Live to Tell

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

Madonna fans may have hung their heads low during this era, but all of that changed with the November release of "Hung Up." The song was stupid, in the best possible way. It seemed unconcerned with politics, art, or spirituality. Instead it was simply and beautifully fun. And although it broke little new ground artistically, much like "Beautiful Day," it was hailed as a return to form. For Madonna that means "Hung Up" is a retreat to the carefree Jellybean era, and fans have rewarded her by making it her biggest single in years. For an aging pop star/provocateur/artist/whatever who is perhaps only a few years away from the Vegas circuit, the single's success is as much as she could've hoped for and a fitting bookend for her career.

In a way, though, the adulation for "Hung Up" is seriously fucked up. It's the same reason we applauded U2 for retreating from the irony-soaked Pop Mart years and embracing the more conservative and traditional "Beautiful Day," and it's also similar in spirit to the critical praise lumped upon Depeche Mode's Playing the Angel, an album that sounds in parts eerily similar to 1990's Violator. Traditional thinking goes that young artists are supposed to forget the past — that they create brazenly experimental words that tear down previous preconceptions of artifice and aesthetics — while older ones such as Madonna are seemingly bound by it, and once they venture outside of their fans' comfort zones, they are plummeted into obscurity.

Although Madonna may be just now coming to terms with this dynamic, sprinkled throughout her repertoire are hints she has long been aware of it.

In her darkest song, "Oh Father," from 1989's Like a Prayer, the evocative stylist is ostensibly speaking to a fatally abusive parent, but it could also be interpreted as a plea to Jellybean, herself, and perhaps even her fans: "You can't hurt me now/I got away from you, I never thought I would/You can't make me cry, you once had the power/I never felt so good about myself." But, as the success of "Hung Up" proves, you can never truly get away from yourself.

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