When I found out Sunway Echo Media’s theme this month was “Celebration”, the first thing I thought of was Madonna’s 2009 greatest hits album, also titled, “Celebration”. The album consists of 38 songs, spanning her career since signing onto Warner Bros. Records in 1982. Other than the usage of the same word, of course, Madonna’s music tends to be a frequent feature of house parties, clubs, and other high-energy celebrations.
While Madonna has recently caused controversy surrounding her involvement in the creation of NFTs, most notably with her collaboration with BEEPLE (also known as Mike Winkelmann) to create the “MOTHER OF CREATION” NFT line, her influence on pop music and culture as a whole is factually undeniable. She is more than the “Queen of Pop”, as a writer for Spin, Bianca Gracie, stated, “The “Queen of Pop” isn’t enough to describe Madonna. She is Pop.”. Her influence even caused the creation of the subfield of American cultural studies, Madonna studies, dedicated to studying the work and life of the famed superstar.
Now, attempting to review every song in the “Celebration” album (as I originally planned) turned out to be one daunting task, not just listening to every song, but cramming them into one article. It wouldn’t do Madonna’s works justice. So instead, I’ll be covering songs from the first 10 years in her career, from 1982 to 1992. Let’s take a look at the beginnings of the living legend herself.
Track 1 of Madonna’s debut album, the self-titled “Madonna” is an amazing introduction to one of the most influential female voices in music. It’s catchy, it’s a great dance-pop track, and “star-light, star bright” gets ingrained in your head fast. Not bad for a song that’ll go on to set the standard for the dance-pop genre.
Immediately following the medium-paced “Lucky Star”, “Borderline” begins with a more low-key beat. The song speaks about unrequited love, which hits a very soft spot in my heart, especially with the line “something in your eyes is making such a fool of me”, at the start of the second verse. That got me good.
Turning up the bass riff, “Burning Up” gets you into the groove. Alongside the use of the Linn drum machine, state of the art technology for its time, it almost reminds me of a rock anthem. The yearn in Madonna’s voice is also a highlight for me, singing about what she’d do for her lover’s approval, almost in desperation.
I spent my childhood listening to this song on the car radio, wondering who sang this song. It would always play on Lite FM, and it stuck to me for good reasons. The combination of synths, guitars and electronic drums is a masterpiece. And the lyrics are probably my favourite out of the selection chosen for the Celebration album. Everyone needs a holiday!
“I know you’ve been waiting, yeah”
“I’ve been watching you, yeah”
The spoken word introduction in the foreground of a heavily synthesized beat, followed by a bubblegum-pop voice singing positive lyrics simply asking everybody to let loose, leave their troubles behind and dance. I’m just surprised there haven’t been more cheesy movies using this song as the final “everyone’s dancing” scene.
Like a Virgin (1984)
This meme was heard around the world just a year ago. While Saucy Santana’s song may have popularized the term, Madonna deserves all the accolades for being the originator. This and the next song I’ll mention made her an icon. The song and its accompanying music video captured the image of early Madonna so perfectly.
Like a Virgin
The juxtaposition between purity and sexuality is a concept Madonna would quite frequently tap into throughout her career. “Like a Virgin” was the first of her songs to do this. In the song’s music video, Madonna portrays a sexually independent woman, but with Venice, a city with vitality, as the backdrop. I really recommend this one.
Dress You Up
This song plays into the messaging of “Material Girl”. While “Material Girl” lyrics portray a woman wanting a man with material (albeit its music video being contrary to itself), “Dress You Up” portrays a woman completing a material man with her love. It’s an interesting way to show two sides of the same coin, with Madonna’s messaging never feeling one note.
Vision Quest – Soundtrack (1985)
Crazy For You
Have I seen Vision Quest? Of course not. What I will say is that “Crazy For You” is a stellar ballad, especially considering it was Madonna’s first ever. It was a completely new direction from the dance-pop, post disco beats she made before, and man, does it fit the romance drama genre well, portraying maturity and sophistication.
True Blue (1986)
Papa Don’t Preach
“True Blue” was Madonna’s first album to touch on social issues, with Papa Don’t Preach being one of the most serious. The song depicts a pregnant teenage girl, fighting with her father and declaring “I’m gonna keep my baby”. The line “We’re in an awful mess” is a perfect descriptor. Absolutely powerful.
Open Your Heart
“True Blue” was also Madonna’s “unabashed valentine” for Sean Penn, who she had married just prior to the development of the album. The relationship was turbulent and sometimes abusive, which makes “Open Your Heart”, a song portraying a woman pleading to her partner to be open with her, feel more somber in retrospect.
Live to Tell
“Live to Tell” portrays the complexity of deceit and mistrust, touching on a persona’s traumatic past of being lied to, and possibly something darker, with the ominous line “Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned”. Also, the line “A man can tell a thousand lines”, connecting back to her marriage, makes this ballad more depressing.
La Isla Bonita
Another song I heard as a child on the radio, “La Isla Bonita” talks about a fantasy, a dream of love with a man on a tropical paradise. The persona yearns for an escape of sorts, with the line “This is where I long to be, La Isla Bonita”. Translating to “The Beautiful Island”, the song is the first of Madonna’s songs to use Spanish lyrics.
Who’s That Girl – Soundtrack (1987)
Who’s That Girl
Not only is Madonna the Queen of Pop, she’s also an actress. “Who’s That Girl” stars Madonna as a street-smart girl, falsely accused of murdering her boyfriend. While the movie was critically panned, the up-tempo song also implementing Spanish lyrics is described by author Rikky Rooksby as Madonna’s best take on her original style.
Causing A Commotion (Honorable Mention)
While not actually included in the “Celebration” album, “Causing A Commotion” is one of my personal favorites from Madonna. This song served as the opening song for the movie, a Betty Boop-esque animated sequence. It’s just so catchy, it’s crazy. Me and this song together would be causing a commotion (because I’d be dancing to it immediately).
Like a Prayer (1989)
Like a Prayer
Like a Prayer? Is this a song about Madonna repenting for “Like a Virgin” 5 years prior? Not quite.
Drawing from her Catholic upbringing, the song combines gospel elements and choir music to tell the tale of a young woman so passionate in her love for God that “it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life”. The purity vs sexuality juxtaposition is played into here, with the normally pure love for God turned into infatuation.
“Come on, girls! Do you believe in love?”
“Express Yourself” is the true antithesis of “Material Girl”, talking about rejecting material pleasures and accepting the best out of a person. The song also uses subtexts to empower through messaging of gender equality and encouraging women and oppressed minorities to live in freedom and be themselves. It’s a top 5 Madonna song, for sure.
“Cherish” is a cute, simple love song. It’s the song that plays when the two lovebirds in a romance movie are just having fun on a date. The song talks about devotion to a long term relationship, and cherishing having a love partner. I would call this song a refreshment or a palette cleanser, fun and a little cheesy.
I’m Breathless – Soundtrack to Dick Tracy (1990)
This song did a lot for being part of a soundtrack album. The entire soundtrack is sung by Madonna, but Vogue is on a different plane of existence. To put it simply, the song became a club classic, an empowering anthem, brought the “vogueing” dance style into mainstream culture, and produced one of the most iconic MTV VMA performances. G.O.A.T.
The Immaculate Collection (1990)
Justify My Love
For Madonna’s first greatest hits album “The Immaculate Collection”, which included all her greatest hits up to that point, a unique decision was made for this ASMR style vocal piece set to a sensual instrumental to serve as the original song to be released with the album. Madonna turned the “spoken word” dial way up, and it works quite well.
It seems as though Justify My Love was the prequel to Erotica. Erotica taps into the same sensual vibe, albeit with a more upbeat beat with electric drums and, er, more ASMR. It’s just a shame that this release was overshadowed by the release of Madonna’s book, which received strong negative reactions. We don’t talk about that.
This love ballad serves as the palette cleanser to the overtly sexual “Erotica” album. “Rain” is gorgeous and seductive, very polished. The vocals are soothing, comparing rain with love, where rain washes away dirt, love washes sorrow. Another thing to note about this song is its music video, featuring a pixie cut Madonna and artistic visuals.
There you have it, the first 10 years of Madonna! Is there a song you liked from this list in particular? Comment below! If you’d like a part 2 to this article, give it some likes, and I might consider it. In the meantime, give Celebration a listen on Spotify: