Welcome to episode 3 of Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi. In just her third album in as many years, Madonna established herself as the biggest female pop star of the decade with True Blue. Finally allowed to produce her own album, and having co-written every song, Madonna stormed the charts and our hearts with legendary ballads and certified bops and her most personal record to date.
Building on the strength of Like a Virgin, True Blue found Madonna with her best selling album (topping charts in 28 countries) and with the most Top 5 singles of her career (including three #1s). After finding ballad success with the #1 Crazy For You in 1985 (from the film Vision Quest), the first single from True Blue, Live to Tell (also featured in the film At Close Range, starring Penn) was a massive success. With stripped down vocals and a video of her conservatively dressed and sans most makeup, it was an incredible departure for Madonna and a great example of how she is always able to be one step ahead of people thinking they know who she is.
It was the second single, Papa Don’t Preach, about teenage pregnancy, that turned that back around and established the beginning of Madonna’s courtship with religious controversy. It was a place she’s found residency in all decades of her career. The title single, an homage to 60s girl groups is often written off as too much of a trifle in the face of songs on the album dealing with meatier issues but it’s that type of flight of fancy that keeps the album from being too issue-heavy.
It was the world’s best-selling album in 1986 as well as the best-selling album of the 1980s by a female artist and True Blue still stands as the third most successful of Madonna’s career.
AN: Here we go. Let’s talk about one of Madonna’s most iconic albums, and the one with the best album cover. Thank you Herb Ritts. I love you. I personally consider this the first single from the album, even though Live to Tell was released before. At the time, Live to Tell felt like a soundtrack cut, and this very much felt like the beginning of a new era. Everything about the song felt like a challenge to Madonna fans, especially young ones like me who were expecting more Material Girl and Like a Virgin. The tone, the subject matter, the new haircut. I remember it taking me a moment to accept the new Madonna at the time. I wasn’t sure I wanted my fantasy diva singing about pregnancy. I was just shy of ten when this was released, and Madonna definitely pushed my consciousness in new directions with this song which is obviously why I love it now. I especially love the music video. I think it’s one of her most powerful statements, and when I imagine Madonna’s father, I still picture some melded version of Danny Aiello in this video and Silvio Ciccone in Truth or Dare. I also love how Madonna used this song in the Madame X tour, and obviously the song and its video are fresh in my mind thanks to the way Gigi Goode slayed on Madonna: The Rusical.
EA: If Like a Virgin was Madonna’s breakthrough album, True Blue was her first landmark album. Her first album she produced/co-produced. First album where she was a writer/co-writer on every song. This was her first real chance to be in as much charge as her previous songs alluded her to being and it was a watershed moment. It was also the first (of many) of her physical appearance changes and reinventions. As a song, Papa Don’t Preach was an accidental controversy. Madonna was obviously never shy of controversy, and more often than not, poked the bear. But the Catholic Church weighed in heavily against her here (remember that priest and nuns making that ‘Madonna Don’t Preach’ video?) despite the fact that she’s singing about a young girl keeping her damn baby! You’d think the church would have at least given her that. Fun story: this came out when I was 15 and deep into my obsession with Madonna. I bought two small teddy bears and cut and sewed Material Girl and Papa Don’t Preach outfits for them, dressed them up and sent them to Sire Records for her birthday. Yeah, I was that girl.
AN: STOP IT. If you have a photo of those teddy bears, it needs to be included in this piece. I do remember the Madonna Don’t Preach video. But speaking of outfits, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the power of the ITALIANS DO IT BETTER T-shirt. Such a statement, and I’ve been known to say IRANIANS DO IT BETTER in response to it, because we Leos are a proud species.
EA: I wish I did! Sadly, I have very little from my early years anymore. As a part Italian, that shirt was ICONIC and unforgettable. I love that she’s stuck with the song, too, having just performed it on her Madame X tour.
EA: Isn’t it wild that this was originally written as a rock song for Cyndi Lauper? I think people would be surprised at how many songs originated with other artists. I love that Madonna and Patrick Leonard got their hands on it and turned it into one of her best dance songs ever and her fifth #1. I was obsessed with the music video, not because it was racy or sexually charged but because I wanted to be that kid.
AN: We all wanted to be that kid. He’s an icon. I’m obsessed in every way with everything about this song. The lyrics, the passionate vocals, the absolutely brilliant music video. Mondino is one of her great collaborators. He gets her. I think this one of the most Madonna songs in her catalogue which does make the Cyndi Lauper thing mystifying (I love Cyndi) because the song just feels like a Madonna manifesto. I mean, are there any lyrics that sum our queen up more than “I’ve had to work much harder than this for something I want. Don’t try to resist me.” There’s a fantastic interview with the co-writer of this song, Peter Rafelson on Billboard’s Chart Beat podcast. I won’t summarize it for people, because the whole interview is a RIDE, but every Madonna fan should hear it. Instead, I’ll tell one of my favorite personal stories about this song. When my kids were about six years old, this was one of their favorite songs. One day I dropped them off at their summer day camp, and they grabbed a microphone and started singing it. One by one, all the other kids started singing it. A sea of six-year-olds singing Open Your Heart decades after its release. I turned to the camp counselor and commented on how amazing it was that kids knew the song, and the counselor rolled her eyes and said, “It’s because your kids sing it every day.” I mean!
EA: Shut up. I love this so much. I have a summer camp counselor story like that but not Madonna. I lead a bunch of kids under 10 into a lip sync performance of Little Red Corvette for their parents at the season end talent show. How have our lives been so remotely linked for so long?
AN: You’re bringing such evocative imagery to this conversation. The teddy bears. The Little Red Corvette sing-a-long. Someone needs to make an indie film about your childhood.
EA: If only I had an indie screenwriter and producer for that…
AN: White Heat is a big hit in our home. The kids love it, and I always loved it. She doubles down on her love of Old Hollywood here, expanding from the Marilyn of Material Girl into an ode to James Cagney (also, the glove striptease in the Open Your Heart video is such a great Rita Hayworth moment). I also love that she opens the song with a scene from the movie, which brings to mind what she would do many years later on What It Feels Like For A Girl with Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s something about her vocal delivery here that really moves me, the grit and passion. And the “I don’t want to live out your fantasy” lyric feels like a major turning point for her. I feel like this is the album where Madonna felt completely empowered to push her audience in new and challenging directions, and stating that she’s not here to live out anyone else’s fantasy of her is a theme that will come up again and again in her career. At the Madame X tour date I got to attend, she went on a hilarious rant about how anytime her fans hate something (the grills!), she’ll just do it more. That sense of rebellion is woven into her, and it’s so evident here. And I love her for it. Keep rejecting our fantasies, M.
EA: I’ve always struggled with this song and I’m not even sure why sometimes. Musically, it sounds like it could have been a cut from Desperately Seeking Susan or Who’s That Girl, which makes sense as this time period is right in between them both. I love her obsession with old Hollywood too (this isn’t even the only song on this album that dabbles in that) but I’ve just never gotten into it. I’ve tried! I definitely respect her pushing against her fans on things they don’t like though. I’ll take that over blatant fan service any day.
AN: It’s one of the things that distinguishes her from most other pop artists. And I agree there is something very Who’s That Girl soundtrack about this, which, for me at least, is wonderful.
EA: I love the Who’s That Girl soundtrack, I can’t wait until we dive into that bonus episode.
EA: Best ballad of her career, full stop. I’m glad this was the first single from True Blue because she goes from Boy Toy to Country Girl in arguably the most shocking image makeover of her career. This is when she truly began making people stay on their toes, critics and fans alike. I love how ingrained this song, and this album, is with her marriage to Sean Penn at the time. Some of Madonna’s best work has come during or from her relationships or life-changing events and for an artist to allow us in like that is such an act of vulnerability. I don’t think she ever gets enough credit for her vulnerability in her work and Live To Tell was such a legacy moment for her. Perfect arrangement, perfect vocals. It’s flawless.
AN: I agree. Flawless. One of my favorite Madonna songs. I always loved it, but the longer I live with it, the more it moves me. It plays a very important role in my novel LIKE A LOVE STORY, which tells the story of three teenagers and their parents and mentors coping with the HIV / AIDS crisis in late ‘80s and early ‘90s New York City. The characters have a deep experience with the song as Madonna sings it at the Blond Ambition tour. I know the song isn’t meant to be about gay men and the AIDS crisis, but given the way the crisis touched Madonna, and the bravery she showed in educating people and fighting stigma, I’ve always felt that many of her lyrics may have been influenced by the trauma she and her community were living through. When she sings about wanting to live to tell the secret she hides, it just captures how I felt for so much of my life. Like I may not live to come out of the closet, to speak my mind, to live freely. And when she sings some of my favorite Madonna lyrics of all time – If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far. How would they hear the beating of my heart? Will it grow cold, the secret that I hide? Will I grow old? How will they hear? When will they learn? How will they know? – I can’t help but think of the desire I had to run away and reinvent myself as a young man, and the feeling that I may never grow old because of other people’s judgment. This song just means a lot to me. It captures the fear, the shame, and also the resilience. Because of course, Madonna lives to tell. She is unafraid, and she gave us the gift of bravery. Is this making any sense? I don’t know, this might mean something different to others. Also, that last lyric in the bridge, “Will I grow old?” moves me so deeply because I think of Madonna’s own relationship to mortality given her mother’s death at a young age. I could go on and on and on about Live to Tell, but seriously, this is one of her greatest achievements as a songwriter and vocalist.
EA: You’re so right about the impact of ‘wanting to live to tell the secret’ as it was and is for the LGBTQ+ community. One of her greatest strengths as a songwriter and humanitarian is her ability to personalize and universalize her songs. I love how highlighted this is in your book, it really highlights how inclusive her lyrics often are, and were from the beginnings of her career.
AN: It’s a testament to the strength of this album that Where’s The Party wasn’t a single. It’s such a single! It’s just effortless fun. It’s so joyful. I don’t have a lot to say about it other than it gets the party started anytime it plays, and in alternate universe, it could’ve been another major hit for her. The “couldn’t wait to get older” verse brings to mind some of the themes she would explore soon enough with more depth in what might be my favorite Madonna song, Keep It Together.
EA: I think if she hadn’t released so many singles this absolutely would have been one. There are fewer album track dance songs in her oeuvre that represent the ‘let’s just have some damn fun’ part of her career. I love that for her it’s about being slogged down by press junkets while everyone around her gets to party. It’s like, when she’s finally able to break loose everyone else has already done it. But at the same time it’s about anyone in their 9-5 waiting for weekend to break loose. Plus the ‘ha ha ha ha ha ha’ near the end is so fun.
EA: Not really a favorite of mine. I know you connect with the 50s and 60s inspirations of some of her songs on here and on Like a Virgin but it never clicked with me in the same way as some of her other Motown-inspired songs. I remember the ‘Make My Video’ contest for this back in the day though. It was a fun example of how people interpreted the lyrics.
AN: So we really disagree on this one, ‘cause it’s one of my favorite Madonna songs. I love the romance of this song. It’s a very meaningful song in my relationship to my husband too. I put it on the first mix I ever made him, and years later, we had one of our best friends sing it at our wedding for the family dance. Seeing my Iranian family, who I felt for so long wouldn’t accept my sexuality, dancing and singing along to True Blue at my wedding was unbelievably beautiful. A memory I’ll Cherish forever. And yes, I remember that video contest! Did your teddy bears enter? I wish we could see all the entries now. I bet they’re so much fun. As for the official video, while it’s not one of my favorites, I am forever in love with the Madonna / Mazar friendship.
EA: See, this is why this conversation is so fun. My heart just exploded hearing this and it’s a testament to her impact and longevity. Madonna/Mazar forever! One thing I really do love about the song is that it’s another great example of turning things on their head by giving us such a wholesome throwback. I feel like a broken record but she was doing full 180s before anyone.
AN: A perfect pop song as far as I’m concerned and one of her most enduring hits (go look at YouTube and Spotify, this has kept people’s attention more than so many of her higher-charting singles). It unites people. And it slays live. The choreography in The Girlie Show version is some of her best. I love doing cardio as I watch that number. Later, she would reinvent the song so brilliantly in tour after tour. The Confessions version is especially joyful and effective. I think one of the things I love most about this song is how much she herself clearly loves it. She always performs it with a smile, and when the queen is happy, I’m happy.
EA: You’re absolutely right, this is by far one of her most enduring and popular songs. Those YouTube numbers are wild. I know you know that I’m kinda meh on La Isla Bonita, and I’m sure to lose fans or friends here for it, I’ve just never been into her Spanish-influenced songs and I don’t like the tempo or the register of her voice here. That’s all on me. I do, however, like the reinventions of it from tour to tour. Let the hate mail ensue, I can take it.
AN: You need to be taught a Spanish Lesson.
EA: I do! I carry this shame on my shoulders. I did love its inclusion in the “Fado” section of the Madame X tour, I thought that was fabulous.
AN: What I would have given for a fado rendition of Jimmy Jimmy though.
EA: Oof. I love James Dean and my fascination for him probably reached its zenith at around this time for me. But this is not it. Why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why, oh why indeed.
AN: You know, I love it. But we’ve established I love her whole ‘50s fascination. It’s the throwaway song of the album, but as a throwaway, it’s still a lot of fun. As a kid who watched Grease on a loop back in the ‘80s, this song fed my Pink Ladies fantasies. I can see them all singing it in Grease 3 maybe, where a James Dean lookalike starts attending Rydell High. That said, I feel like Spotlight or Supernatural could’ve taken this slot on the album. Both feel very True Blue and both are not known well enough.
EA: Oh it’s very True Blue but yeah, Spotlight would have been great here. I love that mention Grease (one of my all-time favorite movies) since my friend just dug up a photo of me and her daughter (my goddaughter) dressed up as Danny and Sandy for a Grease singalong.
AN: Grease!! I did a Grease performance at a book festival with other authors. I was Sandy, obviously. Ok, the final song. I feel like this is Madonna’s dancey version of a ‘60s protest song. She would explore that more successfully on American Life, which to me is her greatest album and very much Madonna’s version of a folk protest album. But I do love this song, and especially love the Live Aid rendition of it. That was a perfect setting for it. And while you know I’m a sucker for Madonna ballads, one thing I appreciate about this song is that it takes on big issues to a dance beat. Not every song about the world’s problems needs to be slow, as Madonna will prove many times in her career.
EA: This was really her first venture into world problem/protest songs but she definitely puts her spin on them by making it an absolute BOP. Even if the lyrics are a bit simplistic, it makes the message get through. It makes sense that she made it a part of her Live Aid set, it was the perfect stage for it. I love it as an album closer, too, and in a weird way it encapsulates parts of so many True Blue songs into a single final piece.
AN: Agreed. And it’s her second song with “Love” in the title after the Love Don’t Live Here Anymore cover, and there would be so many Love masterpieces to come, like Love Profusion and Living for Love and Love Tried To Welcome Me. Someone should make a mix.
EA: Or another greatest hits album. She can call it Like a Love Story. With proper credit, of course.
AN: That is my favorite idea ever. I’ll write the liner notes, of course. Je suis pret, Madonna. Vous ete prete aussi?
EA: Por supuesto, Abdi, sería un placer.
AN: Well, well, maybe you don’t need a Spanish Lesson after all. This was as fun as the album itself. Thank you!
EA: The best!! I already can’t wait to do more!
TRUE BLUE by the numbers
- Released June 30, 1986
- Hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart on August 16, 1986
- Length: 40:25
- 7M US / 25M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Live to Tell” (#1), “Papa Don’t Preach” (#1), “True Blue” (#3), “Open Your Heart” (#1), “La Isla Bonita” (#4)
- Grammy nominations: “Papa Don’t Preach” (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female)