Musical style and songwriting
[Madonna] is a brilliant pop melodist and lyricist. I was knocked out by the quality of the writing [during Ray of Light
sessions]. The lyrics to "The Power of Good-Bye
" are stunning. I love Madonna as an artist and a songwriter... I know she grew up on Joni Mitchell
, and to my ears she embodies the best of both worlds. She is a wonderful confessional songwriter, as well as being a superb hit chorus pop writer... She doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a writer.
—Rick Nowels, who co-wrote with Madonna on Ray of Light, commented on her songwriting skill.
Madonna's music has been the subject of much analysis and scrutiny. Robert M. Grant, author of Contemporary Strategy Analysis (2005), commented that what has brought Madonna success is "certainly not outstanding natural talent. As a vocalist, musician, dancer, songwriter, or actress, Madonna's talents seem modest." He asserts Madonna's success is in relying on the talents of others, and that her personal relationships have served as cornerstones to the numerous reinventions in the longevity of her career. Madonna's approach was far from the music industry wisdom of "Find a winning formula and stick to it." Her musical career has been a continuous experimentation with new musical ideas and new images and a constant quest for new heights of fame and acclaim. Grant concluded that "having established herself as the queen of popular music, Madonna did not stop there, but continued re-inventing." Musicologist Susan McClary wrote that "Madonna's art itself repeatedly deconstructs the traditional notion of the unified subject with finite ego boundaries. Her pieces explore various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition." According to Thomas Harrison in the book Pop Goes the Decade: The Eighties, Madonna was "an artist who pushed the boundaries" of what a female singer could do, both visually and lyrically.
Throughout her career Madonna has been involved in writing and producing most of her own music. Stuart Price, one of her past collaborators, said that "You don't produce Madonna, you collaborate with her. She's a really good producer herself and obviously a great writer too. She has her vision and knows how to get it." Madonna's early songwriting skill was developed during her time with the Breakfast Club in 1979. According to Carol Gnojewski, her first attempts at songwriting are perceived as an important self-revelation." Madonna later became the sole writer of five songs on her debut album, including "Lucky Star" which she composed on synthesizer. As a songwriter, Madonna has registered a total of 287 songs to ASCAP, including 18 songs written entirely by herself. Rolling Stone has named her "an exemplary songwriter with a gift for hooks and indelible lyrics." According to Freya Jarman-Ivens, Madonna's talent for developing "incredible" hooks for her songs allows the lyrics to capture the attention of the audience, even without the influence of the music. Despite having worked with producers across many genres, Madonna's songs have been "consistently stamped with her own sensibility and inflected with autobiographical detail." She has criticized "songwriting camps" which she has had to undergo during album cycles for Rebel Heart and MDNA, due to the fact that people are always in a hurry. In February 2018, she clarified in her Instagram about her preference for writing material with other artists "from beginning to the end" of a record. Madonna has been nominated for being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame three times, for 2014, 2016 and 2017 ceremony. Rolling Stone listed Madonna at number 56 on the "100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time".
"Papa Don't Preach" had Madonna singing in a much fuller voice, and incorporated classical instrumentation.
Composed with the darker electronic undertones, eastern strings
and Middle Eastern percussion, "Frozen" features Madonna's previously unexplored vocal range.
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Before emerging as a pop star, Madonna has spent her early years in rock music alongside her bands, Breakfast Club and Emmy. While performing with Emmy, Madonna recorded about 12-14 songs which resemble the punk rock of that period. Her early rock roots also can be found on the demo album Pre-Madonna. Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted that with her self-titled debut album, Madonna began her career as a disco diva, in an era that did not have any such divas to speak of. In the beginning of the 1980s, disco was an anathema to the mainstream pop, and according to Erlewine, Madonna had a huge role in popularizing dance music as mainstream music. The album's songs reveal several key trends that have continued to define her success, including a strong dance-based idiom, catchy hooks, highly polished arrangements and Madonna's own vocal style. Her second album, Like a Virgin (1984), foreshadowed several trends in her later works. It contained references to classical works (pizzicato synthesizer line that opens "Angel"); potential negative reaction from social groups ("Dress You Up" was blacklisted by the Parents Music Resource Center); and retro styles ("Shoo-Bee-Doo", Madonna's homage to Motown).
Her mature artistic statement was visible in True Blue (1986) and Like a Prayer (1989). In True Blue, she incorporated classical music in order to engage an older audience who had been skeptical of her music. Like a Prayer introduced live recorded songs and incorporated different genres of music, including dance, funk, R&B and gospel music. Her versatility was further shown on I'm Breathless, which consists predominantly of the 1930s Broadway showtune-flavored jazz, swing and big band tracks. Madonna continued to compose ballads and uptempo dance songs for Erotica (1992) and Bedtime Stories (1994). Both albums explored element of new jack swing, with Jim Farber from Entertainment Weekly saying that "she could actually be viewed as new jack swing's godmother." She tried to remain contemporary by incorporating samples, drum loops and hip hop into her music. With Ray of Light, Madonna brought electronic music from its underground status into massive popularity in mainstream music scene.
Madonna experimented with more folk and acoustic music in Music (2000) and American Life (2003). A change was noted in the content of the songs in Music, with most of them being simple love songs, but with an underlying tone of melancholy. According to Q magazine, American Life was characterized by "a thumping techno rhythm, liquid keyboard lines, an acoustic chorus and a bizarre Madonna rap." The "conventional rock songs" of the album were suffused with dramatic lyrics about patriotism and composition, including the appearance of a gospel choir in the song "Nothing Fails". Madonna returned to pure dance songs with Confessions on a Dance Floor, infusing club beats and retro music with the lyrics about paradoxical metaphors and reference to her earlier works. Madonna moved to urban direction with Hard Candy (2008), mixing R&B and hip hop music with dance tunes. MDNA (2012) largely focused in electronic dance music, which she has embraced since Ray of Light.
Voice and instruments
Possessing a mezzo-soprano vocal range, Madonna has always been self-conscious about her voice, especially in comparison to her vocal idols such as Ella Fitzgerald, Prince, and Chaka Khan. Mark Bego, author of Madonna: Blonde Ambition, called her "the perfect vocalist for lighter-than-air songs", despite not being a "heavyweight talent." According to MSNBC critic Tony Sclafani, "Madonna's vocals are the key to her rock roots. Pop vocalists usually sing songs "straight," but Madonna employs subtext, irony, aggression and all sorts of vocal idiosyncrasies in the ways John Lennon and Bob Dylan did." Madonna used a bright, girlish vocal timbre in her early albums which became passé in her later works. The change was deliberate since she was constantly reminded of how the critics had once labelled her as "Minnie Mouse on helium". During the filming of Evita, Madonna had to take vocal lessons, which increased her range further. Of this experience she commented, "I studied with a vocal coach for Evita and I realized there was a whole piece of my voice I wasn't using. Before, I just believed I had a really limited range and was going to make the most of it."
Besides singing, Madonna has the ability to play several musical instruments. She learned to play drum and guitar from her then-boyfriend Dan Gilroy in the late 1970s, before joining the Breakfast Club line-up as the drummer. This helped her to form the band Emmy, where she performed as the guitarist and lead vocalist. Madonna later played guitar on her demo recordings. On the liner notes of Pre-Madonna, Stephen Bray wrote: "I've always thought she passed up a brilliant career as a rhythm guitarist." After her career breakthrough, Madonna focused mainly in singing but was also credited for playing cowbell on Madonna (1983) and synthesizer on Like a Prayer (1989). In 1999, Madonna had studied for three months to play the violin for the role as a violin teacher in the film Music of the Heart, before eventually leaving the project. After two decades, Madonna decided to perform with guitar again during the promotion of Music (2000). She took further lessons from guitarist Monte Pittman to improve her guitar skill. Since then, Madonna has played guitar on every tour, as well as her studio albums. At the 2002 Orville H. Gibson Guitar Awards, she received nomination for Les Paul Horizon Award, which honors the most promising up-and-coming guitarist.
According to Taraborrelli, the defining moment of Madonna's childhood was the tragic and untimely death of her beloved mother. Psychiatrist Keith Ablow suggests her mother's death would have had an immeasurable impact on the young Madonna at a time when her personality was still forming. According to Ablow, the younger a child is at the time of a serious loss, the more profound the influence and the longer lasting the impact. He concludes that "some people never reconcile themselves to such a loss at an early age, Madonna is not different than them." Conversely, author Lucy O'Brien feels the impact of the rape she suffered is, in fact, the motivating factor behind everything Madonna has done, more important even than the death of her mother: "It's not so much grief at her mother's death that drives her, as the sense of abandonment that left her unprotected. She encountered her own worst possible scenario, becoming a victim of male violence, and thereafter turned that full-tilt into her work, reversing the equation at every opportunity."
As they grew older Madonna and her sisters would feel deep sadness as the vivid memory of their mother began drifting farther from them. They would study pictures of her and come to think that she resembled poet Anne Sexton and Hollywood actresses. This would later raise Madonna's interest in poetry, with Sylvia Plath being her favourite. Later, Madonna commented: "We were all wounded in one way or another by [her death], and then we spent the rest of our lives reacting to it or dealing with it or trying to turn into something else. The anguish of losing my mom left me with a certain kind of loneliness and an incredible longing for something. If I hadn't had that emptiness, I wouldn't have been so driven. Her death had a lot to do with me saying—after I got over my heartache—I'm going to be really strong if I can't have my mother. I'm going to take care of myself." Taraborrelli felt that in time, no doubt because of the devastation she felt, Madonna would never again allow herself, or even her daughter, to feel as abandoned as she had felt when her mother died. "Her death had taught [Madonna] a valuable lesson, that she would have to remain strong for herself because, she feared weakness—particularly her own—and wanted to be the queen of her own castle."
Madonna was influenced by Debbie Harry
and Chrissie Hynde
, calling them "strong, independent women who wrote their own music and evolved on their own."
In 1985, Madonna commented that the first song to ever make a strong impression on her was "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" by Nancy Sinatra; she said it summed up her own "take-charge attitude". As a young woman, she attempted to broaden her taste in literature, art, and music, and during this time became interested in classical music. She noted that her favorite style was baroque, and loved Mozart and Chopin because she liked their "feminine quality". Madonna's major influences include Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Karen Carpenter, The Supremes and Led Zeppelin, as well as dancers Martha Graham and Rudolf Nureyev. She also grew up listening to David Bowie, whose show was the first rock concert she ever attended.
Madonna's Italian-Catholic background and her relationship with her parents are reflected in the album Like a Prayer. It was an evocation of the impact religion had on her career. Her video for the title track contains Catholic symbolism, such as the stigmata. During The Virgin Tour, she wore a rosary and prayed with it in the music video for "La Isla Bonita". The "Open Your Heart" video sees her boss scolding her in the Italian language. On the Who's That Girl World Tour, she dedicated the song "Papa Don't Preach" to Pope John Paul II. Her album MDNA (2012) has also drawn many influences from her Catholic upbringing, and since 2011 she has been attending meetings and services at an Opus Dei center, a Catholic institution that encourages spirituality through every day life.
During her childhood, Madonna was inspired by actors, later saying, "I loved Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe. They were all incredibly funny ... and I saw myself in them ... my girlishness, my knowingness and my innocence." Her "Material Girl" music video recreated Monroe's look in the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). She studied the screwball comedies of the 1930s, particularly those of Lombard, in preparation for the film Who's That Girl. The video for "Express Yourself" (1989) was inspired by Fritz Lang's silent film Metropolis (1927). The video for "Vogue" recreated the style of Hollywood glamour photographs, in particular those by Horst P. Horst, and imitated the poses of Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and Rita Hayworth, while the lyrics referred to many of the stars who had inspired her, including Bette Davis, described by Madonna as an idol. However, Madonna's film career has been largely received negatively by film critics. Stephanie Zacharek stated in Time that, "[Madonna] seems wooden and unnatural as an actress, and it's tough to watch, because she's clearly trying her damnedest." According to biographer Andrew Morton, "Madonna puts a brave face on the criticism, but privately she is deeply hurt." After the box office bomb Swept Away (2002), Madonna vowed that she would never again act in a film, hoping her repertoire as a bad actress would never be discussed again. In 2016, a career retrospective, titled Body of Work, was shown at New York's Metrograph hall. According to The Guardian's Nigel M. Smith, Madonna's film career suffered mostly due to lack of proper material supplied to her, and given a chance "[she] could steal a scene for all the right reasons".
Influences also came to her from the art world, such as through the works of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The music video of the song "Bedtime Story" featured images inspired by the paintings of Kahlo and Remedios Varo. Madonna is also a collector of Tamara de Lempicka's Art Deco paintings and has included them in her music videos and tours. Her video for "Hollywood" (2003) was an homage to the work of photographer Guy Bourdin; Bourdin's son subsequently filed a lawsuit for unauthorised use of his father's work. Pop artist Andy Warhol's use of sadomasochistic imagery in his underground films were reflected in the music videos for "Erotica" and "Deeper and Deeper".
Madonna is dedicated to Kabbalah, and in 2004 she adopted the name Esther which in Persian means "star". She has donated millions of dollars to New York and London schools teaching the subject. She faced opposition from rabbis who felt Madonna's adoption of the Kabbalah was sacrilegious and a case of celebrity dilettantism. Madonna defended her studies, saying: "It would be less controversial if I joined the Nazi Party", and that her involvement with the Kabbalah is "not hurting anybody". The influence of the Kabbalah was subsequently observed in Madonna's music, especially albums like Ray of Light and Music. During the Re-Invention World Tour, at one point in the show, Madonna and her dancers wore T-shirts that read "Kabbalists Do It Better".
Music videos and performances
In The Madonna Companion biographers Allen Metz and Carol Benson noted that more than any other recent pop artist, Madonna had used MTV and music videos to establish her popularity and enhance her recorded work. According to them, many of her songs have the imagery of the music video in strong context, while referring to the music. Cultural critic Mark C. Taylor in his book Nots (1993) felt that the postmodern art form par excellence is video and the reigning "queen of video" is Madonna. He further asserted that "the most remarkable creation of MTV is Madonna. The responses to Madonna's excessively provocative videos have been predictably contradictory." The media and public reaction towards her most-discussed songs such as "Papa Don't Preach", "Like a Prayer", or "Justify My Love" had to do with the music videos created to promote the songs and their impact, rather than the songs themselves. Morton felt that "artistically, Madonna's songwriting is often overshadowed by her striking pop videos."
Madonna using the "Madonna mic" during the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour
. She was one of the earliest adopters of hands-free headsets.
Madonna's initial music videos reflected her American and Hispanic mixed street style combined with a flamboyant glamor. She was able to transmit her avant-garde downtown New York fashion sense to the American audience. The imagery and incorporation of Hispanic culture and Catholic symbolism continued with the music videos from the True Blue era. Author Douglas Kellner noted, "such 'multiculturalism' and her culturally transgressive moves turned out to be highly successful moves that endeared her to large and varied youth audiences." Madonna's Spanish look in the videos became the fashion trend of that time, in the form of boleros and layered skirts, accessorizing with rosary beads and a crucifix as in the video of "La Isla Bonita".
Academics noted that with her videos, Madonna was subtly reversing the usual role of male as the dominant sex. This symbolism and imagery was probably the most prevalent in the music video for "Like a Prayer". The video included scenes of an African-American church choir, Madonna being attracted to a statue of a black saint, and singing in front of burning crosses. This mix of the sacred and the profane upset the Vatican and resulted in the Pepsi commercial withdrawal. In 2003, MTV named her "The Greatest Music Video Star Ever" and said that "Madonna's innovation, creativity and contribution to the music video art form is what won her the award."
Madonna's emergence occurred during the advent of MTV; Chris Nelson from The New York Times spoke of pop artists like Madonna saying, "MTV, with its almost exclusively lip-synched videos, ushered in an era in which average music fans might happily spend hours a day, every day, watching singers just mouth the words." The symbiotic relationship between the music video and lip-syncing led to a desire for the spectacle and imagery of the music video to be transferred to live stage shows. He added, "Artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson set new standards for showmanship, with concerts that included not only elaborate costumes and precision-timed pyrotechnics but also highly athletic dancing. These effects came at the expense of live singing." Thor Christensen of The Dallas Morning News commented that while Madonna earned a reputation for lip-syncing during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, she has subsequently reorganized her performances by "stay[ing] mostly still during her toughest singing parts and [leaves] the dance routines to her backup troupe ... [r]ather than try to croon and dance up a storm at the same time."
To allow for greater movement while dancing and singing, Madonna was one of the earliest adopters of hands-free radio-frequency headset microphones, with the headset fastened over the ears or the top of the head, and the microphone capsule on a boom arm that extended to the mouth. Because of her prominent usage, the microphone design came to be known as the "Madonna mic". Metz noted that Madonna represents a paradox as she is often perceived as living her whole life as a performance. While her big-screen performances are panned, her live performances are critical successes. Madonna was the first artist to have her concert tours as reenactment of her music videos. Author Elin Diamond explained that reciprocally, the fact that images from Madonna's videos can be recreated in a live setting enhances the realism of the original videos. Thus her live performances have become the means by which mediatized representations are naturalized. Taraborrelli said that encompassing multimedia, latest technology and sound systems, Madonna's concerts and live performances are "extravagant show piece[s], [and] walking art show[s]."