Welcome to the first in a series of conversations about the one, the only, the queen – Madonna. In this series, I am joined by my friend Abdi Nazemian, author of “Like a Love Story” (buy this Madonna-rich, queer coming of age story now, it’s amazing), associate producer of Luca Guadagnino’s Academy Award-winning Call Me By Your Name, executive producer of Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods with Tessa Thompson and Lily James and writer/producer of Tom Dolby’s The Artist’s Wife with Lena Olin and Bruce Dern.
Lifelong fans both, we’ll be going through Madonna’s entire studio album catalog (and a few side trips to accommodate the breadth of her work) discussing each song, track by track. What we like about it, what we don’t, what it meant to each of us at the time of release and what it means to us now. So, let’s kick off at the beginning with her eponymous first album, Madonna. We hope you enjoy.
AN: So “Lucky Star” is the first Madonna song I ever heard. I was seven years old, living in Canada and saw the video on MuchMusic. I think within days, all the Olivia Newton-John posters were replaced and I had a new obsession. I still am amazed at how that relatively simple song and video communicated a whole world to me.
EA: There’s such a simplicity to “Lucky Star,” as are most songs from Madonna’s eponymous album, that has these leisurely tempo that kind of lulls you into the album with the type of come hither flirtation that became such a brand for her.
EA: An all-time classic. Her first top 10 hit, a great music video (those neon socks and pumps!) and one of my earliest memories of her. This made me go out and buy as much neon, black and rubber bracelets that I could get my hand on as a pre-teen.
AN: Oh, absolutely. The “Borderline” video really defined her in so many ways. Also, I’m a big fan of Madonna’s ballads. Unlike most Madonna fans, I want nothing more than a ballads album from her. People say she started out as a dance artist, and she obviously did. But “Borderline” established right away that she was going to deliver ballads of profound depth as well. Side note: Why does Spotify not have the original album mixes for this and so many other songs on the albums? It drives me cra-a-a-a-zy (to quote Madame X). Anyway, it’s a perfect song.
AN: “Burning Up” is just a classic Madonna song to me. Up there with her best. When she says, “I Have No Shame,” it feels like a mission statement. In my novel LIKE A LOVE STORY (shameless plug), I have a gay mentor figure who writes notecards about queer culture and history. In the notecard for Madonna, he says “the opposite of shame is Madonna,” and to me that’s always been the biggest part of her appeal to the queer community. She dared to tell people she wasn’t ashamed of her sexuality, and inspired others not to be ashamed. Not long after “Burning Up,” those nude photos of her came out, and instead of letting people shame her, she shrugged it off. So yeah, to me this is classic M, and her singing “I Have No Shame” remains so powerful all these years later. Maybe that’s why RuPaul’s Drag Race picked this for their Madonna episode recently.
EA: Ain’t no shame in the plug! As you know from that recent Twitter thread, “Burning Up” is top 5 Madonna for me. Taking a page out of Blondie’s book, in the best way possible, it’s barn burner of a song. That guitar! You’re absolutely right about the “I have no shame” lyric, which was such a power move in 1983. It asserted her strength and willpower to not bow to men, to anyone and to not be shamed for doing it – which she was for most of her career anyway. There’s kind of a bookend with “Human Nature” years later as she still had to defend her sexuality and presenting it on her terms and her terms only. I’m obsessed with the music video too, only her, on that road and then taking control at the end. It’s the kind of song that is a major feminist anthem but never gets called one.
EA: Another of this album’s medium tempo tracks that kind of throws you off. It’s not a dance bop, it’s not a ballad. But just thinking about “Take your love and run from me, is this the way love’s supposed to be” articulated syllable by syllable and I can’t help but move my shoulders to each one. It’s assertive, she doesn’t suffer fools and I love that.
AN: I love “I Know It.” It’s a perfect album track. I have so many memories of this song. One of the few home movies I have of my childhood is of me and my cousins dancing to I Know It. It’s so joyful. I have videos of my own kids dancing to Madonna now that feel so similar. “I Know It” is also a beloved song to one of my best friends Jeni (a mutual friend of ours) and I have the best memories of dancing around our apartment to this song as roommates in our early 20s. I feel like this is also a good time to point out that Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone wrote five songs on this album, including “Lucky Star,” “Burning Up” and “I Know it” alone, with no co-writer. Of all the bullshit that gets said about her, maybe nothing irks me more than people saying she’s not a real musician or that she doesn’t write her own music. I’ve been lucky enough to know many of her collaborators and they all say the same thing, which is that she has incredible musical instincts and is involved in every step of the process. If she isn’t a musician, how did she write these timeless classics on her own?
EA: THANK YOU. It’s why this album is so good, she took control, she refused edits. Not because she was ‘difficult’ but because she knew who she was and what she wanted. Something that’s never questioned when it comes to male artists – in any field.
AN: I mean, what can I say about “Holiday”? It’s one of her most enduring songs. It’s not a song I return to that often, but when it comes on with friends, or when I’m dancing with my kids, it’s always so joyful and effortless. It’s also been one of her most rousing live songs. The Blond Ambition tour version is just so perfect. And The Girlie Show version is an epic reinvention of it. Every time I hear the song, I hear her in Truth or Dare, asking Niki and Donna if they can have a holiday. It’s just one of those time capsule songs that takes me right back to a feeling of youth and possibility. I also like it because it speaks to the escapism she offered us. Not a holiday to some tropical destination, but a holiday from a world that honestly was very frightening to most of us back then.
EA: “Holiday” is like Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” It’s so timeless, so perfect in every way and an expression of pure want and joy and possibility. And yes, escapism! I’m not lying when I say I probably listen to this song almost every day. I know it seems crazy but I have multiple mixes for housework, the gym, whatever – and it’s on all of them. It’s such a great stadium song too, I remember the Blond Ambition tour version vividly. It’s the only Jellybean Benitez produced track on the album and it kind of shows; it’s a bit of a departure from most the other tracks, which have that low-fi coolness. It’s crazy that it only charted to #16, right? Like, how?
AN: Well, I think you know I’m a chart geek (shout out to podcast Hit Parade, one of my favorites), and still spend time thinking about chart stats. “Holiday” not being top ten is so wrong, but “Material Girl,” “Frozen,” “La Isla Bonita,” “Hung Up” and so many others not going to the top spot drives me even cr-a-a-a-zier.
EA: Good lord, we could do an ENTIRE conversation about her #2 singles alone.
AN: She holds the record for most #2s, doesn’t she?
EA: She does! 6! She’d have had 18 number 1 songs at this point, and tied with Mariah Carey until this year.
AN: Wow. Well I’ll Remember all those songs that almost made it to the top. And big props to Mariah. What a career.
EA: I see what you did there. I will always Cherish those songs and bow to queen Mariah too.
AN: But let’s not remain Frozen on Holiday. Shall we go to Think of Me?
EA: Come to think of it, yes!
EA: “Think of Me” kicks ass because it lets us into a vulnerable side of Madonna, that she’s let someone fuck with her but ultimately puts her foot down demanding him to “stop wastin’ all my time” and get his shit together. Damn right.
AN: Damn right! Reggie Lucas passed recently, and I feel like this song is a good moment to acknowledge the incredible work he did producing the majority of this album. The sound is still fresh. There’s an immediacy to the way he produces her voice that I love. When she sings, “if you don’t wanna see me walkin’ out the door, you better think of me,” it’s so powerful. She sings it like a demand, like she’s telling us that we’re all gonna be thinking of her for a very long time. It’s a testament to the singles on this album that songs like this weren’t properly released. It sounds like a #2 hit to me!
EA: It’s a really vocal-forward track, too, which makes the lyrics really pop and have impact. Huge props to Reggie Lucas is right, even if Madonna herself had run-ins with him on how the finished product was going to be.
AN: “Physical Attraction” is a thematic sister song to “Burning Up.” For me, the most special part of the song is the speaking part when she says “You’re confusing me, ‘cause I don’t know if you want me, but I know that I want you, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Once again, like in “Burning Up,” she’s telling us on her first album that she’s not ashamed of her desires. It’s like, if you missed it on track three, I’m reminding you that I am not ashamed. It’s so in-your-face in the best way. Also, this is the first time she does the speak-singing thing that would become such an M trademark. I’m thinking of “Rain” and “Words” and “Justify My Love” and “I Don’t Search I Find.” She came to us as a fully formed artist, and though she’s famous for her reinventions, she’s retained her core values and style as well. People are so focused on the physical transformations that they don’t see how true to herself she’s remained.
EA: Absolutely. It’s also another side of “Think of Me,” like that song’s precursor. Another Reggie Lucas banger, too. It’s got that sexy sway, so flirtatious and fun and unabashedly unashamed. It’s a hook-up song with a killer hook. I’m obsessed with the synthesizer in this more than any other track on the album. You can writhe to it. The speak-singing is so key in this and I love that it became such a trademark for her.
AN: One of her best trademarks. I get giddy every time a track features the speak-singing.
EA: I love it when my queen speaks directly to me.
AN: Exactly! There’s an intimacy to it.
EA: I also love that she wasn’t afraid to have LONG songs like this. It’s six and a half minutes long! That’s basically two pop songs for radio rotation.
AN: 100% That’s a nice nod to the disco era that preceded her, when one song could be one whole side of the vinyl.
Let’s close out ‘Madonna’ with one of her most iconic songs…
EA: The album’s last song but her actual first single. This was what started it all and still holds up as one of her most lasting songs ever. The speak-singing. The low tempo sway. Her legendary beginnings at Danceteria in New York City. Her first dance chart hit, which would hail the beginning of a record she still holds today. “Everybody” is a perfect example of Madonna’s inclusivity that transcends gender, race, sexuality. It’s for everybody because it’s about everybody.
AN: Yes to all of this! The inclusivity of the song is essential to who she was and is. I just think of her closing The Girlie Show with it and how emotional and simple that performance was. The jean shorts and white tops. After all the spectacle of that tour, she boiled it down to her core message: dance and sing, get up and do your thing. I love that tour. Second only to Blond Ambition for me. And I love that message. One thing I always loved about M’s relationship to her fans is that she’s telling us to go do our own thing. She doesn’t want people passively worshipping her, she wants us to create our own art, our own change. Also this is the only track produced by Mark Kamins, and when he passed a few years ago, M said, “He believed in me before anyone else did.” He plays such a special role in her rise. (speaking of her rise, I wanna take a moment to shout out my friend Guy Guido’s film Madonna and the Breakfast Club, a really moving look at her early years). I love this song, I’m glad it’s endured the way it has.
EA: I just watched that again a few weeks ago! Really clever and well cast, too. I’ll second that shoutout to Mark Kamins. I love that M has performed this in so many tours. I know she gets tired of most of her old songs but this has really endured and maybe encapsulates her vision of herself and of the world more than any in her 40-year career. She’s stayed true to it, to herself, to her fans in doing so.
MADONNA by the numbers:
- Released July 27, 1983
- Peaked at #8 on Billboard 200 album chart on October 20, 1984
- Length: 40:47
- 5M US/10M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Holiday” (#16), “Lucky Star” (#4), “Borderline” (#10)