594. ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna

Madonna scores her 4th chart-topper within twelve months, joining a very exclusive club…

Who’s That Girl, by Madonna (her 5th of thirteen #1s)

1 week, from 19th – 26th July 1987

The ‘4-in-a-year club’ are The Beatles, Elvis, The Shadows, Slade and, um, Frank Ifield (do shout at me if I’ve forgotten anyone else!) and one thing you might notice about those five acts are their… well, their manhoods. Yes, Madonna is now officially (probably) the most successful female in chart history!

The sad thing is that, for such a ‘big’ #1, ‘Who’s That Girl’ is a bit of a non-event. It is ‘La Isla Bonita’ Part II, a watered down and remixed version of her previous chart-topper. The intro in particular, with its drum riff, is nigh on identical; while the subsequent latin-funk synths are, if not identical, then heavily influenced by their predecessor.

Plus, there’s even more Spanish thrown in this time. Quién es esa niña…? Señorita, más fina… Who’s that girl? I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘La Isla Bonita’, and it’s therefore inevitable that I’m even less a fan of this diluted version. There’s nothing wrong with it, blandness and lack of originality aside, but it’s well overshadowed by the bolder moments in Madonna’s back-catalogue. And out of her thirteen chart-toppers, it’s the one I’m least familiar with (I could probably have attempted the title line from memory, but that’s it…)

It’s from the soundtrack to a film of the same name. A ‘screwball comedy’, as Wikipedia puts it, that presumably nobody has watched since 1987. And that’s about all there is to write on this most slight and forgettable of #1s. To be fair, in order to achieve four chart-toppers in a year you need a combination of massive popularity and a winning formula. Nobody would deny that at least one of Elvis’s, or The Shadows’, or Slade’s four #1s was a re-tread… ‘Surrender’, ‘Dance On’, ‘Skweeze Me Pleeze Me’… While the sound of 1962-3 was Frank Ifield’s yodel popping up, time and again. The one act who managed to sound new and fresh with every single song was The Beatles, but there’s no point in competing with them…

Perhaps Madonna knew she was treading water at this point, because she took 1988 off and drew a line under what we’ll call Madge MK I. In two years’ time, when she scores her next chart-topper, she’ll be a different beast altogether!

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589. ‘La Isla Bonita’, by Madonna

Four Madonna number ones down; four very different sounds from the soon-to-be Queen of Pop…

La Isla Bonita, by Madonna (her 4th of thirteen #1s)

2 weeks, from 19th April – 3rd May 1987

‘La Isla Bonita’ is a Latin-funk tune, with a nice strong bass line, some horn blasts and a sharp Spanish guitar. Everything is fine-tuned, and tight. It has a gloss to it, a modernness to the production, that suggests Madonna had available to her the best studios and equipment. It’s got a steady beat, but it’s still likely to fill a dancefloor.

Except, yeah… I don’t love this one. It’s my least favourite of the four so far. Something about it feels gimmicky to me. Why is she singing in Spanish, for a start? Como puede ser verdad, she purrs in the intro. How can it be true…? If Madonna knows one foreign language, surely it’s Italian?

Anyway, Madonna has fallen in love. Not with a Cuban hunk, rather with an island. I fell in love with San Pedro… Tropical island breeze, All of nature wild and free, This is where I long to be, La isla bonita… Problem is, when non-Latina stars go Latina, they tend to resort to these cliches of warm breezes and Spanish lullabies.

To be fair to Madonna, ‘La Isla Bonita’ may have been her first attempt at Latin music, but it was far from her last. She has a love for it that goes beyond mere musical shapeshifting. Problem is, Madonna is a bit of a trendsetter. She opened the floodgates for every female pop star going to have a ‘Latin phase’: from Lady Gaga to Geri Halliwell. And I’m a traditionalist: no woman has done Latin nonsense better than Rosemary Clooney back in 1955!

So, to me, ‘La Isla Bonita’ feels like a default chart-topper from the biggest star in the world. It was the fifth single to be released from the ‘True Blue’ album, and you have to be pretty darn popular to get the fifth single off your album to number one. This was her 3rd of four #1s between the summers of 1986 and 1987. Again, not many artists manage four chart-toppers in a year.

I was amazed to see that this was Madonna’s 4th most listened-to song on Spotify, above ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Like a Prayer’ and ‘Vogue’. It just feels like such an average moment in her back catalogue… Not terrible – far from it – but nowhere near her best. Rolling Stone has it as her 40th best song, apparently, and that sounds much more reasonable.

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577. ‘True Blue’, by Madonna

After her first statement number one – an anthem for pregnant teens around the world – Madonna goes back to basics…

True Blue, by Madonna (her 3rd of thirteen #1s)

1 week, from 5th – 12th October 1986

Hey!… What?… Listen… I’m going to admit straight off: this is actually one my favourite Madonna singles. I’m a sucker for retro pop, when modern acts go back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or, in this record’s case, sixties girl groups. Yes, it’s lightweight. Sure. And it’s got some basic ol’ lyrics: Cause it’s true love, You’re the one I’m dreamin’ of, Your heart fits me like a glove… (Surely that should be ‘hand’ – that line has always annoyed me…) But then The Supremes, Ronettes and Marvelettes never changed the world with their lyrics either.

The moment Madonna starts in with her own backing vocals is great, as is the middle-eight – No-oh-oh more sadness, I’ll kiss it goodbye… – which is the moment the song remembers that it’s actually 1986, and the drums become sharp and spiky. Is it strange that this straight-up pop tune made #1, when ‘Holiday’, or ‘Like a Virgin’, or many of her ‘90s hits to come didn’t? (She’ll have 23 Top 10 hits in the nineties, but only two chart-toppers.) Maybe. But therein lies the beauty of the charts. Even megastars like Madonna can have odd, ‘forgotten’ number ones…

Madge herself seemed to forget about ‘True Blue’s existence, as she didn’t perform it live for thirty years. Is that a statement on the song’s quality? Or perhaps it was more to do with the fact she wrote it about then-husband Sean Penn, and they divorced in 1989…

You may have noticed that I recently changed this blog’s header image in tribute to Ms Ciccone. It’s an honour I only bestow on the biggest chart stars – Elvis, The Beatles and ABBA have featured before – but I think it’s justified. This is the second of four #1s she’ll have between mid-’86 and mid-’87. She was undoubtedly the biggest star on the planet at the time. Problem is, when acts dominate the charts like this, you’re left with less and less to write about each time… Madonna will be feature on these pages soon enough – and ten more times after! – so let’s just keep ploughing on…

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573. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, by Madonna

In my post on Madonna’s first UK number one single, ‘Into the Groove’, I found myself looking for controversy in the (slightly) saucy lyrics. When you grew up with Jesus-humping, cone-bra wearing, sex book Madonna then you do expect her to have been raising hackles with every release…

Papa Don’t Preach, by Madonna (her 2nd of thirteen #1s)

3 weeks, from 6th – 27th July 1986

‘Into the Groove’ wasn’t particularly troublesome, while ‘Like a Virgin’ missed #1 altogether, but we haven’t had to wait too long for some top-spot controversy. For her 2nd chart-topper, Madge tells the tale of a pregnant teen looking to her single-parent father for advice. Papa don’t preach, she begs, I’m in trouble deep…

Her Pa had warned her off the boy in question – the one you said I could do without – but he’s promised her a wedding ring. Her friends, meanwhile, say she’s too young. However, despite coming to him for advice, the narrator already seems certain: I’ve made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby…

It’s a grown-up pop song, any controversy is of the thought-provoking rather than the in-your-face kind. Musically, too, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ mixes a classical intro with synth-pop, and then Latin guitars. The moment where the bass comes in after the violins have reached their crescendo is brilliant, adding another contender to 1986’s gallery of great beat drops. Her voice even sounds a little older – I love the throaty rasp in each pre-chorus ‘please!’

In the video, too, Madonna sports a new cropped hairdo, and switches between leather-jacketed tomboy and blonde-bombshell in a black basque. The song plays as an imagined speech to her father, as she returns home to tell him. At the end of the video she does finally confess, and in the end they embrace. A happy ending.

I was looking for controversy here, and controversy there was. Some claimed it encouraged teen-pregnancy; others that it was anti-abortion. Madonna and her song-writing team were smart enough to use the phrase ‘give it up’ rather than anything more explicit. Madonna has always argued that it’s pro-choice, and has at other times added a ‘not’ to the I’m keeping my baby line when performing the song live. Either way, at least the world has moved on from a time when it was considered controversial for a woman to be the one who decides if she does or doesn’t have a baby………….. (how long does an ellipsis need to be to signify huge sarcasm levels…?)

Under the morals, most importantly, there lies a great pop song. No matter who Madonna has chosen to wind up, she rarely forgets that people come to her, first and foremost, for high-grade tunes. And yet, I feel that ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is one of her forgotten gems… Other, bigger, more controversial moments have perhaps eclipsed its standing in her back-catalogue? It’s certainly not as played as other Madonna songs. If ‘re-discovering’ is too strong a term, then you can definitely re-acquaint yourself with it, below…

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554. ‘Into the Groove’, by Madonna

You can dance… For inspiration… With these words, we welcome an icon. The most successful female artist in British chart history. Come on… I’m waiting…

Into the Groove, by Madonna (her 1st of thirteen #1s)

4 weeks, from 28th July – 25th August 1985

Madonna’s first of thirteen (13!) chart-toppers is an ode to the joys of dance: Get up on your feet, Yeah step to the beat… Her boy has to prove his love for her by boogying. She feels free, she feels sweet sensations… It’s a revelation. For someone who grew up with provocative, cone-bra, sex book Madonna, this early hit feels a little trite, a little bit too teenybopper.

But it’s impossible not to at least tap your feet to this record even if, like me, you’re a terrible dancer. It’s got that hi-NRG beat that recent hits from Chaka Khan and Dead or Alive had, which is a very welcome development after some stodgy production and tempo from the class of ’83-’84. May the BPMs keep rising for the remainder of the decade.

One of the (many) criticisms aimed at Madonna over the years is that her voice is a little… limited? Which I think is harsh, but her early hits do bear this out somewhat. Her voice on this one is high-pitched, and a little one-note (plus, the song being at least a minute too long doesn’t help). Over time her voice will deepen and improve.

As I’m writing, and listening, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not more to this tune than first meets the ears. When she sings that at night I lock the doors where no one else can see…. and complains that she’s tired of dancing by herself… Is this actually a bit filthy? Is the order to get into the groove actually total smut, if you see what I mean? Or am I just desperate to hear controversial, attention-seeking Madonna from the off? A quick internet search proves I’m not alone in thinking this… That’s more like it, Madge!

‘Into the Groove’ is a decent enough debut for Madonna as a chart-topper. A solid enough song for someone who is the template for every single-named female pop star hereafter, from Kylie to Rihanna to Gaga. But in my perfect world her first #1 would have been the throbbing ‘Like a Virgin’, or the ultimate school dance smoocher ‘Crazy for You’ – both of which had been huge hits without making top spot. Madonna was already a giant star when she finally scored a #1 (shades of Elvis back in 1957), and ‘Into the Groove’ was from the soundtrack to her first film, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’. Love or loathe her, Madonna was one of the biggest artists in the world in this moment, and will remain so for the next twenty years.

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