Of all current superstars, none has manipulated the apparatus of fame more astutely than Madonna. Like Prince, she recognized the virtue of a one-word name and demonstrated the truth of an old adage — sex sells. She has played America’s public morals like a virtuoso, building from starlet to megaslut to bad girl with a heart of gold to New Honest Woman.
Cynics and idealists can agree: a conquest this perfect requires incredible amounts of both luck and smarts. Up comes a good-looking, good-singing doll who parlays great ambition and market sense into a lowbrow dance album that becomes an international hit. She completes the transition from genre diva to mass-media wet dream brandishing a boy toy belt buckle under her bared bellybutton (for all convent girls to admire and feminists to loathe), then turns it around in a show of humor and pluck. But Madonna’s march takes her to the brink of overexposure.
Then, out come the Penthouse and Playboy spreads. How do a couple of four-year-old portfolios just happen to make it into the hands of two fiercely competitive publications at the same exact ideal-for-Madonna moment? If it isn’t a fix, then clearly God likes bad Catholic girls. And what could be better? That this bathroom consummation of boy toy love should be followed immediately by ritual purification at the altar of real love. Madonna marries Sean Penn and at long last hits the matrimonial sack.
And she did it all in less time than it has taken Ronald Reagan to send millions below the poverty line. Like Jimmy Cagney, to whom she dedicates “White Heat,” Madonna is a lovable punk: cynical, street smart, funky, sexy, fundamentally idealistic, indestructibly self-respecting. Like Cagney, she’s a national icon — but first and always, a patron saint of parochial-school America.
It is for the prokie (a less publicized but still more populous stratum than yuppie or preppie) that True Blue is written. Singing better than ever, Madonna stakes her claim as the pop poet of lower-middle-class America. On “Where’s the Party,” she presents a concise manifesto for the straphanging classes: “Couldn’t wait to get older/Thought I’d have so much fun/Guess I’m one of the grown-ups/Now I have to get the job done.” But Madonna isn’t sad about her responsibilities. Full of immigrant-stock hustle, she’s going to “find a way to make the good times last.” On “Jimmy Jimmy,” she laughs at her breathless boyfriend: “You say you’re gonna be the king of Las Vegas…. You’re just a boy who comes from bad places.” But it’s a loving laugh — and, surprise, Jimmy really does leave to make a better life. The story ends sadly, but the song is so happy that we can’t doubt Madonna’s pride in her guy or that she’ll find a way to follow.
In “Love Makes the World Go Round,” the happiest anthem for this age of uplift, Madonna scores at least as many points as “We Are the World” with lines like “It’s easy to forget/If you don’t hear the sound/Of pain and prejudice/Love makes the world go round” and “We’re all so quick to look away/’Cause it’s the easy thing to do.”
Produced by Madonna with Pat Leonard and Stephen Bray, the sound of True Blue is yet another canny move. Armed with the success of “Into the Groove” (an unretouched eight-track demo by Bray and Madonna that epitomizes dance-pop perfection), M. resisted any temptation to reach for the kind of tour de force production Nile Rodgers achieved on Like a Virgin. Instead, we have a clean, accessible record assembled by a singer and songwriters to showcase material and performances. And (excepting the “Both Sides Now” rewrite “Live to Tell”) it’s true blue to Madonna’s disco roots.
If there is a problem with Madonna’s proke-rock testament, it’s the lack of outstanding songs. Only the magnificent “Papa Don’t Preach” — Madonna’s “Billie Jean” — has the high-profile hook to match “Like a Virgin,” “Dress You Up” and “Material Girl.” Not coincidentally, all of the above were written by outside contributors. “White Heat,” “Jimmy Jimmy” and “World Go Round” are excellent within their aspirations and easily comparable to “Angel” and “Holiday” (though not quite up to “Into the Groove” or “Lucky Star”). But none has the feel of a pop event. “Party” starts well but doesn’t ignite, and “True Blue,” a cross between “Heaven Must Have Sent You” and “Chapel of Love,” squanders a classic beat and an immensely promising title.
In commercial terms, it may not matter. “Live to Tell” hit Number One on career momentum, and “Papa Don’t Preach” is great enough to carry several of True Blue‘s solid contenders home. In a clever double-entendre, M. — no longer anything like a virgin — pleads for her father’s approval of the decision to keep an unborn child. Given Madonna’s conscientiousness and ambition, it’s not likely True Blue‘s dearth of “career records” was intentional. But its integrity and very freedom from attention seeking may turn out to be yet another piece of great timing in a remarkable career.
Madonna’s sturdy, dependable, lovable new album remains faithful to her past while shamelessly rising above it. True Blue may generate fewer sales and less attention than Like a Virgin, but it sets her up as an artist for the long run. And like every other brainy move from this best of all possible pop madonnas, it sounds as if it comes from the heart.