When Madonna’s first hits compilation, The Immaculate Collection, was released in 1990, it served not only as a great summation of the talent and appeal of one of the biggest artists of the ’80s, but a big “fuck you” to the countless people who swore she’d never last. On the contrary, she had sustained a recording career for seven years, had nothing but hit albums, survived a few scandals and several bad movies, proved her artistic growth with the extravagant Blond Ambition Tour, and opened the new decade with the massive hit “Vogue”. It was obvious that Madonna, whose greatest strength was her ability to evolve with the changing times, was poised and ready for the coming decade.
Now here we are, another decade later, and Madonna remains a vital force in pop culture. She may have added wife, mother, Golden Globe winner, and record label co-owner to her lengthy resume in the past decade, but above all Madonna is still a fascinating and ever-evolving pop star. Not surprisingly, then, she feels it is once again time to sit back and celebrate a decade of her achievements with the new Greatest Hits Volume 2, or GHV2, as it’s being hyped. Unlike its predecessor, however, this collection isn’t a nearly flawless collection of joyful, exuberant pop music at its finest. Lest we forget, there were times in the ’90s when it seemed that Madonna was losing it — whether the “it” in question was the ability to predict/create the next trend, her creative direction, or her mind.
Although “Vogue” was a promising way for Madonna to enter the ’90s, the album that followed it was the first disappointment of her seemingly enchanted career. While it wasn’t surprising that Erotica followed through on the dance-music inclinations of “Vogue”, what did come as a shock was how detached and robotic it sounded. The semi-kinky sexuality Madonna promoted in both the album and the book Sex made Erotica even more of a hard sell. Madonna had always flaunted her sexuality, but for the first time there was no sense of fun attached to it, so it just seemed . . . creepy. Still, Madonna managed to crank out a few hits and GHV2 kicks off with one of the best: “Deeper and Deeper”. The song’s somewhat robotic dance beats belie that it is, at heart, a great pop song about the importance of listening to Mom and Dad’s advice. “Erotica”, however, hasn’t aged nearly as well. Symptomatic of the Madonna persona of that era, the song is a cold, dispassionate sexual fantasy intended to shock with lyrics like “There’s a certain satisfaction / In a little bit of pain”. The most shocking thing about it, though, is how adolescent some of the lyrics are, such as: “I’ll give you love / I’ll hit you like a truck / I’ll give you love / I’ll teach you how to . . . .” The omission is hers, not mine; it’s funny that Madonna had no qualms about posing for the Sex book, but didn’t even have the balls to say the “F” word.
Thankfully, Madonna’s next album, Bedtime Stories, tried to remedy some of Erotica‘s shortcomings. Certainly, the gentle grooves of “Secret”, accompanied as they are by acoustic guitar and delicate strings, are more seductive than any of the sanitized beats on Erotica. The slick ballad “Take a Bow” was a huge hit, and the Bjork co-composition “Bedtime Story” found Madonna flirting with electronica for the first time. Still, all the genre-hopping of the Bedtime Stories tracks illustrates that Madonna had lost her way by the mid-’90s. Suddenly, the trendsetter was enlisting the help of everyone from Babyface to Nellee Hooper in a desperate attempt to stay contemporary.
What saved Madonna, and therefore saves GHV2, was turning her attention to personal matters in the late ’90s. A hard-won role in Evita and new motherhood seemed to turn Madonna’s focus inward, and she began to explore two seemingly contradictory impulses: to write reflective, personal songs and to dive headfirst into electronic music. Her collaboration with William Orbit on Ray of Light produced the warmest, least mechanical album Madonna had made in 10 years. The Orbit tracks included on GHV2 — “The Power of Goodbye”, “Frozen”, “Ray of Light”, “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”, “Beautiful Stranger” — are a testament to his ability to use gadgets and electronic wizardry not to alienate listeners, but to draw them in.
Madonna’s collaboration with Mirwais Ahmadzai on last year’s Music was another triumph represented nicely here by “Don’t Tell Me”, “What It Feels Like for a Girl”, and the title track. There couldn’t be a better closing track for this collection than “Music”, because the goofy Rick James rip-off reasserts the freewheeling, fun spirit that made Madonna so damn appealing when she debuted nearly twenty years ago. “Music” and “Beautiful Stranger” alone bear the burden of giving GHV2 what all seventeen tracks on The Immaculate Collection provided in abundance: that thrilling, exuberant feeling, that indefinable thing that is what we love about Madonna.
Most likely, no one could have done much better in providing a consistent compilation of the most inconsistent phase of Madonna’s career to date. Sure, there are some small omissions like the Erotica tracks “Fever”, “Bad Girl”, and “Rain”, and the soundtrack hits “This Used to Be My Playground”, “I’ll Remember”, and Evita‘s “You Must Love Me”. Also, chronological sequencing would have made it easier to follow the course of Madonna’s musical evolution. But would these changes have made GHV2 a significantly better album? Probably not. As it stands, it’s the best summary of Madonna’s second decade as a performer we’re going to get — at least until a massive box set appears.