If you were to see someone tweet the phrase “Madonna is everything,” you might attribute it to a very 2017 type of online hyperbole. And yes, Madonna is everything in that sense, but from a pop perspective Madonna also feels like everything because in a career spanning four decades she has attacked, absorbed, and conquered pop music from every possible angle.
When Madonna’s referenced as the Queen of Reinvention, it tends to suggest the linear series of career moves, from album to album, sonic era to sonic era, hairstyle to hairstyle. In reality, her layered approach to pop domination has frequently seemed to consist of multiple Madonnas existing at the same time. Here are six of her best, key to understanding her work.
Madonna, The Controversialist
Many of Madonna’s supposedly controversial songs (like ‘80s hit “Papa Don’t Preach,” with its subtext of abortion) are now more clearly identified as feminist statements or expressions of self, but that’s not to say Madonna has never deliberately courted outright controversy.
It’s easy to mock the quaint ’80s reaction to the lyrics of “Like A Virgin,” but it’s also fair to say that if a mainstream 2017 pop act—Ariana Grande, for instance—released the video Madonna made for “Like A Prayer,” all hell would still break loose. That video tackled religion, race, and sex, with scenes depicting murder, burning crosses, and Madonna with stigmata-esque wounds. It led to predictable complaints from the American Family Association, a denouncement by the Vatican, and a $5 million Pepsi ad campaign being benched. It would have been disingenuous of Madonna to feign surprise at the reaction. And she didn’t. Her response? “Art should be controversial, and that’s all there is to it.”
Madonna upped the ante on her next formal album, 1992’s Erotica, and its accompanying artifacts, including the boundary-breaking “Justify My Love” video and a coffee table book called Sex, whose main shock value these days involves the inclusion of Vanilla Ice. Fast-forward to 2017, after decades of refusing to be silenced: Live on CNN from the Women’s March on Washington, Madonna delivered a passionate speech about change, sacrifice, rebellion, the tyranny of Trump, and the power of love. There was more, of course: “To our detractors that insist this march will never add up to anything: fuck you. Fuck. You.” Not great news for CNN’s switchboard but a fair point, well made.
Madonna, The Club Queen
When Madonna descended on New York in 1978, she’d just dropped out of a University of Michigan dance scholarship and was hell-bent on making it as a professional dancer. So, spoiler alert, she’s not averse to tripping the light fantastic, as her 1983 debut proved out the gate. Her discography is full of floorfillers, and she holds the record for the most No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Dance/Club Songs Chart, even if some of those chart-topping tracks—like the various mixes of the poignant gender-role assessment “What It Feels Like For A Girl”—make for a somewhat complex shimmy.
Peppered throughout Madonna’s career are more direct hints at what it might be like to actually—imagine this!—go dancing with Madonna. She likes to boogie woogie, this much we know from “Music.” On the 2000 album track “Impressive Instant,” Madonna reveals that her skills extend to both rhumba and samba (though bear in mind this was also the song where she declared, “I like to singy singy singy like a bird on a wingy wingy wingy,” so there’s that). Most significantly, Madonna’s belief in the dance floor as a sacred space is described in “Vogue” with words some will find as inspiring in 2017 as listeners almost three decades ago did: “When all else fails and you long to be something better than you are today, I know a place where you can get away—it’s called a dance floor.”
Released a few years earlier, True Blue album cut “Where’s The Party” was ostensibly a song about going out and losing control after a week at work. Madonna wistfully recalls that as a child she “couldn’t wait to get older,” before acknowledging that getting older hasn’t been everything she’d hoped, then looking ahead to the future: “Don’t want to grow old too fast, don’t want to let the system get me down.” Like some of the best pop songs, it’s about living in the moment, even if the importance of doing so only makes sense in the context of what came before, and what will come in the future. Which leads us to…
Madonna, The Clockwatcher
Madonna looked closer to home on another time-shifting track, “This Used to Be My Playground” from A League of Their Own, with further songs like “Oh Father” and “Live To Tell” also looking back on Madonna’s upbringing with themes of defiance, resolve, and closure.
A more literal timepiece motif emerged during the 2000s, when the lead singles from two successive Madonna albums each began with the sound of a clock ticking. In the first, 2005’s Abba-sampling behemoth “Hung Up,” the ticking clock was inspired by producer Stuart Price’s earlier remix of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For,” and was followed by Madonna’s observation that “time goes by so slowly for those who wait, those who run seem to have all the fun.”
By 2008, it was Timbaland administering the ticks on “4 Minutes,” rather improbably Madonna’s second most-streamed song on Spotify. That song’s lyrics (“We only got four minutes to save the world… grab a boy, then grab a girl”) suggested procreation-based speed dating, but Madonna later explained that they hinged on “living on borrowed time essentially, and people are becoming much more aware of the environment and how we’re destroying the planet.” Madonna may have overestimated the urgency but, well, that clock’s still ticking.
Madonna, The Moviegoer
The are various words we might use to describe Madonna’s film career, one of the more generous being “lengthy.” Since the ’80s, Madonna’s screen credits have prompted a series of musical contributions whose quality has frequently, often mercifully, failed to correlate with that of the actual movie.
Were one to assemble those alongside songs contributed to films in which Madonna didn’t even appear, you’d have one of the modern pop era’s most surreal career retrospectives. It would include glossy pop jam “Who’s That Girl,” wistful ballad-banger “I’ll Remember” (from a dreadful Joe Pesci-Brendan Fraser vehicle), the William Orbit-produced, Austin Powers-soundtracking “Beautiful Stranger,” a peculiar cover of “American Pie” featuring Rupert Everett, the slightly mind-boggling “Hanky Panky” (and the rest of her *Dick Tracy* companion LP), futuristic Bond theme “Die Another Day,” and (on a technicality) “Into the Groove.”
By law, that compilation would also need to include Madonna’s take on “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” but not the version she sang in Evita. Instead we’d have the castanet-strewn, 100 percent spectacular, seven-minute remix, for which Madonna recorded brand new vocals and a second chorus entirely in Spanish. Sadly, some may say criminally, this definitive version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is unavailable on streaming services, but it does live on via YouTube.
Madonna, The Pensive Chanteuse
Treat with deep suspicion anybody who links lyrical substance to low tempo. That said, while Madonna has definitely explored the extremes of human emotion via dance floor smashes, some of her most profound thoughts have arrived within her most elegant songs. On her wildly underrated American Life album, “Nothing Fails” boasts a tempo that barely reaches the status of mid, but for a truly downbeat masterpiece, try Ray Of Light’s “Drowned World/Substitute For Love,” a prelude to a reflective and immersive album whose sonic departure made it the riskiest move in a career built on the avoidance of safe decisions. It’s there that we found Madonna, who’d previously sung plenty about being a daughter, singing for the first time about being a parent (via sparse lullaby “Little Star”) while also, on mesmerizing album closer “Mer Girl,” reflecting on the death of her own mother.
Madonna, The Hopeful Romantic
Madonna undoubtedly defined the role of sex in modern pop, but just as prominently—in songs as diverse as “Take A Bow,” “Get Together,” and “Borderline”—are themes of romance, heartbreak, and optimism. “The thing is,” Madonna told Rolling Stone regarding 2015’s “Living For Love,” “lots of people write about being in love and being happy or they write about having a broken heart and being inconsolable. But nobody writes about having a broken heart and being hopeful and triumphant afterwards. I didn’t want to share the sentiment of being a victim. This scenario devastated me, but it just made me stronger.”
The survival spirit of “Living for Love“ came to life in an unexpected way. One of the song’s first performances took place at the 2015 Brit Awards, where, at a key moment, a dancer tugged Madonna’s cloak. The garment should have billowed away to reveal Madonna’s full performance outfit, but the clasp jammed. Madonna was abruptly yanked off the stage platform but was back on her feet within seconds, singing lines like, “Lifted me up, and watched me stumble… after the heartache, I’m gonna carry on.” She finished the song, conjuring a live TV victory where others would have conceded defeat.
The aftermath was Madonna in excelsis: She didn’t block the performance’s upload to the Brits’ YouTube channel. She didn’t hide the imperfection or pretend it had not happened. In fact, within a week, the full performance was on her official VEVO channel, where it remains. Elsewhere on Rebel Heart, Madonna sings, “I’m only human”—which is true, of course. Madonna definitely is a human being—she just happens to be one whose remarkable longevity and multifaceted creativity justify her reputation as the Queen of Pop.