Today in Madonna History: October 20, 1992

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On October 20 1992, Madonna’s fifth studio album, Erotica was released by Maverick Records.

Music critic Sal Cinquemani commented on the album’s impact:

By 1992, Madonna was an icon—untouchable, literally and figuratively—and Erotica was the first time the artist’s music took on a decidedly combative, even threatening tone, and most people didn’t want to hear it. Erotica’s irrefutable un-sexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ’90s than any other musical document of its time. This is not Madonna at her creative zenith. This is Madonna at her most important, at her most relevant. No one else in the mainstream at that time dared to talk about sex, love, and death with such frankness and fearlessness.

Today in Madonna History: August 20, 2001

On August 20 2001, Sal Cinquemani published this review of Madonna’s Music album in Slant magazine:

After her hugely successful and critically-lauded Ray Of Light, Madonna could have gone in one of several possible directions: (1) a more hardcore trance route, enlisting a world-class DJ like Sasha (who remixed a few tracks from Ray Of Light and whom Madonna allegedly dismissed after collaborating on several tracks early in the recording process of this new album); (2) staying in safe territory by writing and recording once again with William Orbit, the mastermind behind Ray Of Light; or (3) a weird, more experimental direction, commissioning someone like French electronica guru Mirwais Ahmadzai. Madonna once told producer Shep Pettibone “You can never do the same thing twice…ever,” but two new collaborations with Orbit, “Runaway Lover” and “Amazing,” prove that when you do, it will probably be completely uninteresting. “Runaway Lover” sounds like a Ray Of Light outtake with uninspired couplets like “It doesn’t pay to give away what you lack/You’ll never get your money back.” But amid the clichés, Madonna throws in profound food for thought like “You get your education from your lovers.” “Amazing” is incredibly catchy and has a Supremes-like melody but that’s where it ends. The track borrows the drum loop Orbit used in “Beautiful Stranger” (which was originally the loop from his “Ray Of Light” remix), and proves that he may not have had enough tricks up his sleeve for an entire new album anyway (and perhaps Madonna knew that).

As such, Madonna enlisted Mirwais for most of the rest of the album in question, Music. The title track, a retro hands-in-the-air club song reminiscent of Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music” and Madonna’s own “Into The Groove,” is the singer’s best dance floor-beckoning track since “Vogue.” She sings “Music makes the people come together” like a track off of her debut album, and as an added bonus she uses words like “bourgeoisie” and “acid-rock” with equal abandon. If you can get past the initial horror of hearing Madonna’s voice get the Cher “Believe” treatment on “Nobody’s Perfect,” another Mirwais collaboration, you’ll find a brilliant song full of genuine sorrow. The track opens with an intentionally imperfect and somber “I feel so sad,” and it is indeed believable. Lyrics like “What did you expect? I’m doing my best” are sung with an intriguing juxtaposition of human emotion and mechanically detached vocalizations. Though hard to swallow at first (like most on the album), the track is one of the singer’s best creations. With its distorted vocals and grinding electronic burps, “Paradise (Not For Me)” is another distinctive Mirwais production. At a turning point in the song, Madonna awkwardly struggles to speak the words “There is a light above my head/Into your eyes my face remains” while strings swell and bring the song to a climax. It is at this point that “Paradise” resembles the cinematic grandeur of tracks like “Frozen,” and it is also one of the few moments throughout Music that recalls the spiritual introspection of Ray Of Light.

Two tracks take a striking folk direction. “I Deserve It” finds Madonna once again singing with a warm yet detached voice, but this time her vocals are completely untouched by effects. “Gone” ends the album and is possibly one of Madonna’s best performances. In the vein of “Live To Tell,” the song seems to sum up everything Madonna has tried to tell us about being the most famous woman in the world. Earlier attempts have seemed obvious and sometimes trite (“Goodbye To Innocence,” “Survival,” “Drowned World”), but this song seems to be particularly telling. It is also, perhaps, the most human she has ever been. Self-deprecation and vulnerability have never been Madonna’s strong-suits, but the way she sings “I won’t let it happen again/I’m not very smart” could make you wonder. Music seems more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album, and it is an unexpected answer to Ray Of Light. But strangely, in an attempt to make a “fun,” less-introspective album, Madonna has revealed more of herself than ever. No longer shrouded with pedantic spirituality, she has become even more human, exposing her fears on tracks like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Paradise,” her soul on “Don’t Tell Me” and “What It Feels Like For A Girl,” and revealing her joys on “Impressive Instant” and “Music.”

Today in Madonna History: May 31, 1986

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On May 31 1986, Madonna’s Live To Tell hit #1 for 3 weeks on US Hot Adult Contemporary singles chart.

The song was Madonna’s third number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, and her first number-one on the Adult Contemporary chart.

In an interview about the song, Madonna said, “I thought about my relationship with my parents and the lying that went on. The song is about being strong, and questioning whether you can be that strong but ultimately surviving.”

In a review of the album True Blue, Stephen Thomas Erlewine from Allmusic called it a “tremendous ballad that rewrites the rules of adult contemporary crossover”.

Jim Farber from Entertainment Weekly called the song “her best ballad to date”.

In a review of her compilation album The Immaculate Collection, David Browne from Entertainment Weekly magazine called it “one of her few successful shots at being a balladeer”.

Alfred Soto from Stylus Magazine felt that “the song’s set of lyrics remain her best” and that the vocals “seethes with a lifetime’s worth of hurts which she nevertheless refuses to share”.

Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine called the song “striking” adding that it “rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like”.

Edna Gundersen from USA Today called the song “a moody heart-tugger, may be her best song ever.”

Today in Madonna History: May 10, 2003

On May 10 2003, Madonna’s American Life album reached #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the USA.

In 2008, Sal Cinquemani had this to say about American Life in Slant magazine:

In hindsight, American Life isn’t the masterpiece that Erotica so quickly revealed itself to be. It’s frequently self-indulgent, misguided, unpleasant, difficult to listen to, silly yet somehow humorless, but it’s also consistent, uncompromising, and unapologetic. The album is a testament to the artist’s willingness to take risks and her refusal to stay inside her comfort zone. In the grand scheme of things, the album might rank as one of the weakest in Madonna’s extensive catalog, and the ones that followed have been as good, if not better, but American Life stands as the last time Madonna seemed to make music without the primary objective of scoring a hit. It’s interesting to imagine what Madonna’s career would look like today had American Life been a success: For better or worse, that pink leotard and Justin duet might never have existed.

Today in Madonna History: September 21, 2015

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On September 21 2o15, Sal Cinquemani (of Slant) published an article called, “10 Things I Learned at Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour.”

Here’s Sal’s list:

Over 30 years into her career, Madonna is still acting like a virgin. “I’ve never performed in Brooklyn before,” she coyly told a sold-out crowd at the Barclays Center in Prospect Heights Saturday night. The Rebel Heart Tour, which kicked off in Montreal two weeks ago and landed in the borough for one night after two performances across the river at Madison Square Garden, is the singer’s 10th stage show. While she’s finally warmed up to her ’80s hits after years of ignoring all but a handful, she still insists on challenging her fans, who, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see, are still dressing up like her. Only now it’s the men. Here are 10 other things I learned at the show:

1. Yes, Madonna can sing.

As her shows have increasingly required her to be hoisted, flung, and swung around in the air for close to two hours every night, Madonna has in recent years relied, perhaps too heavily, on lip-synching. But she can carry a tune far better than she’s typically given credit for. Despite a mouthful of those pesky gold-and-diamond-encrusted grillz, she flawlessly serenaded old pal Debi Mazar, who stood in the audience singing along, with “True Blue,” and delivered an impassioned rendition of the blistering Rebel Heart ballad “HeartBreakCity.” Perched on the edge of a stage platform, playfully swinging her leg, she even belted out “La Vie En Rose” with relative ease.

2. Fifty-seven is the new 27.

At one point, Madonna dabbed her forehead with a towel and joked that sitting down to strum a ukulele was her favorite part of the show, but she barely missed a beat or broke a sweat throughout the 21-song setlist. With her dirty-blond extensions cascading around her shoulders, dark roots exposed, fingerless gloves, and jewel-encrusted blazer and ankle boots, she was the spitting image of the title character from Desperately Seeking Susan, in which she made her big-screen debut an astonishing three decades ago.

3. “Deeper and Deeper” belongs among Madonna’s classics.

With a catalogue as deep and wide as Madonna’s, it would be easy for gems like Erotica’s “Deeper and Deeper” to get lost to pop history. So it was a pleasant surprise to spot this one on the setlist and, aside from some amped-up EDM beats and a simplified flamenco guitar solo, hear it performed so faithfully.

4. Being Madonna (and working for her) is dangerous business.

As they say in Texas, everything is bigger on a Madonna tour…including the liability and personal injury insurance policy. Coverage must include, but isn’t limited to, performers being thrown off spiral staircases and tossed down giant LED screens, scaling and hanging precariously from poles, swinging back and forth from 10-foot stilts, and wearing capes with a recent history of violently yanking superstars to the ground from behind in front of an audience of millions.

5. Madonna really likes “Candy Shop.”

Though the Hard Candy opener was never released as a single, Madonna has a peculiar fondness for the track, having performed it during all of her last three tours. The singer’s tenacity and obvious enthusiasm for the song has practically willed it into becoming a staple, fitting inconspicuously between her signature hits “Music” and “Material Girl.”

6. Madonna really hates “Take a Bow.”

Madge dusted off her ’80s hits “True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl” for the first time in 28 years. But some of her biggest ’90s ballads, from “This Used to Be My Playground” to “I’ll Remember” to “Take a Bow” (her longest running #1 hit ever), have still, to this day, never been performed on tour. Sure, they don’t fit obviously into the pop star’s latter-day dance-floor-driven output, but if the queen of reinvention isn’t willing to find a way to put a new spin on these old chestnuts, there must be a good reason. With songs as timeless as these, it’s just hard to imagine what that could possibly be.

7. You’re never too old to take a “Holiday.”

The only song to be performed during all or part of every Madonna tour aside from one, “Holiday” reclaimed its rightful place as the closing number during the Rebel Heart Tour. Over the years, Madonna’s first bona fide smash has been reimagined as everything from a disco bauble to an ironic military march to an EDM banger, but while a Latin-style medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove,” and “Lucky Star” proves she isn’t exactly becoming a purist, she refreshingly played it straight for her perennial call for a little celebration.

8. Madonna is more comfortable on stage than ever.

Madonna is a self-proclaimed showgirl, but despite a show clearly choreographed down to each flick of a wrist, she’s never seemed more unscripted. From the call-and-response exchanges with the audience during an acoustic version of “Who’s That Girl” to the addition of a new song to the setlist (a stirring, if pitchy, rendition of shoulda-been-a-sleeper-hit “Ghosttown,” which brought seemingly genuine tears to her eyes, a development that seemed to surprise even her), the Queen of Pop never looked so unguarded and at ease.

9. Madonna might be running out of ideas.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Madonna had already staged a show with scantily clad nuns twerking on cross-shaped stripper poles. From that perhaps too on-the-nose provocation to the multimedia prologue and guitar-wielding riot-grrrl shtick, Madonna seems to be recycling themes and concepts in ways that, while her contemporaries remained dogged in their adherence to formula, she managed to successfully avoid for the first few decades of her career.

10. …But she’s still the greatest performer of our time.

“It’s lonely at the top, but it ain’t crowded,” Madonna quipped, tongue in cheek, during a jazz-infused version of “Music.” As far back as 1990’s iconic, game-changing Blond Ambition Tour, her shows have always been theatrical, blending traditional rock-concert tropes with narrative storytelling; Rebel Heart, though, takes it to another level, equal parts Cirque du Soleil, Broadway musical, and burlesque—an immersive experience that redefines the meaning of maximalism.

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