Monday, January 18, 2010

In bed with my demon

At some stage we all have to confront our demons. Like a few years ago when I faced my pathological fear of heights and jumped out of a plane. Or a few days ago when I bought an album of bagpipe music (see 14th January). But probably no step has been harder for me to take than today when I walked up to the counter at JB Hi Fi with not one, but two, Madonna CDs in my hand, and didn’t even pretend that I was buying them for someone else.

It has been an unnerving experience. As Madonna’s second and possibly most popular album, Like a Virgin, blares through my speakers, and as I contemplate what on earth the neighbours must think of me, I find, totally against my will or power, that I am bopping and dancing around the house, looking for (but thankfully not finding) the itsy-bitsy shorts I used to wear to dance parties, where the right mix of chemicals was able to make both my body and my dancing much more presentable than either were even then, let alone now.

There’s something pretty sinister about this music, the way it makes you do these things you wouldn’t normally do – twisting and jumping in ways that you never would think you would do, singing along to songs that you never would admit to knowing; the way it makes you forget your old, tired, decrepit bones and joints, and perform all those dance manoeuvres that are probably actually responsible for your current state of orthopaedic ruin.

While I’m not going to pretend that I have found new depths in this music or new dimensions that I never thought were there, there is something kind of incredible about the way its simple, straightforward elements – its catchy tunes and its bouncy rhythms – are able to be maintained so continuously, holding your attention, keeping you pumped. Even without chemicals, you find yourself staying on the music’s high.

Nothing ventures very far away from safe, trusted diatonic keys; the rhythms don’t explode in crazy directions that make you feel you need to revolutionise your understanding of traditional mathematics to work out the beat; and you can usually count on one hand the number of chords that you’ll hear on any track. And yet it keeps you engaged, it keeps you going and you find it’s embarrassingly easy to give into the temptation to listen to “just one more song”. Even the most self-assuredly sophisticated music critic would have to acknowledge that it takes more than just good marketing to make so much out of so little.

When I listen to all these songs, and even to the more varied and adventurous later album, Like a Prayer, I can’t help but be reminded of what someone once said of Vivaldi – that he didn’t write hundreds of concertos, but rather wrote the same concerto hundreds of times. But even hundreds of years later, people are still listening to most of those Vivaldi Concertos, and not just in lifts, or when they’re on hold on the phone, either. There’s undoubtedly a place in everyone’s world for things that are just fun – American sitcoms, chocolate, cricket in the backyard and, let’s admit it, even Vivaldi and Madonna.


  1. Absolutely! These albums (alba?)are just a hoot to listen to and they're now so old that most of the staff in JB Hi-Fi are too young to realize how unfashionable they are. While the dance tracks on 'Like A Prayer' are good fun, I also really like the slow songs, such as 'Promise to try', 'Pray for Spanish Eyes' and, above all, 'Oh father'.

    In my view, some of Madonna's work has been (like here) her collaborations with Patrick Leonard; the partnership reappears some albums later (1998) in the dazzling 'Ray of Light' which, in its dream-like fantasies about water rivals Hendrix's '1993 - A merman I should turn to be.'

    Good stuff! Now let's talk about Michael Jackson's 'Hits' DVD, which sits happily and loudly alongside my Madonna videos.

  2. That's why I'm devoted to pop! Because when it's good (and I would say that Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer are both very good albums, mostly) it can make you forget yourself. And I think part of it is that simplicity and familiarity -- everyone has an 'in' to these songs. And even the more complex emotional territory covered by Like a Prayer is familiar because so much of it is borrowing from cinema, and also from Madonna's own public life.

    For me part of the reason Madonna makes such a good pop star is that her terrifying work-ethic and various metamorphoses (spelling?) add to that sense of transcendence -- before her botched facelift you thought she really was defying time!

    If you really want to scare yourself listen to Hard Candy. Do not buy.

  3. Ah yes, Guy, I have already been warned about Hard Candy ... and while I am inclined to steer clear of it, there is nothing more like a red rag to a bull than the words "do not buy" to me.

    Thanks for popping in with your comments Guy!