy and impatience. It’s an exciting push-and-pull, as she admits to being “hung up” to her errant lover, “waiting for your call, baby, night and day”, yet simultaneously complaining of being “fed up, I’m tired of waiting on you”. Price creates a hypnotic beat underneath the crowded gloss that is subliminal in its groovy effect. In the tune’s bridge, there’s a brief, self-referential moment when she sings “Don’t cry for me” as if she were about to bust out a rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”.
When Madonna references 1970s disco again, it’s with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, who produced “Future Lovers” and looked to Giorgio Moroder‘s work with Donna Summer, specifically their 1977 classic “I Feel Love”. Heavily influenced by Moroder’s innovative use of a Moog synthesizer, Ahmadzaï recreates a similar syncopated riff that gets buried and obscured with thick, fuzzy synthesizers. The lyrics are typically cryptic when Madonna adopts a poeticism, yet, the song’s atmospheric production connotes the kind of then-futuristic, space-age sound of Moroder and Summer. It’s fitting that when performing “Future Lovers” on her Confessions on a Dance Floor tour, she paired the song with “I Feel Love”.
Moving slightly away from the hedonistic disco of Donna Summer or the bright Euro-pop of ABBA, Madonna also looks to new wave with “I Love New York”, which marries a smarmy pop-punk with glistening dance-pop and neo-disco. The titular city is a massive part of Madonna’s lore, and though she may not necessarily be synonymous with the city in the same way that artists like Jay-Z, New York Dolls, Beastie Boys, or Liza Minnelli are, she attempts to create a legend with the city with the song. She looked to the Stooges, the aforementioned New York Dolls, and Blondie when crafting the tune with Price – though the two take a snotty snarl of pop-punk and coat it in shimmery, glossy instrumentation that fits into the disco-pop of the album, even if the song boasts a squealing electric guitar winding its way around the driving song.
Though Confessions on a Dance Floor has Madonna look to her forefathers and foremothers in dance, she also incorporates the influences of her peers. In the 1980s, when she built her superstardom, synth-pop and the New Romantic movement saw British bands like the Human League, Depeche Mode, and Modern Talking take over American pop radio. Amid this British Invasion, Madonna also looked to synth-pop and new wave in her music (though she also looked to Black music, hip-hop, queer dance culture, and house). In the pure pop bliss of “Jump”, Madonna recalls the humming, haunting synth of the Pet Shop Boys classic “West End Girls”. That thick, sighing synth introduced the PSB’s pop masterpiece about social class and urban angst in Thatcherite London. Madonna and Price take a similar approach, creating a droning synth that crawls as Madonna belts empowering lyrics. Though not the biggest hit off the album, it’s the poppiest and the most Madonna of the 1980s.
These moments on the album create a narrative almost like a textbook. Madonna’s earlier comment about why she called the record Confessions on a Dance Floor speaks to her reverence of the genre and her dedication to her craft. When she commented that she was incapable of writing fluff, she wasn’t merely being self-aggrandizing (though there’s some of that, too). Madonna’s writing, particularly as she was getting older, was starting to become quite meta. She always was an autobiographical lyricist, and as she graduated to Legend status, she often wrote about superstardom and fame. Admittedly, she would sometimes search for empathy from her audiences for her loss of privacy. More than anything, she wanted her audiences to understand that her superstardom came from hard work.
On a song like “How High”, Madonna’s treatise about pop stardom, fame, and fortune is examined through the eyes of a weathered and jaded veteran. When she was younger, she saucily trilled about being a “Material Girl”, but on “How High”, she’s weary and seemingly exhausted at the treadmill she leaped on. Because of the perennial hate she received throughout her career, she muses in the song, “It’s funny / How everybody mentions my name / But they’re never very nice.” However, she admits that she “spent my whole life / Wanting to be talked about it / I did it / Just about everything/to see my name in lights.” In a song like “Push”, which grinds forward on an undulating groove, she sings about being compelled and inspired to move forward and better herself. The song’s lyrics should remind readers of the moment in her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech. While thanking everyone who influenced her career, she made space for her critics, saying:
And even the naysayers. The ones who said I was talentless. That I was chubby. That I couldn’t sing. That I was a one-hit-wonder. They helped me too. They helped me because they made me question myself repeatedly. And they pushed me to be better. And I am grateful for their resistance.– Madonna
“Push” is a tribute to the critical voices that prompted Madonna to dig deeper into her massive well of talent and fight back by doing good work. When she sings, “Every place I went / Every mood I’m in / Everything I do / I owe it all to you,” she’s paying homage to the constant in her life that pushes her to do better.
Because Confessions on a Dance Floor came out after her 1998 Ray of Light, there are also moments of spirituality laced throughout the record. Despite being interested in having her audiences party and lose themselves in the bliss of her music, she never wholly eschews the pop spirituality she introduced in Ray of Light. In “Isaac”, which features the ethereal vocals of Yitzhak Sinwani, she brings up the kind of mysticism that contains some of her most poetic and esoteric lyrics, signaling that as crucial as dance and club culture is to her music, so is her spirituality.
Upon its release, Confessions on a Dance Floor was another massive hit for Madonna, ultimately selling over 10 million copies worldwide. This success came after the disappointment of American Life. Confessions on a Dance Floor would also be an ending of sorts. Though her subsequent releases, including 2008’s Hard Candy and 2011’s MDNA would both sell well and feature hit singles, Confessions on a Dance Floor would be the last time that Madonna would enjoy the kind of omnipotent pop success of her salad days. The music culture was changing rapidly, and superstars like Madonna would become scattered in crowds of artists as music became far broader and strewn. She would still be a major star into the 2020s, releasing more albums, but Confessions on a Dance Floor would be, to date, the last unqualified triumph in her career.