The Queen of Pop finds her crown on her very first record
At the center stage of Madonna is the star’s charm and personality. The obsessive need to hide behind infectious rhythms, the gospel-tinged background vocals on “Borderline” and the high energies are there to avert the ear from focusing too heavily on Madonna’s vocal weaknesses. It is all intentional. She sings with a coy teenage high-pitch. Over the years she has favorably exercised the use of her lower register on songs like “Live to Tell” and “This Used to Be My Playground.” On the star’s debut album, Madonna prefers to screech while belting. But that is exactly why her debut album sounds so rewarding. She doesn’t sound terribly uncomfortable. Instead she feels youthful, vibrant, perky, and lively. And working to her benefit is the uptempo soundtrack, mostly orchestrated by Reggie Lucas’s production, John Jellybean Benitez’s mixing and Madonna’s very own material.
Although the disc is very dance bent, at times Madonna feels like it wants to go in a number of different directions. “Burning Up,” a New Wave-ish field trip hovering over Pat Benatar guitars, is a smart sexual escapade and a sneaky precursor to 1985’s “Dress You Up.” In places, the track can be viewed as artificial Benatar on Devo beats, but Madonna finds a way to redeem it by using a pint more of sexual ooze. While female rockers usually dig deep into the ethos of loud shouting on a song of this caliber, Madonna opts to pour on the sex, but not too much of it. It would’ve been very easy for her to fall into the pitfalls of latter Janet Jackson-esque moans and groans, but Madonna’s more than a one-trick pony. Sex is there, but it isn’t the centerpiece. “Holiday,” the album’s six-minute B-side opener, is the perfect example of Madonna’s world of crossover blend. The beats are disco-friendly, the Moog-created bass lines are nurtured in Chic sauce, the simplicity of the lyrics and Madonna’s vocals (even her background chants) are perfect for celebratory causes. “Lucky Star” is also easy accessible, even down to the nursery rhyme universalism: “Starlight, star bright/First star I see tonight.” On any other superstar, the song would have reduced their resume to the conventions of hilarity, but the freshman star on this round is guided by principle, not by doctrine. That’s exactly why “Borderline” works well on her. It sounds like a “black” record, even down to the soulful background vocals of Brenda White and Norma Jean Wright. But the Reggie Lucas composition is enjoyable effective for the mere fact that all of Madonna’s surroundings actually overcome any form of weakness. “Think of Me” could have easily been as paramount as “Borderline” and “Lucky Star,” even though it’s saturated in progressive R&B. The Mark Kamins-produced “Everybody,” tagged to the album’s end, sounds so primitive to the material that precedes it. Obviously the budget was much smaller and the repetitive lyrics of “everybody, come on, dance and sing/Everybody, get up and do your thing” seem to grow irritating with every passing second. Even with the song’s demo attributes, it’s a shiner composition than the above-average filler of “Physical Attraction” and “I Know It.” Madonna acts like a friend to the popular genres and to the races, and that may be the reason why her debut album feels so everlasting. It wasn’t Thriller, but it could have a cousin.
Although Madonna has had bigger commercial achievements and albums that are better organized and polished – True Blue and Like a Virgin to be exact, Madonna still stands out as a defining moment of a butterfly breaking out of their cocoon. And while many of the albums of 1983 have faded in their durability, Madonna still holds up well when placed under Father Time’s magnifying glass.
LABEL: Sire // PRODUCER: Reggie Lucas, John “Jellybean” Benitez, Mark Kamins
GENRE: Pop, synthpop, R&B // RELEASE DATE: 1983