Madonna’s Celebration

Strip away the many images.  Take away all the controversies.  And forget about all the gossip.  When talking about Madonna, all that matters is the music.
That girlish voice, those danceable rhythms, those moving arrangements, that unabashed sexuality, that remarkable assertiveness, that (mostly) unapologetic nature.  Nearly 30 years after the release of her first single, she remains what she was right from the start:  a sexual feminist who confidently seduces through dance and balladry.
As far from a shrinking violet as you can get, Madonna furthered the cause of female sexuality in music with gender role reversals, bold gestures, genuine affection for good men, a sympathetic ear for the emotionally crippled, an intolerance for slow movers and the terminally hurtful, and endless hope for long lasting love.  She tolerated all the jokes, all the criticism, all the derision, all the hostility and all the sexism.  In fact, she seemed to thrive on it.  The result has been a career filled with far more highs than lows.
Periodically, throughout her years in the spotlight, there have been occasional pauses from studio work and touring.  It is in these moments that the train slows down and personal achievements are savoured in the form of greatest hits packages.  In 1990, The Immaculate Collection (great title) covered much of her 80s output, albeit in slightly remixed form.  1995’s Something To Remember focused on her balladry.  And 2001’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 focused on the ’90s and 2000. 
Now comes Celebration.  Plucking all but one hit from Immaculate and half of GHV2 while adding a few more 80s hits plus six recent ones not to mention two brand new recordings, this double-disc collection is literally crammed with globally popular singles.  Add up the two running times (79 minutes and 42 seconds on disc one, 78 minutes on disc two) and this release is well over two and a half hours long.  There’s not a single wasted second.
Oddly, the collection manages to be both completely satisfying and woefully inadequate.  Between 1982 and 2009, Madonna released 75 singles (76 if you count It’s So Cool), all but two were hits on at least one chart in one country, an astounding feat.  Not even half of that total is represented here.  The list of notable omissions includes Causing A Commotion, This Used To Be My Playground, Human Nature, Deeper And Deeper, True Blue, The Power Of Goodbye, Jump, You’ll See, I’ll Remember, Rain, Oh Father, Rescue Me, Angel, Keep It Together, Hanky Panky and about two dozen more.  One wonders if the idea of a complete singles collection, maybe a triple or a quadruple disc release, was ever seriously considered.  It would’ve been a perfect way to end The Warner Years.
That being said, this is still a worthwhile release despite being far from comprehensive and a bit too loud (it’s yet another modern release with the volume needlessly cranked).  None of her previous hits collections are nearly this expansive.
Disc one begins with the catchy Hung Up, one of only three Top 10 hits she’s had since 2000.  A worldwide number one in 2005 (it peaked at number seven in America), despite the sureness of its Abba-sampled groove, the protagonist is torn between the traditional female role of letting the man initiate courtship ("waiting for your call, baby, night and day") and the longing to be more romantically assertive ("No time to hesitate/Those who run seem to have all the fun").  By the time her love interest gets her on the line, she senses his lack of enthusiasm and is ready to move on ("I can’t keep on waiting for you/I know that you’re still hesitating/Don’t cry for me/’Cause I’ll find my way").  Presented here in its full album version (running a little over 5 and a half minutes instead of the 3 and a half minute radio edit), it’s easy to see why it earned her yet another number one dance club hit.  Far from her best, it nonetheless nicely demonstrates the continuing inner conflict the modern woman faces with romance in the 21st Century.  Sexual assertiveness or nice girl passivity?
The next two tracks, Music and Vogue, two number ones from two different decades, are all about finding nirvana on the dance floor, a recurring lyrical theme.  In the former, the music is the natural drug-induced high that maintains a couple’s passion for each other ("I wanna dance with my baby/And when the music starts/I don’t ever want to stop/It’s gonna drive me crazy") and shows no discrimination ("Music makes the people come together/Music makes the bourgeiosie and the rebel").  In the latter, the dance floor is a refuge of empowerment for the powerless, the hopeless and the brokenhearted ("I know a place where you can get away/It’s called a dance floor").  A loving, spoken-word tribute to stars of yesteryear pops up in the final minute. 
Although Vogueing originated in underground gay clubs and spawned an earlier hit by former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (Deep In Vogue), the dance will forever be associated with Madonna’s brilliant number, one of her all-time best songs.  Not bad for a track that was originally a throwaway B-Side.  (It was the flipside of Keep It Together which is nowhere to be found on Celebration.)
Next comes 4 Minutes, from 2008’s Hard Candy, which features endless yet, at times, curiously cautious flirting between the experienced Madonna and the young but eager Justin Timberlake set against a percussively funky rhythm.  (Because of space limitations, the three-minute single edit is here instead of the four-minute album cut.)  Believably, doubt comes more from the older woman ("The road to hell is paved with good intentions") than the young buck ("Don’t be afraid, Madonna/You gotta get on my hop").  Nonetheless, she knows what she wants, he thinks he can deliver but she wonders if he truly desires her or is nothing but sweet talk.  Only occasionally sounding girly, it’s nice to hear Madonna sounding more womanly and concerned here.  She doesn’t sound like an overeager teenager on this one.
The rest of the first half of disc one takes us through more ’80s high points.  Madonna’s very first A-side, Everybody, has held up pretty well over the decades with its mostly electronic arrangement and cheerful dance call to all.  Injecting a little lust into the spoken word sections, it was a good sign of similiarly themed, more fleshed-out follow-ups to come.  The irresistible Into The Groove being one.  Like A Prayer, another of her greatest singles, combines the sexual with the spiritual in a way that would make Prince proud.  Like A Virgin benefits greatly from its foundational drum rhythm and its high melody line but you wish the full single was here and not The Immaculate Collection edit.  (Sadly, the edit is necessary.  The full track wouldn’t have fit on the disc.) 
The second half offers more strong examples of her singles work.  Ray Of Light adds welcome guitar licks to a typically electronic arrangement.  I’m not sure I completely understand the lyrics but they are thought provoking in an ambigiously spiritual kind of way, a rare chance for the singer to go beyond her usual lusty terrain.  Sorry is another no-nonsense number, both lyrically and musically, from Confessions On A Dance Floor.  Secret, about the restoration of sexual desire, has grown on me in a way I never expected.  In fact, quite a few of Madonna’s ’90s cuts failed to grab me during their initial release.  Celebration has changed that. 
Express Yourself is about as close to a sexual feminist anthem as Madonna has ever gotten.  How many times have you heard a song where a woman advises other women to not find love through material means ("Long stem roses are the way to your heart/But he needs to start with your head") but through true intimacy ("Make him love you ’til you can’t come down")?  Wisely advising females to respect themselves and the men they care about before plunging into a serious relationship, Express Yourself even goes so far to suggest that being single is better than being unhappily attached ("Second best is never enough/You’ll do much better, baby, on your own").  One of the best Madonna singles of all time.  Truly revelatory.
Even though "fuck" is covered up with an orgasm echo, the radio edit of Erotica, an exquisite paean to the healing power of rough, kinky sex, is Madonna at her most masculine, her most demanding and her most explicit.  Another excellent lyric set to one of her best musical arrangements, it’s probably one of her most underappreciated gems, too scary for the easily squeamish and too threatening for domineering males.  Despite its overt sadomasochistic imagery, it’s deeply compelling even if pain isn’t your bag.
Erotica leads right into another sexual number, Justify My Love.  An erotically charged Madonna is so worked up from start to finish, she continually begs to be seduced by her lover, even helpfully coming up with some good suggestions ("I wanna run naked in a rainstorm/Make love in a train cross-country").  With a spare arrangement consisting of drums, synthesizer, and vocals, it’s the full realization of the lustiness only suggested in Everybody.  One of Lenny Kravitz’ best productions.  (He co-wrote the song and you can hear him sing occasional background vocals during those moments where Madonna isn’t verbalizing her desire.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s him playing the drums.)
That brings us to disc two.  The first half is dominated with more terrific ’80s work.  Left off of The Immaculate Collection, the clever Dress You Up, a Top 5 smash in 1985, is a welcome inclusion.  The song’s cheekiness didn’t go unnoticed by Tipper Gore whose annoying busy body organization, The Parents Resource Music Center, named it one of the infamous Filthy Fifteen.  Considering today’s musical climate (and even the one three decades ago), it hardly meets the standard of "filthy".  Material Girl is the anti-Express Yourself, performed very much tongue-in-cheek.  La Isla Bonita has a very pretty arrangement to go along with its lyrical longing.  Lucky Star and Burning Up are good, early, danceable examples of the Madonna-in-heat formula. 
Papa Don’t Preach is easily the best single from 1986’s True Blue.  Essentially a short story about a terrified teenage girl needing emotional reassurance from her father about her unplanned pregnancy and the bad boy who knocked her up, the mix of modern and classical instrumentation is an effective touch, a musical representation of the clash between generational values.  What’s most interesting, though, is the mystery involving the protagonist’s mother.  She’s never mentioned.  Did she die?  Did she leave the family?  Is she there but kept in the dark?  That missing character adds to the lyrical drama.
You can feel the ache in the devastating Frozen from 1998’s Ray Of Light, yet another song I missed the boat on during its initial run up the charts.  The single edit appeared on GHV2 but Celebration has the full six-minute album cut.  It might be the most beautiful song in her catalogue.  Madonna at her most empathetic.
The second half begins with another Hard Candy single, Miles Away.  Imagine being in a relationship that works best when both participants are not in the same room.  (I can relate.)  A very appropriate subject matter in this era of chatrooms, texting and instant messaging.  I like the hook, too. 
Madonna’s collaboration with Babyface resulted in Take A Bow, one of her loveliest ballads.  Its inclusion on Celebration has made me a convert.  Live To Tell’s mysterious nature and her vulnerable vocal take make you forget this is a six-minute song.  Beautiful Stranger was one of the few good things about the second Austin Powers movie.  I’ve always liked that song, a rare Madonna number I can sing along to.  (The melody line isn’t too high to reach.)  Cherish has been a longtime favourite, too, with its sweet arrangement and assertive plea for serious, monogamous love.  Die Another Day is that rare non-rhyming Madonna song written from the point of view of a man, most notably in this case, James Bond.  It received mixed reviews in 2002 but listening to it today, it’s very much an underrated Bond theme.  Again, the mix of modern and classic instruments works well here.  It’s quite a cool song.
As for the two new recordings, I liked those, too, even though they should’ve been saved for a future studio release.  Celebration, which ends disc two, is very much in the tradition of Everybody, Into The Groove, Vogue and Music with its longstanding belief in the seductive and redemptive powers of dance.  It doesn’t break any new ground but it hooks you in the second it begins.  Revolver, which concludes the earlier disc, is an effective showcase for Madonna’s remarkably good Sean Paul impression, although her trademark girly vocals are here, too.  Essentially one long gun metaphor for sex, even Lil Wayne’s cameo near the end works.
As consistently compelling as Celebration is (there are no bad songs in this 36-track collection), it only gives you a hint of the legacy of Madonna’s Warner singles.  Perhaps a follow-up release will fill in the remaining blanks.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
4:16 p.m.
Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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