“Express Yourself, Don’t Repress Yourself” (#35)

“I’ll never be an angel,
I’ll never be a saint, it’s true
I’m too busy surviving…
Whether it’s Heaven or Hell,
I’m gonna be living to tell.”

Before there was Britney. Before there was Beyonce. Before there was Gaga. There was one woman who reigned the radio waves in the 80s and 90s — Her Madgesty, now and forever the Queen of Pop.

Ms. Ciccone is known for her iconic, chameleonic looks, and it just so happens that our hosts each gravitated toward a different era in her storied career. First, Becky goes bananas for I’m Breathless, the Broadway-inspired Dick Tracy soundtrack, and the revealing concert documentary Truth Or Dare. Next, Chris whips his co-hosts into shape for the leather-heavy Sex/Erotica/Bedtime Stories period, which ignited a very sado-masochistic relationship between Madonna and the media. Last, Seth looks directly into the Grammy-winning Ray Of Light, which introduced us to a softer, gentler, and much more geisha-like incarnation of the Material Girl.

We were all crazy for at least one of these albums growing up, but what happens when we listen like virgins as adults? Is Madonna’s 90s oeuvre still something to remember, or should it invoke the power of goodbye and take a bow? Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it ­— it’s time to see if the best-selling female artist of all time can still justify our love.

Listen to the podcast here.

We’ve covered some broad topics on the podcast before, but none ever felt quite as ambitious as this. Even sticking to 1990s Madonna still felt like an impossibly expansive canvas. I could have spent a full year reading, watching, and listening to Madonna’s output — the albums, the music videos, the films, the interviews, the TV appearances, her Sex book, her Truth Or Dare documentary — and still not feel like I’d gotten all of it. No amount of research ever felt like enough.

My earliest Madonna memory is hearing “Like A Prayer” at the age of 6. It’s the first time I remember pop music touching me in the way that it does — lifting my spirits, speaking to me, making me want to sing along and dance. Through the rest of my childhood, Madonna was a media presence — always causing a stir and grabbing headlines. Her music didn’t find me again until Evita, a soundtrack I cherished. This was more about the story and the songwriting, however, than Madonna fandom itself.

It was Ray Of Light that first really got my attention in 1998. It was so distinct, compared to what other household name pop artists were doing at the time. It inspired me to check out The Immaculate Collection and rediscover the hits that had made Madonna the icon I’d always known her as. It also led me to Erotica and Bedtime Stories, released post-Immaculate Collection. No Madonna album is really obscure, but they were then and are still lesser known than many others. Madonna the Media Personality overshadowed Madonna the Musician in the early 1990s.

Bedtime Stories has always been my favorite Madonna album. Doing the podcast on her helped me figure out why. I like Erotica for what it is — provocative, disco-influenced, and pretty gay. I especially admire the campy, hilarious “Thief Of Hearts”, and its polar opposite — “In This Life,” Madonna’s tribute to friends she lost to AIDS. But it’s more concept than album. It’s a piece of a larger narrative Madonna was pushing in the early 90s, in which everyone including Madonna herself was casting her as the “bad girl. Erotica‘s “Bad Girl” track and the David Fincher-directed video that accompanied it, meanwhile, showed her growing weary of her boozy, promiscuous reputation.

Bedtime Stories is the first grown-up Madonna album, the one that paved the way for Evita and Ray Of Light. Musically, it has only a few groundbreaking tracks, like the trippy “Bedtime Story,” which feels like a warm-up for Ray Of Light. But Bedtime Stories is the album where I see Madonna getting comfortable in her own skin. She’s still sexy and provocative, but she isn’t as needy for our attention. The album’s centerpiece, “Human Nature,” might as well be Madonna’s thesis statement: “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.” Madonna is unapologetic and has been throughout her career, but in the late 80s and early 90s, she really took some hard knocks in the media. She brought a lot of them on herself, but the 90s weren’t kind to real-life “bad girls.” (And for all her controversy, Madonna never hurt anyone or got into any real trouble.) That image overtook so much else that she was — a smart businesswoman, an uncompromising artist, a savvy feminist, and a boss, none of which ever came easy. I like the enlightened, motherly Madonna that the media finally embraced with Ray Of Light, but my Madonna is the “Bedtime Story”-teller — the fresh survivor who is still being dragged through Hell a little.

Madonna-Human-Nature*

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