What makes Madonna and her music so good, yet hated by so many? Why is it that the consistent reaction, bordering on the vitriolic, whether proof of a more refined singer can be found or not, of the masses against her (marking not only their outright envy but also their ignorance of the meaning of music as a work of art) is that she cannot sing? From the beginning it has appeared that Madonna does not care whether she can actually sing in the vein of other big-name songstresses such as Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or Sarah McLachlan, just to name a few. Why is it that beyond and above these noted and extremely talented women, Madonna is the performer who holds pride of place in the Queer Discography? The answer is in the question: she is a performer, and the theatricality of her public performances and her music is the mainstay of her talent, fame, and power to please the homosexual masses, and much of the public at large. Say what one must about her ability to create a scandal, whether natural or contrived, but it is the provincial tastes and markedly limited beliefs of those who have labeled her acts scandalous who have enabled her to gain and retain such an enormous celebrity in the public eye not only in the States but also across the globe.
Madonna herself may not be an equalizer, but her music certainly is. With the release of her first single, “Everybody” (October 1982), she made it clear that her musical focus would be on movement, on the power of dancing and its ability to bring the people together and set them free. This latter notion is the point of the lyrics to her later release, “Holiday”. Madonna’s interest in dance goes back to her teenage years and continued in her days in New York City when she was an unknown struggling to make it as a singer and performer. No doubt it was her original intention in creating music, beside her professed desire to rule the world, to showcase her talent as a dancer, but along the way she gained an audience for multiple reasons, the most important being that she brought the street or underground world into the light and public domain (“Vogue” 1990) and began to bridge the mainstream and the socially marginalized. With strong financial resources and some of the most creative record producers and talented songwriters behind her, Madonna has made music that the world wants to hear not just because she is a household name, whether through scandal or charity, but because the primary motive behind her music is a message, the most important being that of the unity of the people, of humankind, through the dancing of feet which her music automatically and naturally inspires in the listener. The multiplicity of message types that she has also spread throughout the over-a-quarter century in which she has been performing and making music cannot be disputed but these are not meant to be discussed here.
After a careful perusal of Madonna’s discography one can easily recognize that the majority of her music is dance oriented; her ballads are few and far between in comparison, and there is a clear division between the music she makes which has a message that transcends the power to make one dance and the message that says “just dance”, calling us all to the dance floor to come together as one. It is these latter songs that will be briefly discussed in this essay. Madonna has released about a dozen singles (and there are others sprinkled throughout all the albums that have gone unreleased) in which the message is an absolute “invitation to the dance of life”; the most memorable and forceful of these include: “Everybody”; “Holiday”; “Into the Groove”; “La Isla Bonita”; “Where’s the Party”; “Spotlight”; “Vogue”; “Ray of Light”; “American Pie”; “Music”; “Give It 2 Me”; and finally, “Celebration”. The other singles released, whose momentum is all about getting the listener up to dance but which have more topical or lyric/content-driven messages include “Burning Up”; “Borderline”; “Angel”; “Dress You Up”; “Like A Virgin”; “Papa Don’t Preach”; “Open Your Heart”; “Who’s that Girl”; “Causing A Commotion”; “Like A Prayer”; “Express Yourself”; “Keep It Together”; “Deeper and Deeper”; “Bedtime Story”; “Nothing Really Matters”; “Beautiful Stranger”; “Don’t Tell Me”; “Die Another Day”; “American Life”; “Hung Up”; “Sorry”; “Get Together”; “Jump”; “4 Minutes”; and lastly, “Miles Away”.
It is a testament to Madonna’s wide-ranging beliefs and interests that she can create music and write lyrics that speak of love, loss, sex, human nature and psychology and set these to rhythms and harmonies that will make one think, feel, and dance. And it should be clear after these lists that an interesting thing is happening in Madonna’s oeuvre as of late; Confessions on A Dance Floor successfully incorporated her content/message-centered works with the drive of her dance-oriented pieces, while Hard Candy strove to separate the philosophical ideas of the former album’s music, though not completely, in an effort, (a quite amazing and lyrically provocative one at that!) to give the public a pure breed of dance music to which one can truly hit the floor and leave it exhausted and drenched in sweat.
Madonna’s music is about freedom, the freedom of being oneself, and all music testifies to the fact that one can be most free, and most truly whom one is, when dancing. It is this invitation to the dance of life that Madonna has repeatedly sent out to the world, not just her millions of fans, wherever they may be found. Music is the most transcendent of the arts because it lifts the solitary listener or the audience out of themselves and into the common element of the oneness of the spirit of what it means to be human, to be alive and to feel, sensitive to the highest truths of life. Madonna and her music continuously enjoin us to abandon our self-consciousness and just get out on the dance floor and let ourselves go, as well as to move past our prejudices and embrace all the colors of the human race, for it may be that we dance and see with the feet and the eyes, but it is with our soul that we truly feel and communicate with each other and with the world that is greater and more lasting than ourselves. And it is through the medium of music that we are able to achieve this power, and Madonna’s music in particular just so happens to be one of the many ways in which the gay community grasps this power, freedom, and sense of self and humanity.
This is a detailed link to Madonna’s vast and enduring discography, both in terms of singles and album released since her beginnings in 1982.
Dominick Montalto is a freelance writer, poet, and copy editor.