Madonna‘s evolution as a pop star and performer has always been defined by her unended quest to grow and develop as an artist. Because she was initially dismissed as a grasping, untalented pop tart, she has doggedly chased artistic credibility throughout most of her career. What this means practically is that with each album, each music video, each concert, she mines her seemingly depthless reserve of creativity and knowledge of pop culture and pop subculture to create art that’s simultaneously radio-ready pop music as well as a ‘statement’. From her self-titled debut in 1983, Madonna used pop music to forge her one-woman sexual revolution.
Her second album, 1984’s Like a Virgin, made her into a bonafide superstar. Still, it was her third album in which she made a self-conscious effort to broaden her creative and artistic talents, swiping at different cultural tropes to produce a brilliant record. The hit singles off the album – all five hit the top five on the Billboard charts, with three of them going to number one – scored 1980s pop radio and have become pop classics. But more importantly, the album set the stage for the exponential ascent of Madonna’s brilliance, starting with 1989’s classic Like a Prayer and peaking with 1998’s Ray of Light.
According to her mythology, Madonna found herself in New York City in 1978, with $35 in her pocket and a burning ambition to become famous. She left a stultifying life of normalcy in suburban Detroit, Michigan, dropping out of college to ‘make it’ in New York City. Dancing, modeling, and most importantly, playing in early bands, Madonna’s creativity was nurtured by a wildly imaginative atmosphere with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Andy Warhol and venues such as Max’s Kansas City, Danceteria, and CBGB.
Yet by 1986, Madonna was a superstar, one who had to contend with sexist, reductive criticism that zeroed in on her use of frank sexuality as well as criticism that she was a mediocre talent who bleated tinny dance-pop. It’s a ridiculous charge as both 1983’ Madonna and 1984’s Like a Virgin are excellent. And because dance-pop was (and still is) seen as primarily a producer’s genre, it was easy to dismiss Madonna’s input in her sound (even as early as 1983, she had a huge hand in the writing and production of her music)
But True Blue is a concerted effort to prove her mettle as an accomplished singer-songwriter. For the first time in her career, she co-wrote and co-produced all nine tracks. Her vocals matured, too – a throatier, fuller instrument has replaced the high-pitched trill of “Holiday” or “Material Girl”. She rejoined Stephen Bray, the drummer of Breakfast Club, a new wave band for which she drummed before she was famous. Along with Bray, Madonna also hooked up with Patrick Leonard, a prolific producer who would go on to become one of her most enduring collaborators.
As with her previous releases, True Blue is a brilliant dance-pop record, one that speaks to its time but also celebrates the disparate cultures that influence Madonna’s sound at the moment. Not only does she incorporate soul and R&B, but she also continues to explore queer dance club culture, as well as her affection for Latin pop. With Bray and Leonard, Madonna crams her album loud, aggressive drum machines, glossy keyboards, and plump synthesizers.
Before its release, True Blue’s first single, “Live to Tell”, was released in the spring of 1986. The single was only Madonna’s second ballad to be released as a single – her first was the swinging “Crazy for You” from the 1985 film Vision Quest – and it was a very deliberate effort to present Madonna as a mature and serious artist. The single is simultaneously cold and emotional. Leonard creates a chilly and vast soundscape with spacey, atmospheric synths punctuated with a drum machine. Madonna’s voice is lovely, gracefully conveying the deep regret in the song’s pained lyrics.
It was a gutsy choice for a lead single for a singer who was identified as a dance-pop singer. But it makes a lot of sense because if Madonna was interested in developing her craft, the best way to do that was to introduce her most ambitious record at that point of her career with a stirring, melancholy ballad. As if to dispute the charges that Madonna’s popularity was tied to her sexuality and not any discernible talent, the vocal arrangement on the song makes use of Madonna’s growth as a singer. It gave her a chance to do some quality emoting, her voice surprisingly powerful, with a charming and winning ability to inject some winsome poignancy to the song.
And because Madonna is as much a visual artist as she is a musician, the video for “Live to Tell” matched the song’s intense moodiness with a gorgeous and stylish clip that explored Madonna’s then-affection for old Hollywood glamour. Instead of romping around in revealing clothing and ratted hair, she’s presented in dramatic chiaroscuro, her style heavily influenced by Marilyn Monroe with heavy but very tasteful makeup and elegant hair. She’s dressed in a demure floral dress. Directed by James Foley, the video includes clips from his film At Close Range (the song was featured on the Leonard-produced soundtrack), starring her then-husband Sean Penn. The video was popular on MTV, and it continued her symbiotic relationship with the cable channel.
The maturity and ambition of “Live to Tell” are evident on the other tracks, as well. The album’s second single and first track is an idiosyncratic tune about teenage pregnancy, which courted controversy due to its lyrical content. Madonna gives voice to the narrator, a scared young woman who is admitting to her father that she’s pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby. Because so much of Madonna’s fans were young girls (the Madonna wannabes who would show up at her shows in mini-Madonna drag), certain parent groups were concerned that their kids’ idol was glamorizing teenage pregnancy.
Some women’s rights and pro-choice groups were also wary about Madonna belting, “But I made up my mind / I’m keeping my baby!”. Weirdly – and probably for the only time in her career – some conservative groups and religious figures celebrated the song as an implicit condemnation of abortion. The song’s controversy spoke to the moral panic of the 1980s, and it was yet another time in her career when the media and pundits opined about Madonna’s career choices.
With the third single, True Blue paid homage to Madonna’s early identification and love of 1960s girl group pop: it’s a song that sounds like what would happen if the Shirelles recorded their biggest hits in a 1980s studio. It makes complete sense that one of the best songs on one of Madonna’s best albums is a pastiche because Madonna is a pastiche. Like the drum-machined doo-wop of “True Blue”, there’s nothing original or native about Madonna’s sound. Instead, she’s an artist that’s a living collage of past and present pop music and the various subcultures which Madonna purloined to make her music. The frothy lightness of “True Blue” is deceptively bubbly, but it is actually a brilliant, deliberate, calculated stab at paying homage to nostalgia. The genius of “True Blue” is Madonna at her most brilliant. She – along with Leonard – creates a canny commentary on pop music and its cyclical nature.
With “True Blue”, Madonna looked to other eras to inform her songwriting. With True Blue’s big hit “La Isla Bonita”, she looks to other cultures. One of the criticisms leveled against Madonna – fairly, by the way – is that she can be a cultural thief, stealing from subcultures and marginalized groups for her gain. Before cultural appropriation was a thing, Madonna was a master at that game. With “La Isla Bonita”, she indulged in a fascination with Latin rhythms and brought an internationalism to the record – something she would continue with her following albums, returning to Latin-pop as well as Europop, London club culture, French house, as well as her further exploration/exploitation of Black American pop music.
In the 1980s, Madonna was simultaneously a singles artist and an album artist. Her singles were almost perfect. They weren’t necessarily perfect songs (though some were), but they were perfect in that they fit perfectly in top 40 radio. Even though the hits stood out on their own, they also thrived in the context of their home albums. So even though True Blue’s best tracks were the hit singles, the album tracks were still pretty amazing and only felt a bit underwhelming because of the brilliance of the hits. So, some may dismiss the softcore social commentary of “Love Makes the World Go Round” or the standard-issue get-on-the-floor call of “Where’s the Party” as filler, but it’s excellent filler. And Madonna’s enduring love for classic Hollywood meant that listeners got to listen to James Cagney’s inimitable cadence introduce “White Heat” a love song inspired by the classic 1949 gangster film of the same name.
True Blue was released in the summer of 1986 and making it to number one on the Billboard charts, eventually selling over 25 million copies. Though she became a superstar due to the success of Like a Virgin, True Blue propelled Madonna into iconic status. It’s with True Blue that Madonna became the dominant face on the Mount Rushmore of 1980s pop (along with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen). Like anything that Madonna does well, it’s fun and highly enjoyable, yet also obviously a product of hard work, toil, and careful deliberation. The goal of a lot of art – especially pop art – is to make it all look easy, but with Madonna, part of the experience of consuming her work is appreciating the work behind the art.
True Blue is a towering achievement and it’s imposing – its composition, construction, and architecture apparent – like Erich Kettelhut’s intimidating set designs for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like Metropolis’ sharp Deco look, there’s an armored sheen to True Blue. True Blue isn’t just fantastic pop music, it’s also an impressive feat of hard work.