Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 8 – ‘MUSIC’ (2000)

AKA the album in which Madonna learns guitar. After the huge success of Ray of Light and its heavy bent on electronica, Music continues that trend with her most electronic and auto-tuned (in a good way) record to date, mostly thanks to producers William Orbit, Mirwais Ahmadzaï and often mixes in Madonna herself strumming guitar. It works spectacularly well on ‘Don’t Tell Me’ and ‘Gone,’ the former of which saw Madonna reinventing herself as a cowgirl.

The album was created in between her relationships with Carlos Leon, the father of her first child, Lourdes, and Guy Ritchie, the father of her second child, Rocco. There is a fascinating push-and-pull at work with songs that are cynical about love and self-worth (‘Nobody’s Perfect’) to ones that celebrate finding it (‘I Deserve It’). The opening title track, her last #1 song, starts off with a bump and bass meets techno flair and that follows through into ‘Impressive Instant’ and ‘Runaway Lover’ and was one of her catchiest songs since ‘Holiday.’ One of the more elusive yet fascinating tracks is ‘Paradise (Not for Me).’ It’s Madonna’s most experimental since ‘Bedtime Story,’ and is more spoken than sung and vocoded to within an inch of her life. But the arrangement is like this wild hybrid of Giorgio Moroder and Angelo Badalamenti that is pretty intoxicating.

The album was also a return to #1 for her. After a decade of albums being stopped from the top spot, Music was a triumphant reclaiming and also gave her the last #1 song of her career…so far.

MUSIC

AN: There’s something that feels very right about this being Madonna’s lead single of the new millennium. The world had started to change drastically. People were carrying cell phones. Technology was everywhere. Inspired by Madonna’s own early years, a new generation of pop stars, most importantly Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, were having the kind of mass hysteria moment Madonna herself enjoyed early in her career. It would have been easy for Madonna to go backward in this moment, to release something that would remind everyone that she was the original. But instead, she heads to the future, giving a song with an immense pop hook that is produced in a strange, challenging way. And of course, it got her back where she belonged, at #1. I make no secret of the fact that Mirwais is my favorite of all Madonna’s collaborators. I think he brings out the side of her I like best: the in-your-face risk taker. Also, he understands that the interplay between the real and the artificial is an important part of Madonna’s work, and also about dance music and queer music in general. I’m about halfway through an absolutely brilliant new book called Glitter Up The Dark by Sasha Geffen. It’s a book that looks at how music often transcends gender, allowing for a fascinating history of queer expression. The book looks at a variety of figures from The Beatles to Klaus Nomi to Bowie to Prince. One of my favorite aspects of the book so far is the discussion of the liberating impact of synthesizers on queer music. In discussing the way the synthesizer, and disco in general, challenged the rock ‘n’ roll assumption that music needs to be “real” to be good, the book dives into the way vocals change in a synthesized world: “If nothing in the song emanates from a body, is the voice still real? Does it come from a person with a gendered body, or has it been untethered, like the synthesizer, from traditional systems of meaning?” In Music, Madonna and Mirwais manipulate her voice to sound androgynous in the beginning, which does make the song feel like it’s about something transcendent. It’s about music as a way to come together with others, and also come together within ourselves, uniting all the disparate parts of us. On a lighter note, I love that she has a #1 song with the word bourgeoisie in the chorus. I mean, who else? Plus she sings the word with such force in Evita that it brings me back to that movie. Anyway, it’s an anthem to me, and I think it’s one of her strongest singles and reinventions.

EA: It’s reinvention time once again! Again, so much happened for Madonna between her last album, Ray of Light, and Music. A new relationship, with Guy Ritchie, that would result in another child, Rocco. While the album seems like a big move from her last it’s a perfect jump going from William Orbit’s electronica to Mirwais Ahmadzaï’s trip-hop version of it. Even though there are personal songs on this record, it’s such a return to spunky and funky bops. “Music” as a title for the album and lead single is a scream to me. It’s so basic, but intentionally so, because we’ve got so many styles and elements at play from country to rock to dance and pop. A great return to #1 where, as you said, she belongs. It’s her spot, it’s her throne and “Music” the single is yet another in her anthems of togetherness.

IMPRESSIVE INSTANT

EA: Ooh do I love this song. This is where she really started experimenting with autotune not as a way to artificially improve her voice but to achieve spacy, tripped out vocals. It reminds of Dee-Lite in a big way, in the best way. “I’m in a trance…” also harks to her continued exploration of religious themes, be them new age or anything else. “I like to singy, singy, singy, Like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy” is still one of her goofiest and most fun lyrics. She’s loose and having FUN here.

AN: Obsessed. I won’t repeat myself but everything I said about “Music” holds here in terms of how Madonna and Mirwais manipulate her vocals to take us to some transcendent world that doesn’t have the same boundaries the real world has. This can be read as Madonna trying to find connection in a computerized world, but it’s also so much FUN, as you say. After the spiritual explorations of Ray of Light, this song tells us early in the album that she isn’t taking herself as seriously as the rest of the world took her for a beat there. And thank God for that. It’s like “Skin” if “Skin” were an over-the-top apocalyptic musical number. It’s strange. It’s sexy. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s art. All of which makes it a quintessential Madonna song. And I agree, the “singy singy singy on a wingy wingy wingy” bridge is iconic.

RUNAWAY LOVER

AN: We get so few tracks like this in the latter half of Madonna’s career. Pure fun. It reminds me of “Pretender” from “Like a Virgin.” With different production, it could also be right out of True Blue. It also could be a Kylie Minogue song, which feels right since this is the era when Madonna wore that “Kylie Minogue” T-shirt and made us all swoon with dreams of a duet. When is that happening? On a side note, word is Kylie is gonna be working with Mirwais on her next album, which is fascinating if true. I wonder…

EA: I was just thinking of that Kylie Minogue moment. Legends supporting legends. I get what you mean about feeling like Pretender or that era. It’s like a juiced up version but there’s something both missing and added. Even songs like “Runaway Lover,” detailing a lousy relationship, doesn’t feel sour. Since she’s in a relationship that’s going to bear her a child, she’s feeling really emboldened. There is a confidence in her calling out the relationship in this song and combined with the same uptempo dance-trance that is the album’s theme it’s triumphant.

I DESERVE IT

EA: Oh God this song. Part of revisiting these albums is that we have 20/20 vision on everything that’s happened since, which gives them sometimes a new meaning. “I Deserve It” is so fucking good. She’s never…allowed herself this kind of self appreciation before and it’s coming from feeling like she’s in THE relationship of her present and future. It brings in her guitar work, it’s a gorgeous ballad that at the time was pure joy and looking forward (“not running from the past” “I have no regrets”) even though we know what lies ahead.

AN: I agree with everything you said. It’s gorgeous. Also, what I love about Madonna’s interpretation of country on this album is that it’s not literal. She draws on country songwriting here, but then she adds the synth production to it which elevates the song into something strange and emotional and uniquely her. This song feels like it could belong on Kacey Musgraves’ beautiful Golden Hour album, doesn’t it? Also, for those who haven’t heard it, there’s a cover version by Dean & Britta that is one of the best Madonna covers I’ve ever heard. It’s simple, and underlines how well-written the song is.

EA: Either that or Kylie’s country album! I’m freaking out that I haven’t heard this cover though and I will rectify that immediately after this conversation.

AMAZING

AN: I looooved Kylie’s country album. Loved. Okay, onto “Amazing.” I do love this song a lot, but I understand why Madonna fought to stop the record label from releasing it as the fourth single because she thought it sounded too similar to “Beautiful Stranger.” It does share a lot with that song, but I think this song has something unique of its own to offer. It presents itself as a pure pop love song, almost like a sequel to True Blue, but a closer look at the lyrics reveals a real darkness underneath. I think this album does a great job of presenting one way, with darker layers revealed upon closer listens.

EA: I think she was right to stop it from being released as a single but she should have stopped herself from recording it in the first place. I really dislike “Beautiful Stranger” (and her “American Pie” cover), which I know will incur me the wrath of many people but I just do not get into her 60s vibe moments at all. It feels too reductive for her.

NOBODY’S PERFECT

EA: Gorgeous. Nearly perfect. This gave us such a crystal ball insight to what American Life was going to be and we didn’t even know it. It does what some of her great songs do: use a distorted sound to work through intense, personal lyrics. It throws us off, in the best way. It also feels like…four different songs, each progressing into something new and fresh. I love her own thoughts on vocal distortion here: “At first, I was mildly freaked out. It sounded so raw. But then I got into the intimacy of how the vocal was presented.” I’m also obsessed with “Mmm mmm yeahhh.”

AN: Where, glad we agree on this one after you called the last one reductive! (a loaded word in the Madonna universe, as we all know). Madonna famously hates to apologize. We had a great discussion about “Human Nature” as her brilliant response to all that Erotica / Sex backlash. But just because she won’t apologize for being a badass revolutionary sexual provocateur, doesn’t mean she won’t admit her flaws. I love this song because it’s one of her most emotionally naked. One of the most moving times a woman who has publicly sought perfection is telling us she isn’t perfect. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, which I think is meant to underline the point. “Nobody’s perfect.” “I’m doing my best.” The thing I love about Madonna choosing to sing about her flaws in this robotic voice is that it underlines the idea that sometimes, the artifice can actually feel more real than what we traditionally think of as “organic.” This song feels like a middle finger to anyone who thinks that an emotionally naked ballad needs to sound a certain way. It reminds me of my favorite scene from any Almodovar film, when Agrado in All About My Mother says, “You are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Amen.

EA: Oh I don’t use reductive lightly or unknowingly. Look it up. ☕️?

DON’T TELL ME

AN: We don’t talk enough about Madonna and her brother-in-law Joe Henry, who has written such beautiful songs with her. I know Madonna fans long for Madonna to write with Patrick Leonard again, but I dream of a whole album co-written with Joe, who clearly understands her deeply (Falling Free!!!). This is such a new take on a classic Madonna song. The message is the same as so many of her other songs – “Over and Over” comes to mind – but the sound and the surreal lyrics feel new. Plus the video is stunning, with choreography that I still worship. And she quoted the song on Madame X, which makes it feel even more important in her canon.

EA: Right? (Omg Falling Free, I can’t wait to get there). One of her best songs, should have been #1, and videos. It’s almost Brokeback before Brokeback. I love the opening that feels like it’s going to be full county and then stops, backs up and says ‘wait a minute, this is my version of country.’ The mash-up of this and “We Can’t Stop” with Miley Cyrus on MTV Unplugged (remember that show?) is also a ton of fun. But “Don’t Tell Me” is the perfect example of what this album is trying to do and does so successfully.

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE FOR A GIRL

EA: This is an all-timer for me. One of my absolute favorites. Madonna has always given us feminist anthems but they’re usually uptempo empowerment numbers like Express Yourself. This digs so much deeper. The opening spoken word sample from Charlotte Gainsbourg (from the 1993 film The Cement Garden) tells you everything right off the bat. I love that she managed to even bring back the legendary controversy of her “Justify My Love” video by getting the video for this (directed by Ritchie) banned from MTV the day it debuted only to turn it into a best-selling DVD release. ICON. To this day, “Hair that twirls on fingertips so gently, Hands that rest on jutting hips repenting” is still my favorite Madonna lyric of all time. All time.

AN: Wow. All time. I love that. I wish more people talked about this one. From the Charlotte Gainsbourg opening (anyone reading should seek out both her films and her music, which is stunning, her album Rest is just a wow album) to the heartbreaking lyrics and lush production, it’s a standout Madonna song. I’m not sure what went wrong for it commercially. Maybe it was third-single fatigue, or maybe it was the violent video set to a remix of the song that I love but that completely wipes out the song’s melodies. I see your point about the video being banned bringing back the “Justify My Love” days, but I wish we had also gotten a video to the album version, personally. I just think the song deserved that.

EA: It’s not even a “violent” video like so many others have been. It was such a weird controversy. I agree that, as much as I love the video mix, an official video of the album version is what it deserved. The remix changes so much of the depth of it.

PARADISE (NOT FOR ME)

AN: One of my favorite Madonna songs of all time. All time. I want to live inside it. I hear it in my head all the time, like a haunting refrain. The lyrics are intimate and eerie at the same time. The idea of not remembering youth, of wanting to survive through the gaze and memory of others, is so resonant. It feels in some ways like the song that would lead us most directly to American Life in its musical experimentation, and in the lyrics which feel like a precursor to “I’m So Stupid.” The French verse is a personal favorite. I spent a lot of my childhood in France, and am a massive, massive fan of French music (see: my earlier Charlotte Gainsbourg shout-out). Madonna is working with a French producer here, and adding that verse feels like an homage both to some of the more avant-garde things happening in French pop (Mylene Farmer and Air come to mind), but also to some of the more classic French chanson songwriting that she plays with here (Serge Gainsbourg, Piaf come to mind). I recently saw a stunning film called The Color of Pomegranates directed by Sergei Parajanov, and I kept hearing the song over it. The film, like the song, are poetry. Of all her songs that didn’t get a video, I think this is the one I most want one for. I’m glad it’s been performed live though, beautifully.

EA: Yes, it’s definitely an “I’m So Stupid” precursor and the French elements give us part of her worldly world view. We’ve talked a lot about how much we love her speak-singing and this song is virtually ALL speak-singing. There’s almost a slam poetry feel to it. It’s extremely avant-garde, it’s musically gorgeous and vocally heartbreaking. It’s also the longest song on the (very short) album by a significant margin. I constantly imagine what a short film of this would have been like.

GONE

EA: “Turn to stone. Lose my faith. I’ll be gone before it happens.” What an album closer! The simplest song on the album, often barely more than a guitar strum, allowing her vocals to be so forward. But it’s the lyrics that really push this to greatness. “Selling out is not my thing” and it never has been. A leader and never a follower, “Gone” is a perfect example of who she is as an artist (she’s even her own backing vocalist here) but it also, for me, has a feel of isolation. When you’re on top you’re there alone. Even in her relationship and with Rocco on the way, there is a sense of loneliness that feels like a deep cut.

AN: That interpretation made me very emotional because it resonates. God I love this song. From Like a Prayer onward, Madonna has always delivered a closing song that just encapsulates what she wants to say. And now she begins the closing song with “selling out is not my thing.” Whew. It’s the Madonna statement I wanted at the time, and she certainly delivered on this message with her next two albums. The chorus feels like a new statement of purpose, not about blind or even blond ambition, but about never losing one’s sense of faith or purpose. You could chart Madonna’s growth based on her closing tracks alone. This album is a rush. It passes by something, Madonna letting the music take her where she wants to go, and then before you know it she’s gone. It’s masterful.

MUSIC by the numbers

  • Released on September 18, 2000
  • Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart October 7, 2000
  • Length: 44:40
  • 3M US / 11M worldwide
  • Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Music” (#1), “Don’t Tell Me (#4), “What It Feels Like For a Girl” (#23)
  • Grammy nominations: Record of the Year (“Music”), Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (“Music”), Best Short Form Music Video (“Don’t Tell Me”), Best Recording Package

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 1 – ‘MADONNA’ (1983)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 2 – ‘LIKE A VIRGIN’ (1984)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 3 – ‘TRUE BLUE’ (1986)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 4 – ‘LIKE A PRAYER’ (1989)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 5 – ‘EROTICA’ (1992)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 6 – ‘BEDTIME STORIES’

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 7 – ‘RAY OF LIGHT’

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