Because his knowledge of her remains woefully inadequate, despite my best efforts to indoctrinate him on the fly, A has been impatiently awaiting a Buzz playlist celebrating the worthy tuneage of Madonna for the best part of two years now. I’ve been letting the idea percolate for the whole of that time, penning its prose catch as catch can and waiting for the perfect moment to unleash the final product. Said moment has arrived at last: last year, the Material Girl marked her twenty-fifth anniversary of her gale-force arrival on the pop charts with a sterling double-disc Celebration of a handful of the most famous hits in pop music history, and this coming Tuesday, a much-ballyhooed installment of Fox’s zeitgeist-capturing smash series Glee themed exclusively around her iconic catalogue hits the air surfing a raging tidal wave of unfettered hype (magazine covers and profiles galore, and even a companion CD!), and if last week’s delicious sneak preview — a spot-on shot-for-shot spoof of the stylish, groundbreaking videoclip for “Vogue,” with the uproarious Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, clearly relishing this role of a lifetime) stealing center stage — is an accurate indication of what’s in store, the Gleeks are in for one heck of a joyous, raucous ride.


Love her or hate her, no other artist who has risen to prominence concurrently to Madonna (and precious few artists, either pre- or post-) has managed to stay compelling and/or relevant as long (and as well) as she has. And even though I would never count myself as the world’s biggest Madge fan — as fine a performer as she can be at her best, I have too often (perhaps unfairly) found her story to be the ultimate triumph of style over substance — when A requested this playlist, I sat down to sketch out an outline of songs worthy of inclusion, and was surprised to come up with more than thirty. (Imagine what a true devotee could come up with!) I’ve whittled that list down to a lean and stunningly diverse batch of twenty tracks, and instead of lumping them all together in one big overwhelming pop fest, the marvelous Sherry Ann gave me the grand idea of splitting the songs into two distinct playlists, with one featuring the radio classics that we all remember and revere, and the other, a handful of songs that — even though many of them were hits in their own right — aren’t as well regarded as they most certainly deserve to be.


So, a bit later on this spring, I’ll bring you the shoulda-beens. And right now, I happily give you the weres.


1.  “Holiday” — (from Madonna) — Madonna - Madonna - Holiday —  hard to believe a song with a goofy two-word chorus — “Holiday!   Celebrate!” — could be someone’s breakthrough smash, but the easy breezy feel of Madge’s effortless coo, which manages to stick in your craw like so much flypaper, totally sells it. An undeniable pop classic, and the first hint of the massive sea change that was to become 1984.

2.  “Borderline” — (from Madonna) — Madonna - Madonna - Borderline — it wasn’t until Jody Watley’s breathtaking 2005 cover — Jody Watley - Borderline - Single - Borderline — that I truly appreciated what a brilliantly constructed pop song — Madonna’s first brush with the top ten — this actually is. Sassy but not smug, and cute but not cloying, we had no idea how radically this woman — for the first time, but absolutely not the last — was about to reinvent herself.

3.  “Like a Virgin” — (from Like a Virgin) — Madonna - Like a Virgin - Like a Virgin — not in the least content to play third fiddle to Cyndi Lauper and Sheena Easton in the new no-holds-barred battle for female pop dominance, Lady M decided to don a wedding dress — a white one, natch! — writhe around on a live television stage, and seduce the masses with the most powerful weapon she had in her still-developing arsenal: her uncanny ability to separate Madonna the commodity from Madonna the person. Within twenty-four hours of this tune’s arrival at critical mass, she was the undisputed queen of MTV, a title she would hold onto — sometimes quite stubbornly — for the next two decades. (My strongest, fondest memory of this song is being all of eight years old, hearing it on the radio, and immediately turning to my father to ask him what exactly a virgin was. For the life of me, I can’t remember what his ultimate response was, only how he hemmed and hawed while stumbling around trying to summon an appropriate answer.)

4.  “Material Girl” — (from Like a Virgin) — Madonna - Like a Virgin - Material Girl — she has had a handful of nicknames over the years; this is the instant classic which gave her the first (and most durable) of them.

5.  “La Isla Bonita” Madonna - True Blue - La Isla Bonita & 6. “Open Your Heart” Madonna - True Blue - Open Your Heart — (from True Blue) —  on balance, Madonna was playing it shockingly safe heading into the latter half of the decade that seemed constructed by (and designed for) her, as she had become hell-bent on conquering the world of film as wholly and decidedly as she had the world of music. Still, this period of time produced a pair of her most purely enjoyable pop songs: the first, a shuffling, completely charming (and, stunningly, rather chaste) lullaby about finding love on a titular pretty island; and the other, a straight-ahead dance track which raised eyebrows for what was then a boldly risque video that featured men holding hands and seemed to suggest that Madonna was professing her undying devotion to a pre-pubescent child (and demanding his in return). (Probably it wouldn’t raise as much as an eyebrow nowadays, but even as late as 1987, it felt vaguely as though Madonna was just beginning to grasp the true and full power that a stinking music video could afford her in actually relaying a message to the masses, and if it’s true that she had underestimated or miscalculated that power theretofore, she was about to prove she would never make that mistake again.)

7.  “Like a Prayer” — (from Like a Prayer) — Madonna - Like a Prayer - Like a Prayer — with a name like Madonna, you just knew she was eventually gonna take her shot: itching to pound against the conservative stranglehold that held both the society and the popular culture in such suffocating thrall during the seamless transition from Reagan to Bush (and, no doubt, hungry beyond measure to trade, if only a smidge, on the delicious irony of her saintly name), she decided to complement the haunting beauty of her fourth album’s leadoff track — a song that took flight with the able assistance of Andrae Crouch’s legendary gospel choir, not to mention a shattering climactic cameo by the incredible Niki Haris — with an arresting video which featured Madonna clad in nothing more than a flimsy black teddy, dancing giddily through the glow of burning crosses and worshiping a beaming, buff black man whom we’re left to infer is a Jesus-like entity. The outcry was swift and deafening — even the Pope was outraged enough to condemn her — but, by cementing her status as the most unpredictable, most determined pop star in the game (and scoring an unforgettable number one classic in the process), she almost certainly got what she sought from the experience.

8.  “Vogue” — (from I’m Breathless) — Madonna - Celebration - Vogue — Madonna hit the ’90s running on the strength of a dazzling star turn as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty’s widely-panned film adaptation of Dick Tracy, which nonetheless spawned a blockbuster soundtrack and allowed the Material Girl to channel the icy veneers of screen legends Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe in what may well remain her best-loved smash.

9.  “Take a Bow” — (from Bedtime Stories) — Madonna - Bedtime Stories - Take a Bow — given how overtly — and, to a large extent, off-puttingly — sexual most of material had become by the mid-’90s, this tender ballad seems at first glance like a desperately uneasy fit with the rest of this stretch of Madonna’s discography. But listen closer: for a woman who had not been taken too seriously as a singer to that point comes an absolute master class in vocal control and discipline. She and Babyface (then at the very zenith of his power as a complete artist) blend so flawlessly into each other’s hums and harmonies — a Conway & Loretta for the pseudo-soul set — it’s as though they were born to collaborate.

10.  “Ray of Light” — (from Ray of Light) — Madonna - Ray of Light - Ray of Light — someone whom I follow on Twitter — and, incidentally, I am “brandonsbuzz” over thurr, in case you’re curious — noted the other day, in a random observance, that the lyrics to this tune — a thumping thunderbolt circa summer ’98 — don’t make any sense, and I have to confess that I hadn’t paid a hell of a lot of attention to them heretofore. Madge and producer William Orbit probably didn’t either: clearly, they weren’t about to let pesky things like words block their path here; it was all about the beat, baby, and this beat was a boffo blast. And for a woman who was very much a product of the underground NYC club scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, you have to believe it was a personal point of pride for her to achieve some of her greatest commercial success (not to mention the industry and Academy respect and admiration that had too long eluded her) with a tune that aimed no higher than to celebrate the ebullient excess of eternal youth and forever fun.


1 response to “beauty’s where you find it
(or: a madonna mix, vol. 1 — hits)”

  1. the buzz from A.:

    As soon as I skimmed the very-long-awaited Madonna playlist (Part I), I knew I’d be buying virtually every song! Indeed, here are my nine (!) selections divided into two groups, the groups being in order of preference but the songs within each group being in alphabetical order. In addition to the Buzz, I am happy to acknowledge my school, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Alamo Drafthouse, and Glee for introducing me to several of these songs! Sadly, “Take a Bow” doesn’t make it (perhaps because it is so different from the rest of the songs on the list!).

    Group 1
       “La Isla Bonita”
       “Like a Prayer”
       “Like a Virgin”
       “Material Girl”
       “Open Your Heart”

    Group 2
       “Ray of Light”

    I am dutifully awaiting Part II!