If there is one year in music that I wish I could have been alive and aware during its tenure is 1983. That was when Prince rode in with his "Little Red Corvette". When Flashdance became the first "music video movie". The British were a-coming with their intoxicating New Wave. Shannon ushered in Freestyle with "Let The Music Play", and lest we forget, Michael Jackson gave us quite a 'thrill' as Thriller continued to climb the charts and remodeled the Soul music framework and its constituents for decades to (wearily) imitate later on. And in the middle of all these robust pop culture and sound changes that I wish to have witnessed is Madonna elbowing her way in, shouting at the top of her lungs as she commenced her arrival and brought in a mystique and panache that would pose rival, disdain, and success for years to come.
In her early years, Madonna had been an New York City club darling, bouncing from band to band, and hanging out with the underground chic set of budding legends and wannabes in the making. She sung, danced, modeled, and acted, but for the most part she wanted to be a star --- and as she told Dick Clark during her first appearance on American Bandstand in 1983 --- she wanted to "conquer the world". It was only a matter of minutes till Madonna walked her talk and tuned out the nay-sayers as she completely took over the decade, reestablishing the ideal of the modern female chanteuse for a new generation to follow suit, and kicking the door open even wider with her self-titled debut album.
To be blunt, I find Madonna to be an essential Pop album and one of the best debut albums of all-time. I don't care what you tell me. I'm not hearing you tell me that their aren't any deep meanings here. That Madonna released far better albums. That Madonna has a helium high voice. That things sound incredibly dated. That "I Know It" and "Jimmy Jimmy" are Mr. and Mrs. Worst Madonna Songs Ever (who later went on to have an ugly baby called "Give Me All Your Loving"). That Madonna was this n' that and a that n' this.
No. As if. La la la. Shut up.
What I hear on Madonna every time I spin it (which is quite often; it's my most played Madonna album) I hear a woman hungry to be somebody. I'm hearing an album that double dips in several varying genres with ease. I'm hearing the beginning of the 1980's. I'm hearing about fifty Pop albums that came out years later. I'm hearing pure unabashed euphoria and sunshine and most importantly, I'm hearing Madonna, herself, as assertive and charismatic as she always is, on eight tracks that are filled with power, style, and groove, and it's a delicious shock from the start. Young, inexperienced, and a quite wayward shock it is, but Madonna had a mission, a drive, and it was going somewhere, just devoid of swirling violins and polyester of it's Disco roots, bridging elements of a bygone genre and soulful renderings into a kinetic formula that nobody would think a girl from middle class Detroit would do.
Starting the show, the magnetic shimmering synth opening of "Lucky Star" parts the album open like a diamond curtain, allowing us to enter into an electrifying and condensed assemblage of chunky synths and clacking bass lines as it darts into crackling tempo changes. It's easily one of the great 80's synth jams as it chugs away with Madonna exuding confidence at every turn and making it easy to hear why it was the first top 5 she obtained.
"Borderline" then comes in cooing doo-wop sweet and feisty and is arguably the best song here. A complete charmer it is as it easily has Madonna staying true to pop melodies, but allows her to cross over into a more soulful terrain with ease. This is thanks to Mtume's Reggie Lucas, who I should mention is also at the core of how Madonna sounds as he wrote and produced "Borderline" as well as co-wrote and produced six out of eight tracks present on Madonna. While he and Madonna had disagreements that led to his departure from the project before its release and had Madonna usher in John "Jellybean" Benitez to remix and spruce up the original demos, Lucas' production and former direction placed Madonna at an advantage to where she would be accessible to all markets, especially the R&B market. "Borderline" is a prime example of this advantage as in all of its sugary synth bounce it is the one song that non-Madonna fans can easily slip into. Friends that have sneered at pop, friends who were into death metal, hardcore rap, and are the hipsterly of the hippest rock scene love "Borderline" no matter what. It's the one Madonna song they 'admit' to liking.
Switching gears "Burning Up" is smutty and assertive, as its downright shameless with a chugging beat and grinding rock guitars. She is starving on this track, hinting at the female empowered sexual tones that would crop up in later years, but this time it's not overblown, but is still plain fun and rowdy. Meow.
Things go back to breezy with "Holiday", the poppiest of the numbers on Madonna, and another classic in her cannon. Originally, it was written by members of funk group, Pure Energy, who had in mind for (get this) Phyllis Hyman and Mary Wilson of The Supremes to sing it. Luckily, they passed on it, making way for it be one of Madonna's signature cuts with a nice piano solo in its mix of synth jubilation that has a pre-House feel to it in all of its jingle-jangle. I feel to properly experience this song I need to be on a speed boat in Tahiti with a Mai Tai in my hand. Ah, bliss.
Madonna is with filler...but 'filler' is such a strong word so I'll say that it has three perfectly capable non-singles that flesh out the album quite well. "I Know It" has been the song that sticks out sore, as it doesn't have a slick groove as all the others, but it bounces around on a sort of lite-New Wave beat, and even in its marginal annoyance, it's still fun to sing to. "Think Of Me" is the good kind of Disco leftovers as its not charred or stale as it jumps around on squishy synths and a sax solo that is just plain magical and campy. As for "Physical Attraction" I feel that criminal charges should be brought upon the person who didn't think to release it as a single as its seven minutes in pure hypnotic synth heaven and whoo is it steamy. Once again, Reggie Lucas provided Madonna with a high in soul protein number that easily genre bends and complimented her uninhibited repertoire.
So whether you believe she was/is a ballsy go-getter or someone who invited the party to her (or both) you have to admit that from the very beginning Madonna had the confidence and drive to be a lighting bolt in the Pop market, in music, in popular culture. All of that strife, push, and tenacity froths up on Madonna, and though it's been 30 years since it first arrived, this set is still so fresh, undiluted, and honest that it's hard to really find a blemish as it blazes away setting the tone for what would become a flourishing career for the unassuming femme fatale icon.
Side note: To add to the fun, I implore you to watch VH1's Driven special on Madonna's climb to fame. It's entertaining, doesn't sugar coat, and gives an several interesting perspectives on the work ethic of Madonna. You can watch it in parts over at YouTube starting here.