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Acting her way into our hearts

[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives.

– From High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 1995)

Ask a gay-bar habitué to name five fave Madonna songs and as sure as K.D. Lang is vegan all five of them will be dance numbers. The slower numbers – chiefly ballads and love songs – intermingled with dance tunes on her records could be seen as largely strategic, assuring Ms Ciccone steady airplay on middle-of-the-road radio stations that won't touch her hotter stuff.

But when brought together on a compilation disc, as on the newish Something to Remember, those ofttimes throwaway downbeat numbers are unexpectedly affecting. The major caveat is that the emotions Madonna expresses aren't necessarily hers, nor always credible. It's imagined grief, referred pain, projected loss. For truly nuanced and believable emotion, Petula Clark has not yet been surpassed among female pop stars.

Madonna's recurring theme of paternal abuse, presumably of the sexual kind, is heard here in "Live to Tell" and "Oh, Father" and seems less of a grand statement than when those singles originally appeared. The songs don't quite ring true as autobiography, though they are believable as elegies to someone else's abuse. (Appropriation? Sensationalism? Hypocrisy? Quite possibly.) Madonna is not much of an actrix, but here she plays a part convincingly. That's consistent with the nature of pop music, which by definition is fantastical and escapist. Do we have to be convinced that a musician's message stems from lived experience in order to to identify with it? Must we share the experience to identify? Hardly.

I am still steamed at the influential and trend-setting pop juggernaut for glorifying the barbaric but conventionally "romantic" and "heroic" spectacle of bullfighting in not one but two music videos ("Take a Bow" and "You'll See"), doing so even after Dan Mathews of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took Madonna to task about "Take a Bow" in the press and in personal phone calls with her. I thus have an axe to grind. But even so, "You'll See" again strikes a chord as well-acted heartbreak; "Take a Bow" conveys far less substance beneath its satiny-smooth vocals.

"Love Don't Live Here Anymore" was scarcely worth recording. While the production values and the rich mix show that producer Nile Rogers still has a knack for twiddling the knobs, Madonna's Ethel Merman-esque shrieks of "You abandoned me! Love don't live here anymore!" are trite, overplayed. Can we imagine this woman being abandoned, or is she the more likely culprit? (Of course, Madonna could be kvetching here about festooned basketball dandy Dennis Rodman's refusal to impregnate her. But that would be idle gossip on my part.)

Our Lady of the Scandal Sheets should accept that her vocal range is narrow and live within it, as she does to glorious effect in "Rain," which many of us remember best as the lavish video featuring an almost-all-Japanese cast, sets and costumes spanning the film-noir spectrum from grey to blue to black, and Ryuichi Sakamoto cunningly cast as director of a video-within-a-video. Doubling her voice and adding a reverb here and there adds heft to her words, cloaked as they are in that rarest of things, a subtle and evocative Madonna allegory. "Rain" stands alongside "Like a Prayer" as Madonna's smartest, deepest, most moving songs.

Something to Remember, like The Immaculate Collection, is clearly a provisional album, a placeholder presented to the world to keep Madonna bubbling in the public consciousness until the next branch of her musical tree takes bloom. An all-new album of downer tunes could have been a stunner; cobbled together largely from the dysphasic rejects of former albums, Something to Remember only barely exceeds the sum of its parts. Funny how I play it compulsively anyway.