For better or worse, mainstream 80s music was all about image. Possibly indebted to Marshall McLuhan’s famous theory, Louise Ciccone (a name that is now all but forgotten) made this image into the message. In her world, superficiality masqueraded as art, and pure sensation was treated with the utmost seriousness. Here was an idol that shook the world as much as Elvis Presley – not since the King had anyone been so transparently manufactured, unapologetically exaggerated, and flippantly carnal. Her persona, media stunts and (imitators tend to forget this part) well-written songs helped define the decade. It was so tacky and marketable that it somehow became transcendent. It performed the increasingly rare feat of speaking to everyone, and managing to please most people.
Prodded by crossover titans like Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder, her trying to be bigger than everything else in the world was an admirable experiment. The fact that she was a strong woman in a predominantly male environment made this all the more notable. Though their aesthetics differed greatly, the Riot Grrl movement of the early 90s owed an obvious debt to Madonna for paving the way. The key to her relevance was her constant chameleonic reinvention; even if a particular affectation didn’t strike gold, she was well into a new phase before it could stall her career. This tactic lengthened her relevance into the 2000s before she was displaced by a new cadre of bubblegum divas fashioned in the image she pioneered.
She luxuriated in the increasing vapidity and technophilia of pop, turning it into an asset rather than a liability and giving an increasingly dull musical landscape some verve and surprises. The way she portrayed herself was masterful; she could be fey one minute, then scandalous the next; she veered between political, personally explicit, and irreverently playful. Best of all, hers was an inspiring success story, wherein a teen girl comes from the bottom with big aspirations and ends up conquering the airwaves. She went from talent to icon to institution. This collection covers most of the good material from her culturally relevant years. But far beyond the music itself, Madonna’s image was indelible in the world of pop.
Key track: “Into the Groove”