Live to Tell

This used to be Madonna's playground, but it's time for her to get off the swing

The following two events are connected: Now, right now, Madonna has a single on the pop charts — "Hung Up" — an eminently danceable throwback to her Eighties heyday. And, in 2000, after foibles as stone-faced global moralists and the humbling horrors of "Lemon" and "Discothque," U2 enjoyed a late-career swoon with "Beautiful Day."

"Beautiful Day" was the anachronistically uplifting overture of 2000. A philosophical rocker unashamed of its vulnerability, the single blasted from cornershops and Camaros with equal aplomb. The sneaky verse insinuated itself just gently enough to make the bombast of the chorus a new surprise with each listening and each remix. The unalloyed, tender hopefulness of the lines "See the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colors came out" jerked tears from eyes accustomed to rolling at images of Bono shaking hands with various dictators. And that's where the U2 bandmates — who, after all, had an amazing decade-plus run from 1981's Boy to 1991's Achtung Baby — might have, should have, really definitely should have called it a beautiful day and gone out, as is their right, as legends.

But that is not what happened. Now we are forced to endure not only How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb but also confusing photos of Bob Geldof with Bono in one meaningless plea for world peace or world feeding or something. It induces shame of nearly Flavor Flav intensity to see one of the best bands ever take the road traveled not just by some obvious Neanderthals like the Rolling Stones but also by Cro-Mags you'd think would know better, such as Depeche Mode and Duran Duran.

Madonna as we'd like to remember her
Madonna as we'd like to remember her

Madonna's "Hung Up" is no "Beautiful Day." It's not even "Vogue" or "Justify My Love." But it is a bona fide hit, one that appeals to three generations of listeners who know Madonna in at least one of her various incarnations. It affords her the opportunity to go out, to exit sage left, as ageless, nearly genderless, tragically successful (an image she no doubt would relish, biographically speaking), and dignified. Such a retreat would spare her and us from a continually more frantic Jane Fonda-like deployment of careers, interests, and style makeovers. But will she take the buyout?

An argument can be made that Madonna has been coasting and casting about for a singular identity since her split with lover and producer Jellybean Benitez nearly twenty years ago. Her career-defining early singles — "Borderline," "Holiday," "Everybody," and the vocals on "Sidewalk Talk" — were completed at Benitez's side by 1987. The skittery synth loop of "Sidewalk" and the awkwardly slow (yet hummable) stomp of "Lucky Star" were enlivened by Madonna's yearning-for-fame voice; the frank overture to the physical mechanics of love in "Dress You Up" became her more broadly drawn calling card by 1984, with the more stately pace and structured rhythms of "Like a Virgin."

During the turbulent age of Sean Penn, paparazzi brawls and Shanghai Surprise obfuscated what was really going on in Madonna's music: a pining for Jellybean. Even as she insisted she "dreamt of San Pedro," clearly her heart was on an island other than the one off Belize in "Las Isla Bonita." And though "Live to Tell" so perfectly complemented the cornfields in the 1986 Penn vehicle At Close Range, Madonna is far more menacing than Christopher Walken as she intones, "The light that you could never see/It shines inside, you can't take that from me."

Finally in 1989, as the canonization of Ms. Ciccone truly began, Madonna seemed aware that without the aid of Jellybean, her Puerto-Rican-by-way-of-the-Bronx sweetie shtick was quickly dipping into self-parody. Yeah, she produced her own jauntily four-beats-to-the-bar eponymous theme for the movie Who's That Girl? and followed her shaky grab at film stardom with — if not her best music, her most memorable videos — "Express Yourself" (the blue electrified milk-pouring) and "Cherish" (the mermaid child and Roxy Music Siren reference). But by 1989's Like a Prayer, the Madonna we had grown to love in the Eighties was essentially no more.

Sure, Madonna's cultural provocateur phase (which spanned from Like a Prayer through the Sex years) was interesting enough, but by that time, she had transformed herself from a pop singer to a pop cultural symbol. It was great banter for feminist studies classes — and perhaps provided more than a few theses for intellectually desperate grad students — but much of the careless charm of the Jellybean years had vanished. The new Madonna seemed at times too self-conscious. By the mid-Nineties, the act had once again grown stale, and the pop-singer-turned-provocateur seemed determined to affect a different pose — this time as a true artist. The problem was her obliviousness to all the negative baggage that came with said distinction, and this new Madonna was neither musically engaging nor culturally interesting. Instead of setting the cultural Zeitgeist, she seemed to react to it.

The slide began in earnest with 1998's Ray of Light album — on which she simulated a Bjork-lite, pseudofuturist sensibility — but it extended well into this millennium. Whether she was releasing 2003's abortion of an album (American Life), affecting a British accent, or declaring her devotion to the Kabbalah, Madonna's music and public persona during the past seven years have been marked by hopeless pretentiousness and cultural dilettantism.

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