Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Madonna

  • Madonna [Sire, 1983] A-
  • Like a Virgin [Sire, 1984] B
  • True Blue [Sire, 1986] B
  • You Can Dance [Sire, 1987] A-
  • Like a Prayer [Sire, 1989] B+
  • I'm Breathless [Sire/Warner Bros., 1990] A
  • The Immaculate Collection [Sire, 1990] A+
  • Erotica [Maverick/Sire, 1992] A
  • Bedtime Stories [Maverick/Sire, 1994] **
  • Something to Remember [Maverick/Warner Bros., 1995] Dud
  • Ray of Light [Maverick, 1998] *
  • Music [Maverick, 2000] A
  • GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2 [Maverick/Warner Bros., 2001] B+
  • American Life [Maverick/Warner Bros., 2003] **
  • Confessions on a Dance Floor [Warner Bros., 2005] B+
  • Hard Candy [Warner Bros., 2008] **
  • MDNA [Interscope, 2012] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Madonna [Sire, 1983]
In case you bought the con, disco never died--just reverted to the crazies who thought it was worth living for. This shamelessly ersatz blonde is one of them, and with the craftily orchestrated help of a fine selection of producers, remixers, and DJs, she's come up with a shamelessly ersatz sound that's tighter than her tummy--essence of electro, the D in DOR. At first I thought the electroporn twelve-inch that pairs "Burning Up" with "Physical Attraction" was the way to go, but that was before she'd parlayed the don't-let-me-down vagueness of "Borderline" into a video about interracial love (sex, I mean) and a sneaky pop hook simultaneously. At one stiff per four-song side, smarter than Elvis Costello. A-

Like a Virgin [Sire, 1984]
If a woman wants to sell herself as a sex fantasy I'll take a free ride--as long as the fantasy of it remains out front, so I don't start confusing image with everyday life. But already she's so sure of herself she's asking men and women both to get the hots for the calculating bitch who sells the fantasy even while she bids for the sincerity market where long-term superstars ply their trade. And to make the music less mechanical (just like Bowie, right?), she's hired Nile Rodgers, who I won't blame for making it less catchy. B

True Blue [Sire, 1986]
Critics flock to her uneven product the way liberal arts magnas flock to investment banking--so desperate are they to connect to a zeitgeist that has nothing to do with them that they decide a little glamour and the right numbers add up to meaningful work, or at least "fun." I'm not saying her flair is pleasureless--the generosity she demands in the inexhaustible "Open Your Heart" is a two-way street and then some. But she doesn't speak for the ordinary teenaged stiff any more than Reagan speaks for union members (that's called "selling to," folks). And while the antiabortion content of "Papa Don't Preach" isn't unequivocal, and wouldn't make the song bad by definition if it were, the ambiguity is a cop-out rather than an open door (or heart), which is bad. In a time of collective self-deception, we don't need another snow job. B

You Can Dance [Sire, 1987]
Only two of the seven songs on her best LP haven't surfaced on an earlier album, but it's no best-of, and not just because she's saving her radio hits for yet another compilation. The effects, repeats, breaks, and segues added by a star crew of remixers headed by Jellybean Benitez and Shep Pettibone amount to new music--this time the songs don't surface, they reach out and grab you. Reminding us that her first and probably truest calling was disco dolly--before she stormed MTV, she had an audience that loved the way she sounded. A-

Like a Prayer [Sire, 1989]
Three times I've mistaken her polymorphic promo and gross ambition for standard-issue lowest-common-denominator pandering, and three times her audience has disabused me in the months and years that followed. But though I swear I won't get fooled again, it's hard to hear an icon in the privacy of your own home, especially if you don't believe in her, and I won't sink that low or fly that high--I can't. So say the kiddie psychedelia is ick, the side-closers are over when they're over, and everything else sports some little touch to remember it by, Prince or musique concrète or broken quote from the Association. The cocksucker's prayer is anybody's classic, but coming from, I don't know, Suzanne Vega, the declaration of filial independence and the recommendation of romantic independence would be uncharacteristically catchy cliches. Coming from an icon they're challenging, thrilling--and they'll get more thrilling. B+

I'm Breathless [Sire/Warner Bros., 1990]
There are no doubt hundreds of frustrated chorines who could sing the three Sondheim originals "better" than the most famous person in the world. But with its pedigree of wit and musicality, show-tune pop-schlock sure beats the direct-to-Vegas power ballads with which she's heretofore betrayed her dance-rock roots. Especially when she writes it herself--except for the "Material Girl"-inspired "More," the Sondheim tunes are fussy and genteel (with Mandy Patinkin's "well-sung" cameo the nadir), but such fake period pieces as "Cry Baby," "He's a Man," and the risque s&m-lite "Hanky Panky" are all her. This is a woman whose great gift is for the mask. Camp isn't everything she can do, but she sure knows how to do it right. A

The Immaculate Collection [Sire, 1990]
Seventeen hits, more than half of them indelible classics: "Holiday" (ebullient), "Lucky Star" (blessed), "Like a Virgin" (wicked), "Papa Don't Preach" (immoral), "Express Yourself" (feminist), "Material Girl" (dialectical), "Vogue" (expressive), "Open Your Heart" (naked), "Justify My Love" (erotica), "Into the Groove" (disco). Style-swallowing opportunist though she is, every one could have been cut yesterday--they're unified by the plastic practicality of her voice and the synthetic electricity of her groove. Right, she's all image. Couldn't have done it without MTV. Tell me about it. A+

Erotica [Maverick/Sire, 1992]
OK, everybody, let's use our imaginations, shall we? It may be a little hard at first, but if we try we can have lots of fun. To start, let's pretend that we have nothing against dance music--that instead of fixating on impersonal and mechanical and all those obvious things we can just enjoy it for what it is, as innocently as babes. Come on now, really try. Got it? Good. Because now I'm going to suggest something even harder--that we pretend we've never heard of Madonna. I know that's like asking you not to think of a purple polar bear, so just pretend to pretend, if you know what I mean, which as good postmodernist children you do. Now, put the record on. Hear those bass and synth beats? Sinuous and subtle and sexy, aren't they? How 'bout the faux-Arab electro on "Words"? And aren't the techno effects all nice and cheesy-futuristic? The singer doesn't have great pipes, but because she's too hip to belt (this time), she doesn't need them. She's in control, all understated presence and impersonal personality except when she's flashing some pink. Also, not counting that "Love your sister, love your brother" thing, the lyrics are not stupid. I love the rap where the boast turns out to be a lie. And whoever thought of recording the breakup song through the phone hookup was pretty smart, wasn't he or she? She, I bet. A find. A

Bedtime Stories [Maverick/Sire, 1994]
seductive self-regard over the best tracks fame can buy ("Don't Stop") **

Something to Remember [Maverick/Warner Bros., 1995] Dud

Ray of Light [Maverick, 1998]
Pretty sensual for pop enlightenment, thank God ("Skin," "Candy Perfume Girl"). *

Music [Maverick, 2000]
Anybody who denies that Madonna made great singles in the '80s is a boob. Run all together on The Immaculate Collection, they constitute the greatest album of her mortal life. But except for the debut, the albums per se from that period strove for schlock when they didn't stoop to filler. In the early '90s, she essayed great longforms--an ambition that presupposes good songs while cultivating consistency and flow. Then she got scared and discovered God, two not unrelated experiences that rendered her great singles and good songs more middlebrow. So rejoice that from Vocoder to cowgirl suit, she's got her sass back. Pretending to be cheap, she sometimes--as on my favorite moment, the processed-munchkin hook of the perfectly entitled "Nobody's Perfect"--really is cheap, which is essential to the illusion. All the songs are good, all chintzy. Which combo provides just the right consistency and flow. A

GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2 [Maverick/Warner Bros., 2001]
I prefer Erotica, the last time her shape-shifting audacity was more than a trope, and Music, the Mirwais-informed culmination of a period that could well last the rest of her career--could in the end be remembered as her career. Instead of playing at pop, using it as a platform from which to mount a fusillade of cultural challenges, she now is pop-blandness at its best, a model of a modern mental health, replete with ecumenical enlightenment, domestic contentment, liberal politics, and plenty of exercise. Not that she's limited to these themes; on the contrary, she role-plays as a matter of course, because (as she's long since established) that's what pop professionals do. And now it's time to sum up. So she gleans goodies from the overrated Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light, mixes in the glorious soundtrack-only "Beautiful Stranger" and the dismal soundtrack-only "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," and hands it all over to Mirwais for sonic tweaking I'm not interested enough to pin down. An essential package. B+

American Life [Maverick/Warner Bros., 2003]
learning and adjusting like always, and no, stupid, not hypocritically--although maybe inattentively ("Mother and Father," "Nothing Fails") **

Confessions on a Dance Floor [Warner Bros., 2005]
She did make an album like this before: her debut, where she flitted so astutely between producers that fools took her for a casting-couch queen. But where Madonna had a distinct feel, disco that partook simultaneously of electro minimalism and pop sellout, it also had distinct parts. Here she subs out the flitting to producer Stuart Price, who digests the entirety of '80s dance music into a flow that subsumes all details and referents. If anything, it's more a dance record, leaving those of us with a sentimental weakness for distinct parts a little lost. So not only am I glad she rhymes "New York" and "dork," I'm glad she put her kabbalist on the guest list. B+

Hard Candy [Warner Bros., 2008]
OK, a middle-aged fitness nut can sing pop ditties just like middle-aged lushes could once sing pop standards, with this requirement--a little help from Timbo and Kanye ("4 Minutes," "Beat Goes On"). **

MDNA [Interscope, 2012]
Forget the four "Deluxe" extras, not one of which except maybe the pretty little "I Fucked Up" improves on the updated '90s arena-dance power tracks of the first 43 minutes, although they top the deadly-dreamy closer "Falling Free" as well as the penultimate "Masterpiece," which begins "If you were the Mona Lisa . . . ." Granted, I could mock "Ooh la la you're my superstar/Ooh la la that's what you are" just as easily. But lyrics have never been where she showed off her gorgeous brains, and anyway, the 10-track mix I propose as an alternative goes out on a real song called "Love Spent": "Hold me like your money/Tell me that you want me/Spend your love on me/Spend your love on me." Nikki Minaj shines bright, but she's no more crucial structurally than the cheerleaders who garnish "I'm Addicted" at its close and embellish "Give Me All Your Luvin'" throughout. Play loud. She's smart and she's proud. A-

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