Monday 8 September 2014

MADONNA: True Blue

(#333:  12 July 1986, 6 weeks)

Track listing:  Papa Don't Preach/Open Your Heart/White Heat/Live To Tell/Where's The Party/True Blue/La Isla Bonita/Jimmy Jimmy/Love Makes The World Go Round

As you may be expecting, because I was spending so much time listening to The Smiths and R.E.M. in the summer of '86 I didn't take much notice of Madonna's new album; which isn't to say I wasn't aware of it, of course.  It was hard not to know about Madonna, as she was such a big star; and I remember being dubious about her marriage to Sean Penn as it happened (I couldn't really see what they had in common, besides being in showbiz) - me, a modest Intensive Secretarial student at Sheridan College sensed something was wrong, though not entirely sure what it was.

The songs here are all right, for what they are; I wish I could feel more or less something for them, but they emerge and proceed by me as bright, sparkling, entertaining enough - enough that any of the singles (3 #1s and one #2 in the UK) would work on the radio, in the mix.  Perhaps in all my angst Madonna's tireless ambition ("Open Your Heart" may cheer up some but it sounds stalkerish to me - "don't try to run I can keep up with you") exhausted me.

"Papa Don't Preach" was, I guess, supposed to show that Madonna was a married woman and as such needed to show she had depth, meaning, wasn't just a girl who liked to go out dancing and flirting anymore. Oh the drama - the word "baby" is used here in three ways - being a girl, the baby inside her growing, and her man, her "baby."  What confuses me is, if she's made up her mind and tells her father not to preach, what's the poor schlub to do?  What kind of advice is he supposed to give?  She's going to keep her baby, not give in to her friends (already you can see the drawbridge anti-friend gears in motion) who want her to "give it up" - that's a dubious line, and it fudges the issue.  Give it up?  Give it away?  Get rid of it?  The narrator here wants a little family, is an unwed mother and, uh, what is the problem here?  Wouldn't her father want her to marry the guy who got her pregnant?  Unless he's a bad egg, this is a song that claims to stand up to authority but really barely does.   Is this the music marriage creates?

"Open Your Heart" is about determination and drive and "one is such a lonely number" - oh, save this guy from being a singleton!  A guy who, gasp, isn't paying attention to you.  The ultimate crime! "I'll make you love me" is only something someone truly desperate could feel, let alone say, and there's Madonna saying it to this guy, who is so going to be won over.  Well, maybe some guys are like that?  (I have seen some call this song "inexhaustible" and so on, but why is he sad and "wrapped up in himself"?  And does it matter that this song was written originally about a woman, not a man?)      

Now that she's married to tough guy Sean Penn, along comes James Cagney in White Heat to portray real toughness and badassery.  In this song Madonna actually does come across as a woman who wants to be an equal, refusing to be someone else's fantasy, no one can just take her love without a fight, and so on.  It's a nice metaphor, I guess, but why so much aggression around love?  And what does "the rhythm of my mind" mean, anyway?

"Live To Tell" is one of Madonna's best songs, and is the best song on the album; it makes her slow down, examine herself, admit frailty, fear even.  It pauses and waits; it breathes instead of mechanically pushing and pulling.  It is a hint that there's something else going on within Madonna that isn't going to surface that often - that the woman on the cover, poised and not looking at us, not looking at anything, isn't a brand or a statue or a work of art - she's a person, just like anyone else.  It is a song inspired by her parents; the fact that the secret she has stays a secret gives the song its power, makes it universal.  Madonna as a girl, growing up to be a woman; confessional but not confessing...

"Where's The Party?" is a perfectly nice song, but besides her admitting "I'm living in chaos" I am not sure that Madonna ever really needs the party - and doesn't being married mean you get to stop needing parties so much?  Not that wives should be at home all the time, but still.  She doesn't "want to grow up too fast" - well, who does?  Being grown-up is not a lot of fun sometimes, but isn't being married part of being a grown-up?  This is a newlywed's album, alright, with a lot of the adjusting happening (or maybe not happening) right here in front of the audience.

Case in point:  "True Blue."  Oh she loves him so much, he's her best friend!  The pre-Beatles world of girl groups is back, all eager and awkward ("your heart fits me like a glove") and yet too pat, two-dimensional, somehow not believable.  I realize that this whole album was recorded in a whoosh of wedded bliss, a kind of tranquilizer that makes things that are just...nice...acceptable, but the overall effect here is of something lost or missing or even repressed.

"La Isla Bonita" is supposed to be some nod to Latin America by Madonna, but I keep hearing "Last night I dreamt of Zumpano" and the whole thing smacks of a Disneyland ride, with colorful natives and wildlife and Madonna in the front with a microphone telling us how magnificent it all is, after having gathered everyone's tickets for the ride.  It's no "Echo Beach" gone tropical, that's for sure.

Which leaves us with "Jimmy Jimmy" about James Dean (not inspired by The Undertones) - how much was he a bad boy, like her Sean?  How much did she fantasize about him, and well, look what's happened now!  Oh she couldn't love him, he couldn't fit in, and and...need I point out that Dean died before Madonna was born?  I guess that shows what a star he was, that she could fantasize about him as a girl, and maybe set up the chain of events that would indeed lead her to her husband.  I have no idea, but that's how it seems to's not an awful song, for all that, but how even this falls flat, I don't know.

"Love Makes The World Go Round" was first performed at Live Aid and comes across here as please, Madonna Don't Preach.  "Make love not war we say/It's easy to recite/But it don't mean a damn/Unless we're gonna fight" the song starts, and makes the points you'd expect it to - including Madonna insisting she's right and you know it - as it skips and the music sounds as if Phil Collins is going to join in any minute now.  The music sounds cheap - "Poundland synthesisers" as Marcello put it - and made me think back on how thin it all sounds, how Madonna's no longer the Like A Virgin-era Minnie Mouse but hasn't really dug in to herself beyond "Live To Tell" - there's not much there there*, not much of a sense that she is doing anything but proving herself to be Madonna part two, the grown-up married Madonna, here to show she can mean something to fellow grown-ups and somehow be better for it. 

I'm not sure she is; marriage has changed her, as it does everyone, but the chilly cover matches the chilly, distant music, a facsimile of pop music that is fine for what it is, but shuts its eyes to a lot of things.  Madonna has turned into what Helen Fielding calls a Smug Married, but how long will it be before she stops being smug and starts to be...herself?  Already making herself to be a static figure, a Warhol image, is like a self-paralysis - a real person is underneath the image, and by the time we get back to her, it will have, after some time, emerged.  The two-dimensional proper figure so hemmed in here, so apparently free, will be gone.  As will, sadly, alas, her marriage...

*Whereas Control by Janet Jackson is all about the there, and about being a grown-up. (Control will be discussed soon enough.)